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Introduction to Legal Research


What you should learn in this article

Let’s start by discussing what we hope you will learn in this article. Once you finish reading this article, you should have a basic understanding of how an attorney performs legal research.  You should understand how the federal court system is structured and you will learn about the three basic areas of the law that an attorney researches: (1) statutes; (2) case law; and (3) regulations.

Why do we focus on researching federal law? Because the information discussed in this article applies to everyone nationwide. However, you will find that the knowledge you gain on the subject of researching federal law will help you when you are researching state law as well.

Warning: The articles on this web site will help you understand the basics of legal research and the basics of employment discrimination law. But only a person trained as an attorney can perform research as well as an attorney and only an attorney in your community can advise you on your particular legal situation.  Therefore, never forget that these articles are in no way a substitute for competent legal advice.

A primer on our federal court system

Our federal court system has three different levels:

  1. district courts;

  2. circuit courts of appeals; and

  3. the Supreme Court.

Author's Note: For a better understanding of what happens in a lawsuit that is filed in the federal district court and then appealed to the federal court of appeals and the Supreme Court, read our article: Anatomy of a Lawsuit.

Federal district court

For our purposes, we just need to understand that federal lawsuits begin in federal district court. 

Within each State, the federal district courts are organized into judicial districts. For example, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the district courts are organized into an Eastern District and a Western District. Each county in Virginia is assigned to either the Eastern District or the Western District. If you live in Charlotte County, Virginia, then your lawsuit would be filed in the Western District Court of Virginia.

Some States, like Vermont, have only one judicial district for the entire state. But the district court of Vermont holds court in several locations: Bennington, Brattleboro, Burlington, Montpelier, Rutland, Saint Johnsbury and Windsor.  So wherever you live within the United States, you are living within a particular district of the federal district court.

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