When you represent yourself, you conduct your own legal research.
The purpose of legal research includes:
- Determining your legal rights and responsibilities.
- Helping you understand your situation or legal issue.
- Determining how to get your legal issue to the court.
- Finding legal authority to support your side of a case.
- Finding legal authority to challenge the other party’s side in a case.
Legal research is an essential function a lawyer performs as part of legal representation of a client. As a self-represented individual, you perform all of the functions of a lawyer for yourself.
Substantive Law or Procedural Law
Before beginning your legal research, it’s helpful to know the basic difference between substantive law and procedural law.
Substantive law is the law that establishes our legal rights and responsibilities and grants jurisdiction (authority) to a court to hear and decide a case. Substantive law includes the North Dakota Constitution, statutes (laws) enacted by the North Dakota State Legislature, and the case law (opinions) of the North Dakota Supreme Court.
In general, substantive law answers “Can I” questions.
Procedural law is the law that governs the process of bringing a case to court and how the case proceeds once it gets to court. Procedural law is found in the court rules enacted by the North Dakota Supreme Court, which include the North Dakota Rules of Civil Procedure, the North Dakota Court Rules, and the North Dakota Rules of Evidence.
In general, procedural law answers “How do I” questions.
Depending on your legal question or issue, you may need to research either the substantive law, or the procedural law, or both.
Legal Research Steps
Following are the basic steps to researching a legal issue.
For more information, refer to the resources listed in the Guides for Researching Your Legal Issue, Library Resources, and Other Resources sections below.
STEP 1: Identify the legal question you want to answer. Start by writing down the legal question you want to answer. This will help you identify some keywords for starting your search. If you don’t know the exact legal terms for your issue, or don’t have more than a few keywords, remember this is just the starting step of your research into your legal issue.
STEP 2: Find a secondary source to learn more about the legal issue. Secondary sources explain the law, help you identify additional legal terms related to your issue, and help you identify primary sources of law specifically related to your legal issue. You may also search for your keywords in the printed General Index of the North Dakota Century Code.
STEP 3: Find primary sources of law related to your legal issue. Primary sources of law are the law itself. North Dakota primary sources of law include the North Dakota state constitution and the laws created by the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of North Dakota government.
STEP 4: Determine if the primary sources of law you’ve identified are still good law. After you identify your primary sources of law, you need to determine if the laws on which you’re relying have been subsequently amended, limited, overruled, reversed, or invalidated. At the same time, you may discover other primary sources of law related to your legal issue. This process involves taking each primary source of law and tracking every time a court references the law, or the legislature takes action on the law. This process is commonly referred to as “Shepardizing.”
STEP 5: Know when to stop researching. It may be time to stop when:
- You keep reading the same, or similar, legal rule.
- You keep being referred back to the same statutes or the same cases.
STEP 6: Analyze how the primary sources of law you’ve identified for your legal issue apply to your circumstances. Now that you’ve identified the primary laws for your legal issue, you analyze, or interpret, what those laws mean as they apply to your situation or circumstances. Step 6 is an essential part of legal representation. This is how you determine your legal rights and responsibilities, build your legal argument to support your side of the case, and build your legal argument to challenge the other party’s side of a case.
STEP 7: If you decide to go to court, determine the appropriate process to get to court. Research the procedural law, which are the rules that govern how to bring a legal issue to a North Dakota state court, and how the case proceeds once it gets to court. As a self-represented individual, you are held to the same requirements and responsibilities as a lawyer, even if you don’t understand the rules or procedures.
Guides for Researching Your Legal Issue
Use the following legal research guides as you conduct your own legal research.
- Legal Research Guide and Checklist
- N.D.C.C. Quick Reference Guide
- N.D.C.C. Reference Guide
- N.D.L.S.H.C. Commonly Referenced Statutes & Rules
Library Resources (Not all legal research resources are available online.)
ODIN is a shared library database of many North Dakota academic, public, state agency, and special libraries. Search ODIN for resources that may be available in a North Dakota library near you. (http://www.odin.nodak.edu/)
If the book is available for interlibrary loan through ODIN, ask the librarian or library staff of your local North Dakota library how to request the book.
Following are a selection of library resources on ODIN related to legal research that may be of interest:
- The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation. Authors: Editors of Columbia Law Review, Harvard Law Review, University of Pennsylvania Law Review & Yale Law Journal. Published by The Harvard Law Review Association. Multiple editions.
- Legal Research: How to Find & Understand the Law. Authors: Stephen Elias & Editors of Nolo. Published by Nolo. Multiple editions.
- Legal Research: In a Nutshell. Authors: Morris Cohen & Kent Olson. Published by West Publishing and West Academic Publishing. Multiple editions.
- Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare & Try a Winning Case. Authors: Paul Bergman & Sara Berman. Published by Nolo. Multiple editions.
Following are a selection of other resources related to legal research that may be of interest.
- Guide to a Civil Action
- How to Research a Legal Problem: A Guide for Non-Lawyers, American Association of Law Libraries.
- North Dakota Legal Research Resources in a Nutshell (Flickertale, October 2018, Pages 8-9)
- Primary and Secondary Legal Research Resources (Flickertale, November 2018, Pages 13-14)
- Legal Research Resources for the North Dakota Constitution (Flickertale, December 2018, Pages 12-13)
- Legal Research Resources for the North Dakota Century Code (Flickertale, January 2019, Pages 10-11)
- Historical Legal Research Resources (Flickertale, February 2019, Pages 10-11)
- Legal Research Resources for North Dakota Case Law (Flickertale, March 2019, Pages 10-11)
- Legal Research Resources for North Dakota Court Rules (Flickertale, April 2019, Pages 9-10)
If you do not understand any of this information, or if you have trouble filling out any of the forms located here, please see an attorney for help.
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