Finding and Using the Law that Applies to Your Case

You need to know the statutes and regulations that apply to your case. Then, you need to try to find a case or cases from the past with facts and legal issues similar to your case and look at their outcomes and how the courts applied and interpreted the relevant statutes and regulations to the facts in those cases. A lawyer spends a lot of time trying to find a case that is "on point," or as close to his or her fact situation as possible.

It is usually quite difficult to determine what "the law" is for any given legal issue. Often, you need to compare many different cases to the specific facts in your case to figure out what the law that applies to your case really is.

There is no one way to do research, but here are some common practices that will help you research in an efficient and effective way:

  1. Try to figure out what the case is about from a legal point of view. What legal issues will you need to research?

  2. Find a research guide to help you sort through all the material that is available. Your local library will probably have research guides on a wide range of topics. Also, each county has a law library with staff trained to help people with legal research, and many law libraries post research guides online.

  3. Find the rules on how to create and understand legal citations. The court will need to know where you got your information, and there is a whole set of rules about how to explain that. See a guide on reading citations.

  4. Find and read secondary sources to get a basic grasp of the area of law related to your case and your specific issues. Unfortunately, these resources are not available for free online, but they are available at your local county law library.

  5. Look at any self-help books about the area of law relevant to your case. You may find that self-help books are written in plain English and are easier to understand as you first start learning about the law in your case.

  6. Move to primary sources and look up statutes, regulations, and cases related to your case. You can often use the annotations at the end of the statutes to find cases.

  7. Return to secondary sources to clarify complicated or confusing primary authorities, or to follow up on new issues you may have discovered in your research.

  8. Look up a variety of sources to search thoroughly for relevant authorities. Most of the resources listed below are available for free at your local county law library.

Some of these sources include:

  • Annotated codes and their updates, for cases that interpret those statutes.
  • Digests, for other cases similar to those you have already found.
  • Practice guides, treatises and other new sources, for references in footnotes.
  • Law reviews, law journals, and legal magazines and newspapers which often have useful and extensive references in footnotes and information on newer cutting-edge topics.
  • Online legal research databases that contain case law, statutory law, and some practice guides and other legal research materials. These databases are not always widely available in county law libraries because of their cost. Check with your local public law library to see what they have available. 
  • Non-legal and other materials if needed.

Researching the law can be complicated and time consuming, but it is very important if you are going to represent yourself. There are many resources at your county law library, your public library and on the Internet to help you with research. And you can use the Ask a Law Librarian service for help.

A good place to start is your public law library’s Mini Research Class provided by the Council of California County Law Librarians. It is an online mini research guide to help you learn the legal research process, guiding you on where to start and which resources to check as you research your legal problem. Also, many law schools have online research guides that have links and suggestions for doing your legal research.

The law changes rapidly and often. You may find a perfect case and find that it was later overruled or reversed. The statute you are relying on may have been amended or repealed. Find a way to update your research before you tell a court that the law you are relying on is still “good” (valid) law.

The main way of updating codes, cases, and regulations is through use of an online service such as West’s KeyCite or Lexis/Nexis’s Shepard’s Citations. Print versions of Shepard’s are available at many law libraries. These types of legal research resources help you find out the prior and subsequent history of cases and statutes.

A law librarian can help you understand how to use these guides to update your research. Also, some county law libraries have access to online services that can help you update your authorities. There are also some online tutorials that discuss this in detail. For an example, see the Sacramento County Public Law Library’s guide on Shepardizing California Cases and Statutes. See a research guide on Using Shepard’s Online.

The providers of KeyCite and Shepard’s allow researchers to pay online to update their research references. Check Westlaw or Lexis/Nexis.

Some of the county law libraries in the state may subscribe to online services that allow you to KeyCite or Shepardize your legal research for free or a nominal print charge. Check with the individual library for access to these services.

Once you have completed and updated your legal research, you have to include it in your written documents that you file with the court. You will have to explain what your legal authority is, where it is located, and how it supports your case. You may also have to explain why a given legal authority does not apply to the specific circumstances in your case.

You will also have to make sure you cite your legal authority correctly. California Rule of Court 1.200 says all documents filed in the court must be in the style established by either the California Style Manual or The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, at the choosing of the party filing documents.  To do this, you can use these resources:

You can also look at past appellate briefs filed in California courts for guidance on how to use your research to support your legal arguments. Four law libraries in California serve as depositories for appellate briefs. Contact the libraries for information about their briefs, including years covered and format.

Each library's website provides information about location, hours of service, and telephone numbers: