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UMKC University Libraries

Thinking About Legal Research Problems

Created by Paul D. Callister from earlier version at

Putting it All together for Known Item and Subject Searches--The Octants of Legal Research

Legal research resources could be mapped in three-dimensional space.  The horizontal axis stresses the difference between primary and secondary authority.  Primary authority is actually binding on someone.  The vertical axis distinguishes between chronological and subject arrangements of material (see the tabs under "Resources").  Finally, the third axis differentiates between computer algorithms and indexed controlled vocabularies (usually generated by humans). 

As a rule of thumb, for case law, the upper right-hand block is where one would search for "Known Item" problems--factually rich case scenarios (e.g., "I need the California case in which the court ruled that a fetus is not a human being and the defendant beat up his girl friend resulting in loss of the fetus and the charge of murder.").  Consequently, you would pick on on-line service and use a terms and connectors or natural language search to find the case.  On the other hand, if you need to understand Wisconsin water law in general (which is a "Subject" problem type), you are best off with the material in the lower, left, front octant--for instance, a good encyclopedia.


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