The best legal research books for beginners will have you researching like a pro.

When people ask me what it is like to be a librarian, I often pull out this one-liner:

Librarians don’t know everything — we just know where to find it.

In fact, this is true of many professions. Attorneys, for example, encounter novel issues all the time. This requires them to look up the answer. In other words, it requires them to do research.

A lot of people can’t afford an attorney and thus have to do their own research. These are called pro se litigants (pro se is a Latin phrase meaning “for oneself”). The world of legal research can overwhelm those who are unaccustomed to it. How do they — how can you — learn to navigate it?



Send an email to your Representatives to show your support for libraries!


Fortunately, there are some great books on legal research that are written for nonlawyers. These books will: 

  • Teach you about the American court system and legislative process,
  • Familiarize you with legal terminology,
  • Explain the basics of researching statutes and cases, 
  • Introduce you to important secondary sources like legal encyclopedias, and
  • Cover useful legal research websites

Here are some good ones to start with.

Legal Research (Nolo Press)

Now in its 19th edition, this book was one I read at the outset of my law librarian career. 

Published by Nolo, a San Francisco company founded in 1971 with the mission of “help[ing] consumers and small businesses find answers to their everyday legal and business questions,” the book is a soup-to-nuts discussion of the legal research and writing process. Nolo is known for its plain-English approach to legal topics, and this book is no different, starting with its first section: “What Is the Law?”

(If you like this book, I suggest checking out its sister publication, Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare & Try a Winning Case. Of course, every state’s law and court procedures are different, but they are not so different that books like these won’t be assets.) 


Sign the petition to show that Americans love their libraries!

Legal Research Demystified

Whereas Nolo’s Legal Research caters to the ordinary reader, this book, by Carolina Academic Press, is meant for first-year law students. You can see this difference in, for example, its emphasis on developing a research plan. Or its discussion of legislative history. Or its comparison of commercial legal research databases such as Westlaw and LexisNexis. Or the interactive research exercises on its companion website.

Of course, 1Ls, as they are called, know little about legal research, which means their texts have to be written at a level well below that of a practicing attorney. For this reason, any educated reader will get a lot out of Legal Research Demystified, especially chapters 1–4, which offer a more in-depth explanation of cases, statutes, and the organization of government than the Nolo book. 

The Accidental Law Librarian

This is a book I published in 2013, twelve years after getting my first librarian job at a Columbia, South Carolina, law firm. 

I had no background in law. I didn’t even watch Law & Order. Yet I was expected to order and manage law books, respond to the needs of attorneys and paralegals, and, of course, do legal research. 

After a decade-plus of trial-and-error, I wrote this book, envisioning it as the sort of cicerone I wish I’d had when I was getting started. Though dated in some places (2013 was a long time ago), it still has a lot to offer beginning researchers, such as the history of legal publishing. 

(I also devote one chapter to the future of law libraries. How many of these ten-year-old predictions came true? I’ve never checked. Not sure I want to.)


Sign the pledge to vote for libraries!


Legal Research Series

The books discussed above are all great resources for learning about legal research in general. Yet, as I mentioned, legal practice is not exactly the same in every state. Certainly, each state’s publications are unique. You would therefore do well to get your hands on a state-specific book about legal research. Carolina Academic Press has a lot of these in its Legal Research Series.

For example, North Carolina, where I live, has North Carolina Legal Research, which is in its 3rd edition. 

The book lays out the nitty-gritty of how the branches of North Carolina government — legislature, executive branch, courts — are structured and how they operate. It explains how North Carolina cases, statutes, and administrative rules are published. And it discusses important secondary sources such as Strong’s North Carolina Index, which, despite its title, is not an index but an encyclopedia. 

Mastering United States Government Information

Legal research isn’t just cases and statutes. Sometimes, you need more obscure sources of information. Like administrative rules. Executive orders. Attorney general opinions. The Congressional Record. Census data. Treasury decisions. NTIS reports. 

All of these are types of government information, but it can be hard to know what they are, much less where to find them. This is where Christopher Brown’s book comes in. I won’t say you should read it cover to cover, but it is good to have on hand when you come across an odd reference. 

And you will come across them. Trust me on that.



Visit to learn more about our work on behalf of libraries. 

#librarymarketers: Enjoy this story? Want to use it for your library newsletter, blog, or social media? This article is published under Creative Commons License Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International and is free to edit and use with attribution. Please cite EveryLibrary on

This work by EveryLibrary is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0