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. 

What are Primary Sources of Law?

Primary legal sources include: 

  • Case law: decisions issued by courts
  • Legislation: the law as passed by the United States Congress and state legislatures. 
    • Ordinances: the law as passed by a local governing municipality. 
  • Regulations: the rules created by local, state, and federal administrative agencies. 
    • Agency decisions: the decisions, by agencies, regarding the application of their rules to specific parties. 
  • Constitutions: state and federal constitutions
  • Treaties: Agreements between nations

To determine which type of primary sources you need to locate, you will want to identify the territorial jurisdiction. Then you will want to determine which branches of government are relevant. Once you've done that, check out the page listing different ways to locate primary law. 


When people refer to "jurisdiction in the legal context, they are usually referring to either subject-matter jurisdiction or territorial jurisdiction. For a nice, concise definition of both, check out: 

Before embarking on your legal research, you will want to identify which territory you are concerned with. Each spot on the US map is governed by local law, state law, and federal law. For some information on federal versus state versus local authority, check out the following: 

If you are concerned with federal law, you may need to determine which federal circuit concerns you. The easiest way to do so is to examine a federal courts map. 

Branch of Government

Once you establish which jurisdiction (or jurisdictions) matter, you will then want to identify which branch (or branches) of government you care about. To better understand the branches and their roles, check out Branches of Government

States follow a similar divide as the federal government. For example, check out the pages on the judicial, executive, and legislative branches provided by the Tennessee Secretary of State:

Each branch produces different types of documents related to their ultimate purpose. Those documents that establish the law are commonly known as "primary sources."

For a list of different ways to find federal and Tennessee primary sources, check out the next page. And remember, if you are uncertain what type of law you are looking for, 

JUST ASK your friendly law librarian!