Fundamentals of Legal Research
Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.
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The Law Library
Since the early days of the Age of Reason, books and libraries have been the hallmarks of the legal profession. The reality of conducting legal research has changed dramatically from this long-established model since the dawn of the Information Age. While paper publications are still important, there has been a growing reliance on electronic resources over the past several decades. Two early pioneers have dominated the field of electronic retrieval of legal materials: Lexis and Westlaw. One product offered by Lexis, LexisNexis Academic is the legal research tool most commonly used by universities that do not have law schools (law schools tend to subscribe to the more extensive Law School version).
A major advantage of modern electronic searches of legal materials is that it does not suffer from the constraints of using indexes and digests. It was once argued that the professional editorial content found in bound volumes kept them from becoming obsolete, but this content has made its way into the electronic databases. Perhaps the only thing keeping the bound volumes in print is a sense of tradition; they seem to have become obsolete in a practical sense.
The Traditional Library
Among lawyers, it is traditional for each firm to maintain a “law library.” These collections can range from a few important reference texts to an extensive array of legal materials. The trend among most attorneys is to reduce the expensive collection of printed materials and rely more and more heavily on digital resources. It is still beneficial to be familiar with what types of traditional paper publications are available. One reason for this is that they are still in use; you may have access to better materials in paper form that you cannot access online. Another reason is that paper publications tended to be more specific. That is, they served a single research purpose and performed that particular job extremely well. Understanding some of these resources, then, can aid immeasurably in learning to conduct legal research and formulating a research strategy.
The following is a brief overview of the types of materials that are commonly found in a traditional law library:
Case Reporters. These are large sets of books that hold the written decisions of judges from both state and federal courts.
Code Books. These are large sets of books that hold statutory legal materials organized by subject.
Encyclopedias. These are sets of books that explain the law in general.
Digests. These are large sets of books that act as subject indexes for court cases.
Legal Periodicals. These serve as an index for newspapers, magazines, and journals published for the legal profession. Included are law review articles, usually published by law schools.
Treatises. A book published on a specific legal topic.
Looseleaf services. These are frequently updated descriptions of subject areas of law. The pages are kept in ring binders, and old ones are discarded when the material is updated.
Many good libraries have a legal section that will contain many of these materials. They will not, however, be as comprehensive as a law library. Many university libraries are part of the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP), which is a government program created to make U.S. federal government publications available to the public at no cost. As of June 2008, there were 1,252 depository libraries in the United States and its territories. Because the official versions of United States Reports and the United States Code are government documents, they can be found in these libraries. Of course, most of these documents are also available for free online.
Characteristics of Legal Publications
The process of legal research is similar to non-legal research in several ways. Most legal materials, for example, have an extensive table of contents and index. (Case reporters are an important exception to this general rule). As you would expect, the table of contents is an outline of the material contained in that particular book, and the index is a subject list with corresponding page numbers. Legal materials often contain several tables that are useful to the researcher, such as a table of abbreviations, a table of cases, and a table of statutes.
A major difference between law books and other types of books is the presence of pocket parts in many law books. Pocket parts are supplemental updates that inform the reader of recent changes in the law. Law books that have pocket parts will have a special “pocket” built into the inside of the cover to contain these supplements. This means that researchers utilizing print resources will need to check the back of the book for pocket parts and examine those supplements for any changes in the law concerning the topic being researched.
Online Research Caveats
Be aware that anyone can publish anything on the internet. This means that some legal resources online will be of high quality, and some will be of questionable quality. Before you rely on online legal materials, you must as two questions. The first question is about accuracy. The second is about timeliness. Keep in mind that an accurate statement of the law must be current. Even reputable sources can become substantially incorrect when the law discussed becomes obsolete over time. Even when a reputable source (such as a law school website) is used, follow the old Russian proverb: Trust, but verify.
Modification History File Created: 08/08/2018 Last Modified: 06/13/2019
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