Research Tips and Tricks: Part 1

March 22, 2009

When most people in the legal profession think of research, they envision someone in a musty broom closet pouring through ancient editions of the Wisconsin Reports, running endless searches through Westlaw (found at www.westlaw.com).   Sure enough, as a former law clerk and associate, I recall maddening instances of various attorneys directing me to find a case they “knew” existed which allegedly stood for some obscure proposition.

Although it is not always possible to find that magic bullet, there are many resources to help attorneys, their staff and the public better understand the law and the workings of the legal system. This post addresses research in the broad sense, and while not exhaustive, is intended as a guide to help you locate and organize all kinds of useful information in your quest for good results.

Part 1 discusses “primary” sources for legal research, and Part 2 will discuss “secondary” sources of information. Finally, Part 3 will describe how you can use what is right under your nose to create a fantastic research system.

Part 1: Primary Law at your Fingertips

Most anything, including the law, is now available online.  “Law” is essentially a haphazard collection of rules and regulations proscribed by governmental entities. Law ranges from the U.S. Constitution drafted by our Founding Fathers to the Yorkville Code of Ordinances passed by the Town Board of Yorkville, Wisconsin (all at www.findlaw.com). But, any comprehensive research project will no doubt ultimately lead to at least a preliminary search of the Wisconsin Statutes. If you don’t have easy access to a bound set, you can also find them free online at www.legis.state.wi.us.  For most Wisconsin family court matters, Chapter 767 is the best place to begin. 

Appellate case law is another important body of authority to review. Westlaw, Lexis and Lois are commonly-used subscription services for searching Federal and State material, including statutes and case law. There are also online sources of free case law if you do not work for a firm which subscribes to any of these services. For instance, free Wisconsin cases are published online at www.wisbar.org. Findlaw publishes free federal court opinions, including the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Child support is governed both by the Wisconsin Statutes and be regulation. Thus, a review of the Wisconsin Administrative Code is in order, and it is available both in print form and online at http://www.legis.state.wi.us/rsb/code.htm.   You can find the various child support definitions and formulas used in Wisconsin Courts in Chapter DCF 150 (formerly,  Chapter DWD 40).

In Part 2, coming soon, I will discuss common secondary sources for legal information.

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