Legal Research for Non-Law Students

This guide is designed for non-law students who are researching a legal issue.

Contact the Law Library

The Law Library's Reference Librarians are available from 9AM - 5PM, M - F. 

Email us and we will respond as quickly as possible. 

Stop by the Circulation Desk and ask to speak to a reference librarian. 

Call 615-343-8731 and ask to speak to a reference librarian. 

Considerations Before You Begin

Before embarking on your research, it never hurts to first establish the following information:


  • When the project is due? How much time do you expect to spend on it? Also what time period are you concerned with? Is this current or historical research?

S for SCOPE of the assignment.

  • What exactly is your prompt and expected work product? Keep this in mind when determining how much you want to research. It is easy to bite of too much!


  • Time, format, etc. Are you supposed to limit your research in some way?


  • Are there words or phrases that are used in this area of law (e.g., "habeas", "statute of limitations", etc.)? Acronyms (e.g., IEP = Individualized Education Plan)? Throughout your research process, you will want to identify these, because they will likely help your searches get better results. 


  • Is this matter federal, state, or local? Does it concern the executive, legislative, or judicial branch --or multiple branches? Does it concern an administrative agency, such as the Department of Labor or a local health department? 

S for SOURCES you need

  • There are two types of sources in legal research: primary and secondary. Primary sources are those which are produced by the different branches of government, which we cite to as the law (statutes, cases, regulations, ordinances, etc.). Secondary sources are everything else. Secondary sources can be very useful for understanding and quickly locating the primary law. Additionally, when researching an academic project, you may be interested in a particular type of secondary source: legal scholarship. We've created pages devoted exclusively to locating different types of primary sources and relevant legal scholarship. ​

U for USEFUL Starting Spots

  • It is important to think about a research plan and identify some good places to start. Secondary sources are often great to begin with. Below are a few different types of secondary sources that we think are useful and how to find them. 

The letters above can be re-arranged to spell the friendly reminder that, when in doubt, 

JUST ASK your law librarian!