Before contacting an attorney regarding a potential legal matter, you may wish to do some research yourself. Many people feel more comfortable coming to talk to us after they have gathered some information first. We also understand that many people like to know more about the law than what is essential to their transaction or case. We do our best to ensure everyone can be informed regarding the law, whether or not they choose to hire us for their legal matter, which is why we do the initial work of gathering helping legal resources.
Utilize a Search Engine
Long gone are the days where your research starts in a library. Now, you can utilize Google, MSN, Yahoo!, and other search engines to learn more about an area of the law. If you wish to use a search engine for legal research, keep in mind that what you find may be limited or outdated. To limit the amount of old material you read, use search engine tools to limit your search time frame. Also, you can use geographic indicators to limit information to local or state information. For instance, if you wish to know about divorce and you lived in Virginia, be sure to search for Virginia divorce law.
Many states and the federal government publish their statutes, regulations, and ordinances online, which can be discovered through an online search. Be sure to look at the most recent year’s statutes, if you wish to know the current law. You can review the U.S. Code through the Office of the Law Revision Counsel and the Code of Virginia online. You can also find statutes, cases, and other information Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute.
Search engines can also bring up many law firm websites, legal information websites, and legal self-help sites. Read through this information thoroughly, though keep in mind some of it may be incomplete or old.
Learn About Recent Legal Changes & News
Many aspects of the law are constantly evolving. If you wish to learn more, beyond reading a statute, regulation, or ordinance, then utilize news sites. There may be articles on changes to the law, effects of certain laws, and important court cases. You can find legal news through:
- New York Times
- Wall Street Journal
- USA Today
- The Washington Post
- American Bar Association (ABA) Journal
- National Law Review
- The Hill
Conduct In-Depth Research
If you have searched the internet for information regarding a certain area of law, and you still want to know more, you can dive into court opinions, memorandums, and other legal materials. Westlaw, LexisNexis, and Bloomberg Law are extensive legal resources for attorneys. There are limited free resources. If you wish to conduct in-depth legal research on a specific topic using these tools, there will be fees. However, many local library computers allow in-depth research at no cost.
Learn About the Courts
Many Americans know very little about their state or the federal court systems because they never encounter it. It is understandable that you would only know the basics before you become part of a case that requires you to attend court. To learn more about Virginia and federal courts, there are court resources you can visit, including:
- U.S. Courts
- U.S. Department of Justice
- Supreme Court of the United States
- Federal Judicial Center
- Virginia’s Court System
- Learn About the Government
The federal government and state governments can seem mysterious. They are large, complex organizations with many moving parts. It can be challenging to gain a full grasp on all of the various aspects of state and federal government. Some of the government resources that will help you do just that include:
- U.S. House of Representatives
- U.S. Senate
- White House
- Library of Congress
- Commonwealth of Virginia
Be Careful! Not Everything Online Is Accurate
When you are learning more about the government, courts, and legal issues online, keep in mind that what you read may not all be accurate. During any given search, you may find conflicting material or differing opinions. There are a number of honest reasons for this. The most common reason is that laws change, and many articles on the internet are old. An article may have been accurate when it was published, but years later, the legislature may have repealed or amended the relevant statute. Also, court opinions may significantly or subtly change the law and how it is enforced. An article may be wrong if a court case altered the relevant law after the article was published.
Another honest issue with online legal articles is that they may not provide you with all of the information you need. Most online articles or blog posts are brief, yet most legal concepts are complex. It is almost always impossible to explain every aspect of a law or legal principle in one article. A good example involves articles on negligence. There are many explanations of negligence online. However, not every negligence article also discusses gross negligence and the differences between the two. Or, a negligence article may not mention contributory or comparative negligence, which could have a significant impact on your own case. Never assume an article you read is comprehensive.
When you want to know more about a legal matter, be sure to read multiple sources and search for primary sources, such as statutes, state or federal government materials, and court decisions. Supplement your understanding of the primary sources with explanatory articles from attorneys and trustworthy news or legal resources. By reading a variety of materials, you should be able to spot the common information versus the information that stands out – and may be inaccurate.
Speak With a Lawyer
No amount of online research can substitute a knowledgeable and experienced attorney’s opinion. At Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico, we encourage people to learn more about the courts, government, and law. However, if you are part of a legal transaction or dispute right now, it is best to talk with a local attorney who can provide you with not only up-to-date information, but also an analysis of how current law impacts your rights, legal options, and the likely outcome of your matter.