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Foreign and International Law Research Basics: Home

A basic introduction for those interested in researching international law or the national law of non-US jurisdictions.

Getting Started with Foreign and International Research

It's a big world out there!

Research in foreign and international law is endlessly varied, and can be both complicated and frustrating. We strongly recommend beginning with a thorough analysis and research plan, which should generally involve the following steps:

1. Understanding the jurisdiction or subject area -- If you don't already know the jurisdiction or topic well, you should start with an overview of the legal system, a basic treatise on the subject, or a reference work to get a basic understanding of the institutions, terms and concepts.  This is also a good time to consult research guides and manuals for assistance on the research process. 

2. Evaluating what information will meet your needs -- The reality of non-US legal research is that the all-access, fully-edited, Google-like Westlaw/Lexis/Bloomberg universe of US law does not exist for much of the world.  Particularly if you're researching beyond the areas of public international law or prosperous common-law jurisdictions like the United Kingdom or Canada, only rarely will you be able to use full-access databases to find the current law, in English translation, with helpful annotations.  An important part of the research process is having realistic expectations and being honest about whether a recent summary from a solid journal article, treatise or other secondary source such as the International Encyclopaedia of Laws will be "good enough" for your purposes.

3. Consulting secondary sources first -- Everything that's true about starting with secondary sources for US legal research is triply true for foreign and international research. Secondary sources will not only give you the necessary context for understanding the topic; they should also give you citations to key statutes, cases, and other primary material.  It's much easier to locate the law if you already have the full name of the legislation and its cite in the official gazette, or the case name and volume/page number of the reporter where it was published.

4. Identifying the sources for the primary material -- Non-US primary material can be pretty much anywhere, from Westlaw/Lexis for some countries to stand-alone databases for others to open-access websites like the United Nations or Legal Information Institute(LII) sites.  A lot of time and frustration can be saved by first figuring out where to go and how to navigate once you get there.  There are many resources to help with this step, from research guides to research manuals to the Foreign Law Guide database discussed below, to "phoning a friend", which brings us to...

5. Getting help as needed -- Generally, you will need more help than you would for American legal research, and you will probably need that help at more than one point in your research process.  For example, after you've completed a good search of the secondary sources and come out with citations to primary law, you may need training on a specialized database or guidance on how to use the materials in print. This is normal!  Reach out to a librarian at Penn or your closest law library, or the even more experienced practitioners at the Law Library of Congress or the United Nations library, at any point you feel stuck or need more help using the resources.   

Research Guides

The global network of law librarians and legal research experts has produced some fantastic roadmaps for research on foreign and international law, both generally and narrowly on specialized topics.  Skimming through a research guide will help you feel more comfortable with the jurisdiction or topic, and save time on finding the right tool for the question.   

Additional Sources for Guides

Libraries with big foreign law collections also tend to be good at producing research guides, e.g. GeorgetownHarvardColumbia and Yale in general, and University of Washington for Japan, Korea and China.  Biddle currently has guides on human rights, treaties, and rule of law.

Research Manuals

There are more extensive manuals on FCIL legal research that provide even more detail on the process and sources. If you have more time or a more complex problem, consult one of these.

Deciphering Citations

For assistance deciphering a citation to a foreign source, try one of these helpful tools: