For most people, the best place to start your research is with secondary sources. Secondary sources are resources that you can use to aid your understanding of the law but are not themselves considered law. There are several different types of secondary sources, including encyclopedia, books, articles, and form books.
Interpretations of the law found in secondary sources are not binding on the courts. Use secondary sources to help you find and understand the primary sources of law (statutes, regulations, and cases), but always read the actual statutes, regulations, and cases that are discussed in these secondary sources.
Reach out to local public law library for help in identifying secondary sources.
How to Research the Law: Diving In from the Maryland Courts
A legal encyclopedia is one of the easiest types of law-related secondary sources for the public to use. Legal encyclopedias work like regular encyclopedias.
General Legal Encylopedias are general legal information encyclopedias that discuss American law in general, including federal law and the most common types of state law. American Jurisprudence ("AmJur") and Corpus Juris Secundum ("CJS") are the two most popular general legal encyclopedias. Most law libraries carry one set or the other, if not both. AmJur and CJS give general overviews of the law, which are based on the legal rules applicable in a majority of U.S. states.
State-specific Legal Encyclopedias focus on explaining the law of a particular state. The Maryland Law Encyclopedia is a Maryland-specific legal encyclopedia, which focuses on explaining the law of a Maryland. If you are researching a state law problem, such as divorce or custody law, it is best to use a state law encyclopedia because the law of your state may be different from the "majority" rules typically discussed in the national legal encyclopedias.
Each legal encyclopedia has many volumes and has a subject index near the end of the set of volumes. To find encyclopedia articles by subject, look up words related to your problem in the subject index. You will be directed to a topic and section number. Find the volume of the encyclopedia that includes the topic to which the subject index directed you, then look for the specific section number within that topic. If you are searching a legal encyclopedia using a legal database, you can search by keyword as well as browse the table of contents or search the index.
Books or Treatises
Finding a book (sometimes called a "treatise") on the area of law you are researching can be an excellent first step in legal research. Look for books or treatises by reputable authors, such as law professors, attorneys, or judges. Read the material carefully. One benefit of using a book or treatise to start your research is that the author has presumably done some analysis and research on the topic, including locating relevant primary sources of law.
In particular, practice guides and continuing legal education texts for attorneys can be surprisingly helpful to non-lawyers representing themselves. They often contain explanations of the meanings of various laws, practical aides such as checklists (for example, lists of questions to ask witnesses or lists of steps to be taken before you file a court complaint), and forms.
Check when the book was written or last updated. Assume that the author last did their research about a month or two before the publication date. No sources, including cases, since that day have been updated or included.
Searching the law library's catalog is probably a good place to start to find books or treatises on a particular subject. The reference librarian may also be able to recommend specific treatises that are well-regarded in a particular area of law.
Books and legal encyclopedias cover a broad range of subjects, but are usually not updated more than once a year, and may be updated even less often. Journal articles may provide more current information. There are many different subject indexes to legal periodicals. Some are in print, and others are electronic databases. Contact your local public law library and ask a law librarian for assistance in getting started. In addition, Google Scholar is a free, online option to search for legal journal articles.
Look for articles by reputable authors, such as law professors, attorneys, or judges. Read the material carefully. One benefit of using an article/book to start your research is that the author has presumably done some analysis and research on the topic, including locating relevant primary sources of law.
Check when the article was written or last updated. Assume that the author last did their research about a month or two before the publication date. No sources, including cases, since that day have been updated or included.
Using forms can be problematic for a non-lawyer. Forms are useful when you are unsure of the format or content required for documents that you are submitting to the court. Be careful when using forms because they are based on someone's review of the statute and the court's procedural rules and may not be entirely accurate.
Generic forms can only give you general guidance on what should be submitted to the court. Use them carefully. You may wish to consult an attorney after you have completed an unfamiliar form. Many attorneys (although not all) will review a form for you for a minimum fee, even though you do not hire them to represent you.
The Maryland Courts have many court forms available on the Maryland Judiciary's website. Learn more about finding court forms.
Form Booklist. If the books you find on your subject don't include adequate forms, there are two major sets of form books to look for: American Jurisprudence Legal Forms and West's Legal Forms. Both sets have a subject index that allows you to find sample form language by topic. Be careful when you use forms from these sets because they may not satisfy the law of your state. You should always research your state's legal requirements for the type of document you are trying to write and then adapt any sample forms you find to those requirements.