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Basics of International and Foreign Law: Strategies for Research

A short and sweet introduction to understanding, researching, and keeping up-to-date with international, foreign, and comparative law topics.

Basic Research Steps

Follow the same steps as you would for any research problem. Although there may be curveballs for international, comparative, and foreign law topics, your goal is still the same.

  1. Plan and think! Know the question you are researching.
  2. Use secondary sources! Remember non-legal sources and legislative history-type information! This can include working papers, newspapers, committee reports, etc; this is particularly important in international law that is so wrapped up in politics and government. They frequently reference primary sources and may even reproduce the cases/treaties you are looking for.
  3. Find primary sources! Do you need an authentic or official version? Do you prefer print or electronic?
  4. Know when to stop! Have you answered the question? Are you finding the same/similar information over and over again?
  5. Asking/looking for help! The librarians are really, really here for you. We can help you find what you’re looking for, and it is our job to do so. If you still don’t want to talk to a person, then search for other research guides. Remember, you do not need to reinvent the wheel – most research has been done in some manner before and others have already put the work in. 

Remember!

Similar to doing U.S. legal research, it is important to start with secondary legal sources, in order to find primary authority, the authoritative law source. Secondary sources are used to evaluate findings, analyze, and draw conclusions. The Internet is an important source and should be used carefully. The best web sites have authoritative information, are consistent, and are constantly updated. If you are unsure about the authenticity of a website, check with a reference librarian or just don't use it. Print materials and electronic formats of Lexis Advance, WestlawNext, and Bloomberg are also basic sources, all of which must be used to do competent, thorough research.

Already Compiled Source List

It is very tempting to use Google, but know that there is a resource that may very likely have this work done for you! That will tell you exactly where to go, both electronic and print, for many subjects in many countries.

  1. George Wash. Int’l Law Review, Guide to International Legal Research (2015). Available on Lexis Advance - start typing the title into the main search bar; also on the second floor of the library by the reference desk: KZ 1234 .G85 (ref).

  2. American Society of International Law - Electronic Resource Guide. Constantly updated. Online resources for specific areas of international law, such as: international piracy, the European Union, international organizations, etc. 

Google

You can use Google - it is your friend! But be aware that it has limits. If you are looking for a specific document that is relatively frequently utilized, it is highly likely you will find it (and even from a reputable source). If you are looking for secondary sources, they will be more difficult to find on Google - partially because there are A LOT of them, but also because many are only available from subscription websites. Government documents can usually be found in this way, but it may take more digging on a government website. The ability to access government information also depends on the transparency and government publication laws of a particular state. 

Searching for Journal Articles

Databases with access to journal articles include: HeinOnline Law Journal LibraryWestlawNext, Lexis Advance, and Legal Source.

  • All of these allow you to use a natural search (how you would search in Google) or a Boolean search (using terms and connectors such as “and”/“or”). I would advise that you at least use specific key terms, and know that the Boolean search typically provides the most accurate results.
  • See this post from our Library Blog on when you may want to use Hein over Westlaw and Lexis.

Journal indexes allow you to easily search by subject matter, and then provide a list of related articles. 

  • One of the best ways is to use the Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals. You can search by keyword, subject, date, etc., and it will provide you with direct links to articles available in HeinOnline. It indexes articles published outside of the United States. There is also a print version available on the third floor carrels by the elevators.
  • A similar index is the Current Index to Legal Periodicals. It is available online but can be a bit more difficult to search. It indexes journals from ABA accredited institutions.

 

There is a large collection of print journals on the third floor of the Library. You can search for journals in the Library Catalog by titles, subject areas, and key words. 

Statistics

The use of statistics can be valuable and meaningful to the position you are researching and writing about, but remember the saying long attributed to Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies— lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Make sure you use a reputable source for identifying statistics, and use them appropriately and accurately. Anything less will harm your reputation and may hurt your grade or, worse yet, your client’s case.

Billie Jo Kauffman. "Finding and Using Statistics in Legal Research and Writing" Perspectives: Teaching Legal Research & Writing Vol. 14 Iss. 3 (2006) Available at: http://works.bepress.com/billie_kaufman/2/