April 7, 2021 – State survey research encompasses locating, reviewing, and analyzing statutes and regulations on a specific area of law for all 50 states plus U.S. territories, or a selection of specific jurisdictions.
While multijurisdictional research may seem a daunting task, knowing the best starting points and research strategies saves time and leads to a more thorough review. This article discusses recommended resources and research strategies for conducting comprehensive state survey research.
Before delving into primary source research content, begin state survey research in secondary sources. Secondary sources often contain citations to key primary sources, such as statutes and regulations, as well as case law and administrative guidance.
Laura Olsen is a senior legal research specialist at Quarles & Brady LLP, Madison. She is a member of the Law Librarians Association (LLAW). LLAW's Public Relations Committee coordinates regular contributions by its members to InsideTrack.
Law reviews, legal treatises, legal news, nonlegal news, and practical guidance tools are often the best places to start with multijurisdictional research. These research tools edify the researcher on the origin and developing history of statutes and regulations in a specific area of law, unearth terms of art and acronyms, and provide a solid overview.
For example, if researching which states have enacted laws or are considering legislation banning transgender women from participation in women's sports, a March 11, 2021, New York Times article provides a solid starting point, summarizing existing laws, pending legislation, related court cases, and key metrics.
Information gleaned in secondary sources helps with a general understanding of the area of law, key terms, recent developments, and leads the researcher to additional information sources. Starting with secondary sources provides a solid framework and a notable jump-start on multijurisdictional research.
Consider such terminology variations when searching across multiple jurisdictions. Terminology used in statutes and regulations varies greatly state by state.
One state may use the term "marital dissolution," while another state uses the term "divorce." Some jurisdictions use the terminology "driving under the influence," whereas other jurisdictions call this "driving while intoxicated."
Secondary sources and precompiled surveys help edify a user as to variant terminology, which can be applied to primary law research search strategies.
National Conference of State Legislatures
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) offers indispensable complimentary resources for researching laws in multiple states. The NSCL is a nonpartisan organization whose mission is to advance the effectiveness, independence, and integrity of legislatures, and to foster interstate cooperation and facilitate the exchange of information among legislatures.
The NSCL research page is your starting point for multistate statutory research on numerous topics, including state legislative activity on changes to topics such as daylight saving time, sports betting laws, and health system reforms and policy innovations.
Browse the research drop-down menu of topics, or search using the site's Google search appliance by keyword or phrase, such as pharmacy benefit manager or telework. Covered topics include overviews, summaries, and links to key statutes and legislation.
Compiled Surveys and Chart Generators
The National Conference of State Legislatures and most commercial research services offer compiled 50-state surveys and comparative state law chart generators.
While a compiled 50-state survey provides a solid starting point, it is imperative to check currency dates and follow up by conducting original research in primary source materials.
Thomson Reuters Tools: Westlaw and Practical Law
Westlaw offers comprehensive survey databases for both statutes and regulations, including a chart on force majeure and impossibility clauses in contracts, covering both legislative and regulatory enactments, a topic of heightened popularity amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Practical Law service is designed to help users navigate unfamiliar areas of law. Covered state law comparative topics range from remote online notarization to eviction moratoriums to state omnibus privacy legislation, and come in a tracker format that features automated email updates. A State Q&A Comparison Tool allows users to review and compare state law across multiple practice areas by selecting a topic, questions, and jurisdictions.
RELX Tools: Lexis and Lexis+
The LexisNexis tool 50-State Surveys: Statutes & Regulations offers a compare-at-a-glance chart, which highlights and summarizes distinctions in each state, offering fast, easy analysis.
Lexis+ offers a State Law Comparison Tool allowing users to select the practice area, topic, jurisdiction, and questions specific to the topic, which then generates a comparison report.
For example, one could use this tool to determine which states have adopted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. The resulting report identifies the states, provides direct links to the statutes, and offers discussion on how the state laws differ from the uniform law.
Wolters Kluwer Smart Charts
The Wolters Kluwer Cheetah research platform offers Smart Charts designed to quickly compile and compare state laws on various topics, including links to pertinent state statutes and regulations. Equal pay, time off to vote, anti-harassment laws, franchise laws, and consumer credit are some of the many covered topics. Simply select your broad category and subtopics, identify the desired jurisdictions, andvoilà: you have a custom chart.
Of particular interest is the complimentary Wolters Kluwer COVID-19 State and Federal Compare Smart Chart, designed to help "flatten the research curve," and available at no charge.
This tool covers state and federal response to areas most-impacted by the pandemic, including banking and finance, education, health, labor and employment, securities, tax, and more. Many commercial publishers are offering similar open-access COVID-19-compliance research tools that feature multijurisdictional analysis of key topics.
Bloomberg Law Chart Builders
Bloomberg Law features Chart Builders on banking and consumer finance, securities and corporate law, health care, labor and employment, privacy and data security, and tax.
For example, if you are researching state treatment of the corporate practice of medicine, simply browse to health law, hospital and provider regulation, select the states and topics, and an exportable chart is generated featuring links to primary source material.
National Survey of State Laws
The National Survey of State Laws is a key resource for comparative state law research. Covered laws encompass eight general areas: business and consumer laws, criminal laws, education law, employment laws, family laws, general civil laws, real estate laws, and tax laws.
The eighth edition is current through the July 2020 update, and features new subjects such as beer law and voter law, as well as numerous topics including deceptive trade practices, identity theft, and the ever-changing area of marijuana laws. Each entry includes an overview of the area of law and a state-by-state chart featuring a summary, statutory citation references, and breakdowns of various subsections within the area of law.
The resource is available in print at multiple Wisconsin law libraries, as well as electronically through the HeinOnline research platform. Wisconsin State Law Library users can access this resource via HeinOnline using their law library card number, with some licensing restrictions.
Once you are fully up to speed on the topic at hand, conduct original research in primary law sources including statutes and regulations.
Available sources include commercial databases such as Fastcase (free with your State Bar membership), Westlaw, Lexis, Bloomberg Law, Cheetah, as well as state government websites featuring statutes and regulations.
The knowledge you gleaned from secondary sources and precompiled surveys will help you formulate well-informed queries in primary law databases.
Keeping Up to date
For many areas of law, particularly those that are rapidly evolving – such as pandemic response laws covering eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, liability shields, and telehealth – conclude a 50-state survey by creating automated alerts to monitor future changes to existing or proposed laws.
Commercial database services, as well as many state government legislative and regulatory websites, offer automated push technology alerts to help you keep your finger on the pulse of developing and evolving areas of law.
Legal research is often cyclical in nature, and depending on the specific purpose of a state survey, ongoing updating may be a critical component, and is an often overlooked step in the research process.
Best Practice: Use a Four-pronged Approach
Master state survey research by following this four-pronged approach:
- start in secondary sources;
- move on to precompiled surveys;
- conduct original research in primary source materials; and
- update research through automated alerts to monitor future developments.
Be sure to turn to library and information professionals for timesaving guidance on this and other research topics.
National Library Week is April 4-10, 2021. An annual event, this week is a time to celebrate our nation's libraries and promote library use and support. Law librarians are available to help guide you to authoritative, reliable, and vetted information sources and strategies. During the pandemic, librarians continue to serve their communities and constituents to meet information needs during these unprecedented times. Libraries are an integral part of an informed democracy, and offer resources in support of lifelong learning.