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Lloyd Sealy Library
John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Finding legal information: the absolute basics. : Home

How to find cases, laws and some other stuff. By Ellen Sexton.

Read your assignment carefully!

Before you jump headlong into legal research, read your assignment carefully to figure out what your professor really wants.  Do you need to track down the original legislation?  Or do you need to read broadly about a topic?  What sort of information is required?  If your professor wrote "cases" does that mean legal cases as recorded in a court reporter?  Or does it mean "examples" or "stories" or clinical case studies, or ...?  Don't be shy - do talk with your professor! 

Don't neglect to do your PRESEARCH!  Presearch is what we do to get some background on our topic, to try to discover the boundaries and contexts... and maybe get some ideas as to where we want to focus attention.  Encyclopedias are a wonderful place to look, and a good alternative or even a supplement  to wikipedia. Even if you decide not to cite them in your term paper, you'll probably find that they have been very helpful for starting the project. Presearch can save you a lot of time in the long run. 


Finding legal information can be very complex.  In law school, graduate students take a course in their first semester devoted to just learning how to find legal information.  So if you think it all appears very confusing, be reassured that you are not alone!

Fortunately, there's quite a lot you CAN find out, fairly easily.  This guide will tell you how. 

Our longer guide to law

The aim of this guide is to provide you with only the absolute bare essentials needed to start exploring legal information. To learn more, please do use our much longer Guide to legal resources in the Lloyd Sealy Library ... (2003).

About Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw

Two competing companies create and market legal databases to law firms and colleges, West and LexisNexis.  We subscribe to the educational version of Lexis, called Nexis Uni.  It provides access to news articles as well as to contemporary legal materials - be sure to notice whether you are in the legal or news part of the database.     

The versions of these two databases marketed to law firms are much more expensive, and contain additional business/financial information and more secondary legal materials. 

For historical materials, and research on the history of law, the Hein OnLine database and the LLMC (Law Library Microfilm Collection - digital)  are more useful. 

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Ellen Sexton
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