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Free & Low-Cost Legal Research

How to Use This Guide

Legal research is usually accomplished by using a major commercial database (Westlaw, Lexis, & Bloomberg being the big three). Subscriptions to these databases are very costly and would not usually be considered a feasible expense for an individual. However, there are both free and low-cost options to help you accomplish your legal research needs. This guide will inform on major sources of primary law, secondary sources, and other relevant legal materials that are found online and are freely accessible or overall more affordable.                       

*Remember to assess the validity of your research by reviewing the cited sources and the reputation of the publisher*


Laws of the United States

The United States Constitution created the three branches of government (Art. I: Legislative | Art. II: Executive | Art. III: Judiciary). The typical way of thinking about the law through the branches is that the legislature creates the laws, the executive enforces the laws, and the judiciary interprets the laws. This is fundamentally correct, but in reality, every branch makes law.

  1. Constitution: The United States Constitution is the fundamental basis for all domestic law. Known as the Supreme Law of the Land, all laws passed must be compatible. Each state will also have a constitution.
  2. Legislative: The legislature passes bills which become the laws on the books, also known as statutory law.
  3. Executive: The executive is made up the office of the chief executive and agencies (think the Environmental Protection Agency). A governor or the President will issue executive orders. Federal and state agencies, either existing executive departments or agencies or those created via the legislature for a particular purpose, will enact regulations to carry out their purpose and enforce those rules through various methods. This as a whole is known as administrative law and agency-specific law is usually referred to as regulatory law. 
  4. Judiciary: The judiciary will interpret the law based on cases brought before it and create "case law" through published appellate level or higher court opinions. These opinions create "precedent," law that other lower courts in its jurisdiction must follow when making similar decisions. This reactive process of judge-made law is also known as "common law." 

This guide covers all four types of law in both the federal and state schemes: constitutions, statutory, administrative, and case law.

Primary Sources & Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary sources of law make up the law itself. These are the four types of law as previously mentioned and examples of this would be statutes, regulations, and judicial opinions. Primary law can either be mandatory or persuasive on a jurisdiction. Mandatory meaning that a court must abide by its authority and follow what it mandates and persuasive meaning a court can consider it, but is not bound in any way to follow it. 

An Illinois Supreme Court case is mandatory authority for all lower Illinois state courts. The Wisconsin Supreme Court would find an Illinois Supreme Court case to be only persuasive however, as an Illinois court does not have power in its jurisdiction. Similarly, an Illinois appellate case would not be mandatory authority for the Illinois Supreme Court, only persuasive as the Supreme Court is the higher court in the hierarchy.  

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources or explanatory sources are not the law itself, but instead explain the law, and thus could never be mandatory authority. Examples of secondary sources include Restatements, legal encyclopedias, legal treatises, journal articles, textbooks, annotations, etc. Again, while these resources are very useful for research purposes and are often how a researcher will locate the correct primary law sources, they themselves will never be binding on a court to follow and could only constitute persuasive authority. Secondary sources themselves have a hierarchy and are rarely cited to in court.

At the Library

The Albert E. Jenner, Jr. Law Library is open to College of Law members as well as other University of Illinois members and public patrons for legal research purposes. One of the nation's largest law libraries, we have host of print versions of primary and secondary materials. Our staff can assist you with direction and reference services. Other law libraries may be able to meet your needs if you are unable to visit.

A directory of law libraries by state providing information about virtual reference and online catalog availability.