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Getting started

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment

In our catalog of free resources, it seems as if there’s a lot of information that’s fairly readily available once you know what you’re looking for, but it gets harder if you don’t, in those situations where you’ve been thrown into the deep end and need to learn the law in a new area quickly. One resource that might get overlooked is that of all the government agencies. Agency websites can often be great places to look for background information and more in the particular field that the agency is in charge of. And, conveniently, Louisiana State University has compiled an alphabet-soup-like Federal Agency Directory that lists all the federal agencies, from the big, well-known Executive Agencies (like the Department of Labor) to agencies most people may never have heard of (like the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee).

Often, the agency websites will have the actual text of the laws they enforce available and it tends to be much easier to find than looking through the U.S. Code, if you don’t happen to know the citation to the law itself. For example, the DoL has the full text of the Fair Labor Standards Act available as a pdf document on its website. The agencies will also have the regulations and proposed regulations that they have made for each law they enforce, and again, it’s usually much easier to read on the agency website where it’s all in one place, than it is to hunt through the Code of Federal Regulations or the Federal Register for the regulations you’re interested in. Admittedly, some agency websites (like the DoL) will only send you to the relevant part of the CFR on GPOAccess.gov but some of the agencies will have the full text of the regulations on their own website, simplifying things. The agency websites will also have the text of any proposed rules they’ve promulgated recently so you can find out about any new issues and changes in the law. For example, the Department of Education posted a Final Rule on federal foreign aid programs in foreign schools in November of last year– and the rule, as you see, is linked on the website.

Aside from the primary sources of law, however, the agency websites are also very useful because of the more general background information they often provide. They provide everything from brief descriptions of the laws they enforce and any current issues the agency might be keeping an eye on to the more official Guidance documents agencies publish. These guidance documents provide information to the public on what their rights are and how to comply with the laws and can be a great starting point to learn about an area of law. As an example, a company worrying about how to comply with the employment discrimination statutes can easily go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website and find the actual text of the statutes the EEOC, as well as their accompanying regulations, and can also find the various Guidance Documents the EEOC has published. The Guidance Documents usually provide a thorough introduction to all the common issues that arise under that statute and information on how to comply with the law. The Guidance documents can be particularly helpful because they provide a summary, of sorts, of what the law (both statutory and administrative) says and also reflect any major case law in the area, at least up until the date the documents were issued. Also helpful is the fact that the Guidance documents are written and cited as legal documents so any mention of a case is accompanied by its full citation, making it much easier to find the actual text of the case on either Westlaw or Lexis (or a free site) if you need to.

After going through an agency’s website, you are likely to know a lot more about the specific area of law and then, if you need to, can research a lot more effectively using either one of the subscription sites or one of the free sites.

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