Legal Research | Section 3.5

Fundamentals of Legal Research by Adam J. McKee

This content is released as a draft version for comment by the scholarly community.  Please do not distribute.  

Other Legal Publications

Until this point, the focus of this book has been finding and analyzing primary sources of law.  These skills are essential in legal research because primary sources are the only official statements of the law and are the only sources that can be cited authoritatively in court materials.  To assist the legal researcher in understanding the law, many publishers have published works known broadly as secondary sources.    These are not statements of the law, but rather material that is explanatory and analytical.  Most of these types of resources, however, point the researcher to the relevant primary sources of law.  These resources can speed up the process of conducting legal research greatly because they can help identify important legal issues.  They can often identify important definitions that have been articulated in case law.

Legal Encyclopedias

When one thinks of an “encyclopedia” in general, a multivolume set of books that covers a great many subjects in a cursory way comes to mind.  While legal encyclopedias are multivolume sets, they tend to cover areas of law to a much greater depth than their general counterparts do.  Each broad topic will be divided into many subtopics.  In addition to discussion and analysis, legal encyclopedias point the researcher to primary sources of law.  Two major encyclopedias cover America law.  American Jurisprudence 2d (cited as Am. Jur. 2d), and Corpus Juris Secundum (C.J.S.).  Other encyclopedias cover specific areas of law, as well as specific jurisdictions.

The first step in using a legal encyclopedia is to identify the broad topic suggested by your research problem.  Legal Encyclopedias contain descriptive word indexes to help accomplish this task.  Modern electronic database services like LexisNexis offer the ability to search these legal encyclopedias easily.  On LexisNexis Academic, “search by content type” and select “Legal Reference” to search American Jurisprudence 2d and several other law dictionaries simultaneously.

American Law Reports

American Law Reports (A.L.R.) and American Law Reports Federal (A.L.R. Fed.)both cover cases and analytical materials.  American Law Reports covers legal materials from the various states, while the American Law Reports Federal covers material originating in federal law.  West publishes both sets.  American Law Reports covers primary legal materials from all fifty States, so the researcher must keep in mind the difference between primary and secondary (persuasive) authority.  Even though these articles are published by West, they are also available on LexisNexis.  American Law Reports was first published in 1919 and is presently in its sixth edition.  The various series are cited as A.L.R., A.L.R. 2d, A.L.R. 3d, A.L.R. 4th, A.L.R. 5th, and A.L.R. 6th.  The federal series is in its second series and is cited as A.L.R. Fed. and A.L.R. Fed. 2d.

Legal Dictionaries

Legal dictionaries are an extremely valuable tool.  Remember that the very foundation of law is the written word, and many words tend to be steeped with special meaning in law.  For this reason, it is advisable to consult a quality legal dictionary.  Perhaps the most well-regarded legal dictionary is Black’s Law Dictionary, which is now in the Tenth Edition.  More than 50,000 legal terms are defined in higher degree of detail than can be found on most online resources.  Black’s Law also includes a comprehensive list of legal abbreviations and acronyms that are in indispensable research tool.  The full hardback edition is not “student friendly.”  The tome contains over 2,000 pages and is about three-inches thick.  However, several different paperback dictionaries can be handily carried in a briefcase.

LexisNexis Academic contains Ballentine’s Law Dictionary (as well as Bieber’s Dictionary of Legal Abbreviations and the Modern Dictionary for the Legal Profession).    Ballentine’s is a classic text with several free internet editions available.


When most lawyers refer to a treatise, they are talking about a book or a series of books dealing with a specific legal topic.


Periodicals refer to materials that are published in a regular basis, like a magazine or newspaper.  Professional associations publish many of these.  The most important type of periodical is the law review.  Law Reviews are generally published by law schools.  Law reviews usually contain scholarly articles by noted authorities on current legal issues.  Because of the (usual) rigorous requirements set forth by the law schools, law review articles are generally of high quality and make excellent research resources.  Most articles will contain ample references to primary authorities.  The major disadvantage of law review articles is that they are not supplemented or updated.  This means that the legal researcher will have to verify the current status of legal materials found in these sources.
There are several indexes to legal periodicals.  These have largely been replaced by digital search services that allow legal researchers to search the entire collection to which their institution has access.

Looseleaf Services

These are legal materials on a particular legal topic that are published in such a way that they can be placed into binders and updated frequently.  They are regularly updated with replacement pages.  Subscribers keep their material up to date by removing the old material and adding new material on a frequent basis.  In the past, the biggest reason legal professionals subscribed to these services were currency.  That is, updates appeared quickly.  In the information age, this aspect of such services has lost much of its appeal.  Perhaps the biggest reason that these services remain today is the convenience of many different resources being collected into one place.


A digest is an index to cases, arranged by topic, which contains a brief summary of the cases.  Unlike most of the previously discussed secondary sources, digests do not contain any discussion explanation of the cases.  Digests contain hundreds of topics, arranged in alphabetical order.  While these tools still exist as printed books, perhaps the most useful aspect of digests to the modern legal researcher is the insight they give into the logic of conducting electronic searches on services like LexisNexis.

As described earlier, cases prepared by commercial services have briefs statements about the legal doctrines established in court cases; these are known as headnotes.  Headnotes are assigned a topic name and number.  Since these headnotes are designated topically, several different cases in the same reporter system will have the same headnote designations.  It is also common for the same case to have several different headnote numbers listed because the courts often deal with several legal issues in one case.  Digests take these various headnotes and match up all of the cases that have the same headnotes, and organize those cases by the name of the topic.  Note that these naming and numbering systems will not match up across publishers; West has its own system, and Lawyers’ Edition has its own.  Note that each publisher, not the courts, selected the topic names.  For this reason, topic names may not match up well across legal publications.

West, a major publisher of case law, is a prolific publisher of digests as well.  A unique feature of West’s Digests is the use of the publisher’s proprietary topic and key number system.  The system uses over 400 major topic headings, with subtopics that are assigned what the publisher calls a key number.  West estimates that there are over 100,000 specific key numbers in the system.  This means that each key number is assigned to a highly specific area of law.  West’s Key Number System is (according to West) “the most comprehensive and widely used indexing system for case law issues.”

The major benefits to digests cannot be realized until a single case pertaining to the legal issue being researched has been identified.  Once this one case has been obtained, so have the digest numbers for the topics.  Legal encyclopedias and dictionaries are good sources for finding this first case; digests can be used with a descriptive word index, but the process is cumbersome to many.  It is critical to remember that the digest you use has to match the case reporters that you plan to use.  This means that if you are using a West digest, you must also use court reporters published by West.  This is not a problem when using databases, because these tend to be proprietary, and the publishers will most always match (because the publisher owns the entire database).

Modification History

File Created:  08/08/2018

Last Modified:  06/13/2019

[ Back | Content | Next]

This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.