Updated by Fred Dingledy
Updated December 2023
Finding the law on a specific topic is not an exact science. To discover what "the law" is for a particular situation, you must first learn what rules apply to your situation. After you have determined what the rules are for your situation, you must then apply those rules to the facts. This is usually an extensive process that involves several stages.
- Beginning Your Research
- Secondary Sources
- Virginia Statutes
- Legislative History in Virginia
- Virginia Case Law
- Virginia Administrative Law
- Reference List
Some useful tools:
Guides to the Legal Research Process
This guide is only intended as a brief introduction to the process of researching law in Virginia. For a more detailed guide to the legal research process, there are some books in our collection section which you may find useful. Keep in mind that these are designed for the law in general, not just Virginia:
- Basic Legal Research, by Amy E. Sloan. 7th ed. Call # KF240 .S585. [Reserve Area]
- Fundamentals of Legal Research, by Steven M. Barkan, et al. 10th ed. Call # KF240 .J32. [Reserve Area]
- Legal Research: How to Find & Understand The Law, by Editors of Nolo. 19th ed. Call # KF240 .L417. [Self-Help Area]
- Principles of Legal Research, by Kent C. Olson, Aaron S. Kirschenfeld, and Ingrid Mattson. 3d ed. Call # KF240 .O57. [Reserve Area]. Ebook available via West Academic Study Aids (must have W&M ID to access).
- Sources of American Law: An Introduction to Legal Research, by Beau Steenken & Tina M. Brooks. 5th ed. Available through CALI (Ebook version is free to download for public, but will require you to enter your name and email address. Ebook versions of earlier editions are available to download for free from the University of Kentucky's UKnowledge website).
Guides to Virginia Legal Research
The book A Guide to Legal Research in Virginia (Joyce Manna Janto ed.), Call # KFV2475 .G8 [Virginia Collection], offers a more detailed description of the sources available to research all aspects of Virginia law and how to use them.
A law dictionary is an important legal research tool; even terms that have a straightforward definition in plain English can have a special meaning when used in the law.
- Black's Law Dictionary (Call # KF156 .B53 [Reference Section]) is the work most commonly used by lawyers. This dictionary is comprehensive, but its definitions can be confusing at times.
You may wish to try one of the following law dictionaries, designed for laypeople:
- Barron's Dictionary of Legal Terms, by Steven H. Gifis. 5th ed. Call # KF156 .G54 2016 [Self-Help Section]
- Law Dictionary for Nonlawyers, by Daniel Oran. 4th ed. Call # KF156 .O7 2000 [Reference Section]
- Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law. Call # KF156 .M47 2016 [Reference Section]
- Nolo's Free Dictionary of Law Terms and Legal Definitions. Available online at Nolo.com.
- Nolo's Plain-English Law Dictionary, by the editors at Nolo, Gerald N. Hill, and Kathleen Thompson Hill. Call # KF156 .N654 2009 [Self-Help Section]
- Random House Webster's Dictionary of the Law, by James E. Clapp. Call # KF156 .C57 2000 [Reference Section]
- Real Life Dictionary of the Law, by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen Thompson Hill. Call # KF156 .H55 1997 [Reference Section]
- Wex, by Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute. Available online.
The Stages of Research – An Outline
Depending upon how much prior experience and information you have on the topic you are researching, you may not have to go through all these stages. Most researchers, though, will find it beneficial to follow each of these steps.
I. Secondary Sources
Secondary sources are maps to the law. They help frame an issue for the researcher and point the way to relevant resources. Major secondary resources include legal encyclopedias, treatises, form books, law review articles, and the American Law Reports.
Keep in mind that although secondary sources are very useful, they are not the law, and usually should not be cited.
Legal encyclopedias are multi-volume sets that summarize the areas of law within a jurisdiction. Topics are organized alphabetically in articles, which are broken down into sections. Some articles are brief, others can almost fill an entire volume. Encyclopedia articles are a good starting point; they will usually state important points to consider and direct you to the relevant laws. Encyclopedias do not go into much depth, however, so you should use the article as a jumping-off point for more extensive research.
Michie's Jurisprudence of Virginia and West Virginia (Call # KFV2465 .M5 [Virginia Collection]) is the legal encyclopedia for Virginia. It has a two-volume paperback index at the end of the set and an outline at the beginning of each volume. Articles outline the issue, and footnotes point to specific cases, statutes, etc. Keep in mind that this work also discusses West Virginia law, so be sure that the section you read is covering the proper jurisdiction.
If you cannot find the issue you are researching in Michie's, you can try one of the national encyclopedias. These discuss the law of all fifty states, as well as federal law, so they cover topics not found in a state encyclopedia, but the article you read may not discuss Virginia law. These work in much the same way as Michie's: legal topics organized alphabetically, with a paperback index at the end. The library has one major national encyclopedia in its collection:
- American Jurisprudence 2d (Am Jur 2d). Call # KF154 .A42
A treatise is a book written by a legal authority on a specific topic. These can go into much greater detail when outlining a topic, and the author will often analyze it as well.
You can search for treatises at the Law Library by using William & Mary's online catalog. From the Law Library's home page, select the link for "Search the Catalog" and you will see the search screen. Select "LAW" from the library menu on the right, and click on the "Search Everything" button, not the "Subject" button, when you want to submit a search. This will give you a better chance of retrieving a more thorough list of useful books.
|Quick Guide to Connectors in the catalog
What it means
Virginia AND Williamsburg
The Record must have both items
Virginia OR Williamsburg
The Record must have at least one of the terms
Virginia NOT Williamsburg
The Record must not have the term after NOT
The Record must have the exact phrase
Form books do not usually discuss the law, but they are a good resource if you need a form for a particular situation. Remember that any forms found in these books are models, and should be modified to fit specific situations.Virginia Form Books
Virginia Forms [Call # KFV2468 .G6 (Virginia Collection)] is the form book series for Virginia. It has a separate index volume.
Law review articles are written by law students or legal professionals. Articles frequently discuss highly-debated topics, and authors will usually analyze the issue. Law review articles are also useful due to the large number of references to relevant laws, which help make them useful starting points for further research.
You can search for law review articles using Legal Source, an online periodical index database. You can access this from the Law Library's home page under "Quick Database Links".
WHERE YOU'LL FIND IT
Legislative Information System (LIS) https://lis.virginia.gov/
Advance Session Laws
Virginia Advance Legislative Service
Acts of Assembly
LIS (see above)
Code of Virginia (1950)
West's Annotated Code of Virginia
How a law is published
Statutes are laws passed by the legislature. After a statute has been passed, it is published in several different formats:1. Chapter law
The statute is first published as a chapter law. This is a pamphlet that contains only the text of that law. Paper slip laws are not available at the Law Library, but you can access recently-passed legislation online via the Commonwealth of Virginia's Legislative Information System (LIS) at https://lis.virginia.gov/. Select "Bills and Resolutions" under Searchable Databases, and select "chapter" from the pull-down menu.2. Session law service
Next, newly-passed statutes are compiled in a session law service. This service compiles the slip laws in chronological order. There are two paper session law services for Virginia:
- The Virginia Advance Legislative Service (Call # KFV2430 1950 .A31 [Virginia Collection]). This is produced by the same company the publishes the Code of Virginia (see below), and is published fairly quickly.
- The Acts of Assembly (Call # KFV2425 .A213 [Virginia Collection]) is the official service. It is slower than the Advance Legislative Service, and is not usually received until several months after the end of the session.
Finally, the statutes are synthesized into a code. This organizes the laws by topic; each broad topic is called a title. A code is the best place to begin when searching for a statute. Two different publishers have a version of the code: Lexis Publishing makes the Code of Virginia 1950 (Call # KFV2430 1950 .A3 [Virginia Collection]), and West Group has West's Annotated Code of Virginia (Call # KFV2430 1950 .A4 [Virginia Collection]). The text of the statutes is the same in either version; the difference lies in the way the code is indexed, and in the extras each publisher adds on. Both versions have a two-volume paperback index at the end of the set, and the beginning of each volume has a list of all the titles in the code.
The Code of Virginia is available online at the Commonwealth's web site at https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode.
Updating Virginia Statutes
It is important to remember to update the laws you have researched.
Updating the Book:
1. Check the pocket part in the back of the volume you are reading. This will contain changes to the code since the hardbound volume was printed. Sometimes, instead of a pocket part, supplementation will be in the form of a separate, paperback volume.
2. Since the pocket part is only published once a year, you need to supplement the pocket part using the Virginia Advance Legislative Service or West's Virginia Legislative Service. The year listed on the pocket part will tell you which issues of the Advance Legislative Service you need to look at. For example, if a pocket part says it is the "2008 cumulative supplement", and the year is 2009, you need to look at the Advance Legislative Service for the 2009 sessions.
3. Take the latest volume of the Advance Legislative Service for the session you need to research, then look up the code section you are updating in the Table of Sections Affected. This table will tell if anything has happened to your section during that legislative session; if a newly-passed law affects your section, the table will give you the law's chapter number and tell you which pamphlet to find the law in.
Updating the Commonwealth's Online Code:
The Commonwealth of Virginia's Law Portal has an updates page at https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacodeupdates with links to code sections that will change because of laws passed by the latest session of the Virginia Assembly.
There are few resources for legislative history in Virginia, but there are some items that may help. Research guides from the University of Richmond Law School, from the Library of Virginia, and from the Virginia Division of Legislative Services also have some helpful suggestions.
When searching for legislative history, remember that histories are not organized by code section, but by bill number or by chapter number and year.
- To learn the chapter numbers for a code section you want to research, look at the end of the section. There will be a series of numbers in parentheses that look like this:
(1994, c. 134)
This is the year and chapter number. If you see a series of numbers, it means that more than one chapter law has been used to create that code section.
- To learn the bill number of a chapter law, look at the beginning of the law. The bill number should begin with HB (for a House bill) or SB (for a Senate Bill).
Once you have the chapter and bill numbers, you can start searching for a law's history.
The Commonwealth's online Legislative Information System https://lis.virginia.gov/ contains the text of bills from the 1994 legislative session to the present.
There are no printed transcripts of debates in the General Assembly. Minutes are available through Virginia's Legislative Information System (LIS), but these are just brief summaries of the day's events.
The General Assembly's website offers streaming video of House and Senate floor debates, as well as some committee sessions, from 2017 to the present:
House debates from 1981-2015 are available on videotape at the Library of Virginia, but call ahead to be sure they have what you are looking for. You will need to know the date of the debate you are researching.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch covers the General Assembly well, and can be a good resource for background information on legislation. Issues of the Times-Dispatch from 1903 to the present are available via NewsBank (must have W&M ID or be on campus to access).
The Washington Post also covers Virginia politics; you can search issues from 1877-2004 and issues from 2008-present via ProQuest (must have W&M ID or be on campus to access), or go to the Virginia politics section on the Post's website.
Located in the Law Library's Virginia Collection, the Senate Journal (Call # KFV2418B) and the House Journal (Call # KFV2418) contain the records of all votes made in the General Assembly. You can also access the voting records online through the Legislative Information System's House Minutes and Senate Minutes under each session. Sometimes, the Journals and online minutes will include a brief statement made about a particular action, but no more.
The House or Senate will sometimes order committees to prepare studies of topics important to the Assembly. Reports from these studies are compiled in House & Senate Documents (Call # KFV2418C [Virginia Collection]).
A chronological list of House and Senate Documents is available online, with links to the full text of many of the documents, via Virginia's Legislative Information System. Select "Reports to the General Assembly" on the left side of the page to get to the list.
Searching for General Assembly Bills and Documents
The Cumulative Index of Bills, Joint Resolutions, Resolutions, and Documents (Call # KFV2410. F56 [Virginia Collection]) is an annual combined topical index to bills, joint resolutions, resolutions, and documents. Indexes are not cumulative, so you will have to search year by year. This index is no longer in print - you can now find it through the Commonwealth's Legislative Information System; select the "Cumulative Index".
The Legislative Information System also has a cumulative subject index that covers bills going back to 1995; select "Subject Index" under "Across Sessions" at the bottom-left of the Legislative Information System's home page.
In the United States, courts interpret statutory law, but they also create their own law, called case law. When deciding cases, courts must look to precedent, previously decided cases that are relevant to the issues at hand.
WHERE YOU FIND SLIP OPINIONS ONLINE
WHICH CASE REPORTER YOU USE
Supreme Court of Virginia
Virginia Reports or South Eastern Reporter
Court of Appeals of Virginia
Virginia Court of Appeals Reports or South Eastern Reporter
Virginia Circuit Court Opinions(*)
*Virginia Circuit Court Opinions is a selective reporter; most Circuit Court decisions are not published.
The Virginia Judicial System has three levels of courts.
The Supreme Court of Virginia is Virginia's court of last resort – the highest court in the Commonwealth. It is a discretionary court, which means that it can decide which appeals it will accept. Its decisions are binding on itself and on all courts below it.
The Court of Appeals of Virginia is the Commonwealth's intermediate appellate court. The Court of Appeals must hear all appeals that it receives. This court's decisions are binding on itself and on trial courts, but not on the Supreme Court.
The Circuit Courts and the District Courts are Virginia's trial courts. Only decisions from the Circuit Courts are published, and even then only a small percentage. Trial court decisions do not have much value as precedent.
How Cases are Published
A case is first published as a slip opinion. This is a pamphlet that contains only one decision. Paper slip opinions are not available at the Law Library, but you can browse or search for opinions for free online at the Virginia Judicial System's web site at https://www.vacourts.gov/. Opinions are available for the Supreme Court from June 9, 1995, to the present, and for the Court of Appeals from May 2, 1995, to the present.
Next, cases are compiled in paperback advance sheets. Advance sheets are the first phase of publication in a case reporter, which is a system that published court decisions. When a case is published in an advance sheet, it is given a volume and page number for that reporter system. These volume and page numbers remain the same when the case is published in the final, bound version of the reporter.
Finally, advance sheets are compiled in a bound volume. This is the final version of a case reporter volume.
The case of Motley v. Virginia State Bar, Record No. 000392, is handed down on September 15, 2000 as a slip opinion. You could look this opinion up on the Virginia Judicial System's web site.
Motley is compiled as part of an advance sheet for Virginia Reports, the case reporter for the Supreme Court of Virginia. This case is given the citation 260 Va. 243 (page 243 of volume 260 of the Virginia Reports).
The advance sheet is compiled into a bound volume. Motley's citation is still 260 Va. 243.
The Case Reporters
There are several different case reporters; each reporter covers different courts. There are two types of reporters:
Official reporters are authorized by the court. They are important to know because courts will often require the citation from the official reporter when you mention a case.
Unofficial reporters are published by private companies. West Group is the major publisher of unofficial case reporters. The text of the decision itself is that same as in official reporters, but unofficial reporters often add editorial interpretations of the case to the beginning.
FINDING A CASE ONLINE
Visitors to the law library have access to two subscription databases they can use to search for cases:
- Nexis Uni: Must be on campus or have a valid William & Mary ID + password to access. Select "Cases" button under "Guided Search") - "Help" link at top of page will give you instructions on how to use this.
- Westlaw Patron Access: Must be at the law library to access. Select the "Cases" link under the "All Content" tab to search for cases.
There are also three websites available to the public for free for case searching:
- AnyLaw: Free. Type search terms in the blank. After entering your search terms, click the button labeled "Select Courts" to pick specific courts to search. Click on the link "Tips for more refined search" under the search blank to get advice on how to modify your search for better results.
- Google Scholar: Free. Click "Case law" button under search blank. Covers the Supreme Court of Virginia cases going back to 1950 and Court of Appeals of Virginia cases going back to 1985.
- Harvard Law School Caselaw Access Project: Good for historical research. Contains Supreme Court of Virginia cases from 1779-2004, Court of Appeals cases from 1985-2017, and Virginia Circuit Court cases from 1856-2016.
FINDING A CASE USING PRINT RESOURCES
Finding a Case by Citation
If you have the citation to a case, it will be easy to locate. Refer to the Law Library's online guide on "How to Find a Case With the Citation" for more details.
Finding a Case Using the Code of Virginia
The Code of Virginia 1950 and West's Annotated Code of Virginia are annotated codes. The most valuable aspect of an annotated code is that some code sections will have entries listing cases that have been decided which related to that code section. Each case entry is a paragraph that summarizes what the case had to do with the code section you are reading, followed by a citation to the case.
NOTE: The version of the Code of Virginia available on the Commonwealth's web site is not an annotated code. To take advantage of this tool, use the print versions of the Code.
Finding a Case by Party Name
If you only have the name of a party or parties involved in the case, there are several resources you can use to get a citation for the case.
The Table of Cases volumes from reporter digests are another way to look up a citation using a party's name. Digests are a type of indexing system for case reporters (more on them below in "Finding a Case by Topic"), and they contain volumes at the end called the "Table of Cases" that allows you to look up a case's citation by using the name of the parties involved. Be sure to check the pocket part at the back of the book, or paperback supplements, if you are researching a newer case.
The Virginia and West Virginia Digest (Call # KFV2460 .V5 [Virginia Collection]) covers Virginia courts.
The Cumulative Index to the Virginia Circuit Court Opinions also has a Table of Cases Reported. This table only lists cases reported in the Virginia Circuit Court Opinions service.Finding a Case by Topic
If you are searching for cases that relate to a particular topic, digests are the best place to look. Digests are the indexing system used for cases, and they are primarily published by West Group. Digests are usually located at the end of the reporters they cover.
The Virginia and West Virginia Digest (Call # KFV2460 .V5 [Virginia Collection]) covers Virginia.
West's digest system breaks the law down into a number of Topics, such as Bankruptcy, Contracts or Corporations. These Topics are further divided into Key Numbers. Each Key Number represents a very specific part of a Topic – for example, Key Number 37 of the Topic Criminal Law is Entrapment.
West's digest system also acts as an outline of the law; similar Key Numbers are placed together under broader topic sections. For example, Criminal Law Key Number 37 is part of the category Defenses In General.
There are two ways you can search for topics using the digest system:
- The index method: At the beginning or end of a digest, you will find a set of volumes called the Descriptive Word Index. You can look up a term in this index, and it will tell you what Key Number in the digest to search under. A Table of Abbreviations is at the beginning of each volume. For example, looking up "Entrapment" results in an entry for "Defense to criminal prosecution", which directs you to "Crim Law 37". The phrase tells you the Topic to use, and the number is the Key Number within that Topic to search under.
- The outline method: The beginning of each digest volume has an "Outline of the law" that shows all the Key Topics used in that digest. The beginning of each Topic section has another outline that lists the Key Numbers contained in that Topic. Browsing through the Topics and Key Numbers can help to get a feel for the issues that may be related to the one you are searching, and can give you an idea for several Key Numbers you may wish to search under.
The digests are organized alphabetically by Topic, then numerically by Key Number. Each Key Number is followed by a list of paragraph-long summaries of cases. Usually, these outlines will only describe what a case has to do with the Key Number you are researching. If you decide you want to read the entire case, the case citation is located after the summary. If you want to use a case, be sure to read the whole case first; do not just rely on the summary.
Be sure to check the back of the volumes for pocket parts or paperback supplements that will list the most recent cases. Also remember that the Virginia and West Virginia Digest covers more than one state; if you are researching Virginia law, make sure you have a Virginia case.
NOTE:Virginia Circuit Court Opinions has a separate topical index in its Cumulative Index volume.Updating a Case
Visitors to the law library have two resources they can use to update cases:
- The Shepard's service in Nexis Uni - instructions on how to use this are available by selecting the "Help" link at the top of the page, then searching for [Shepard's].
- The KeyCite service in Westlaw Patron Access - instructions on how to use this are available by selecting the Patron Help Guide at the bottom of the page.
Who Makes It?
Administrative law consists of the regulations and decisions made by government agencies, such as the Virginia DOT or Department of Health.
What Does it Look Like?
Regulations are published in two phases:
1. A regulation must first be published in the Virginia Register. The Register compiles regulations in chronological order, and is published biweekly.
2. Regulations are then compiled into the Virginia Administrative Code (VAC), which organizes them by subject. This is the best place to start looking for regulations.
Opinions of the Attorney General
One of the duties of the Attorney General of Virginia is to issue legal advice in the form of opinions.
Orders and Decisions
Some Virginia agencies publish their orders and decisions, but most do not.
Where Do I Find It?
Virginia Administrative Code
Virginia Administrative Code (Call # KFV2435 .V57)
Virginia Register (Call # KFV2436 .V57)
Attorney General Opinions
Opinions of the Attorney General and report to the Governor of Virginia (Call # KFV2840 .A553)
State Corporation Commission orders
Annual Report of the State Corporation Commission of Virginia (Call # KFV2630 .A553)
How Do I Update It?
Virginia Administrative Code in print:
1. Check the annual supplement, which will be in a separate volume near the end of the volume or the set, then refer to the Virginia Register's Cumulative Table of Virginia Administrative Code Sections Adopted, Amended or Repealed.
Virginia Administrative Code online:
The Virginia Register's Cumulative Table of Virginia Administrative Code Sections Adopted, Amended or Repealed lists all the VAC sections that have changed since the last print edition of the VAC was published.
Fundamentals of Legal Research 7th ed.
A Guide to Legal Research in Virginia 4th ed.
Chanin, Leah F., Pamela J. Gregory and Sarah K. Wiant. Legal Research in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. 2nd ed.
Campbell, Evelyn M. "There is no legislative history in Virginia". VALL Newsletter, Vol. 16, No. 3, p. 16 (Winter 2000)
"About the Office". Virginia Office of the Attorney General. http://www.oag.state.va.us/index.php/our-office/about-the-office (Visited November 14, 2014).