Starting Points to Begin Your Legal Research
- Legal Self-Help Books
- Legal Encyclopedias
- Monographs and Law Journals
- American Law Reports (A.L.R.)
If you are researching a legal topic or issue, it is sometimes difficult to know where to begin your research. To a large extent, much depends on what you are researching and what information you have been given. For example, if you already have a citation to a primary law source (e.g., a case, statute, or regulation), you may want to begin with that source and see where it leads you. (For help in interpreting your citation, consult the USC Law Library's Guide to Legal Abbreviations and Citations. As a general rule however, it is best to begin your research with a secondary source. Secondary sources are texts that provide background information, terms of art, explanations of the law, and citations to relevant primary authorities.
There are a variety of types of secondary sources, and the best source to start with will often depend on how much knowledge you have about the law in general as well as the area of law you are researching. This guide describes five different types of secondary sources. They are listed by level of complexity, starting with the more basic sources that do not require any pre-existing knowledge about the law and ending with some of the more in-depth and analytical sources.
In this guide, you will find along with descriptions of the different types of secondary sources information on how to find them. One major tool for finding secondary sources is the library catalog. While this guide discusses how to effectively use the USC Law Library's catalog, ADVOCAT, to locate secondary sources, you may also find it helpful to consult the library's guide Finding Library Materials through Online Catalogs for more general guidance on how to use ADVOCAT.
When you use secondary sources, check to see if they have pocket parts (i.e., paperback pamphlets placed in the back pocket of each volume) or separate paperback supplements to keep the sets up-to-date. After reading information in a bound volume, it is always a good idea to check the pocket part or supplement for your volume to make sure you have the most current information related to your topic.
Finally, while secondary sources are very useful tools, particularly at the beginning of the research process, it is important to consider the following:
- Secondary sources are not "the law." Therefore, it is important to always consult primary law sources at some point during the research process.
- If you are researching a very narrow issue or in an unusual practice area, you may have some difficulty finding secondary sources that address your issue and may need to use other types of resources.
- If you are looking for something very specific or a unique type of authority, you may find it helpful to begin with a more specialized research tool rather than a secondary source. In these situations, you may wish to consult one or more specialized research guides (discussed further below) or consult with a research librarian.
2. Legal Self-Help Books
If you do not have any legal background but need to research the law concerning a particular matter, a legal self-help book may be a good place to begin your research. These books are designed to cover common types of legal matters and provide the basic legal framework for the topics covered. Sometimes, specific primary law sources are referenced in these sources and sample forms are provided.
Nolo Press is a major publisher of legal self-help books in California. Nolo publishes books on a variety of topics, including consumer issues, estates and wills, family law, labor and employment, landlord and tenant law, mediation, and real estate. Many of the books emphasize California law, though federal law topics like bankruptcy, copyright, and immigration law are addressed as well. Because of their emphasis on California law, the usefulness of many of these books will depend largely on which state's laws govern your situation.
USC Law Library's collection of self-help books is called the Louis M. Brown Client Library, named in honor of former USC law professor, Louis M. Brown, who believed in the importance of educating clients and the public at large about the law. This collection is kept behind the library's Service/Circulation Counter, along with a print guide that lists by topic the books contained in this collection. You can also search the library's online catalog, ADVOCAT, to find one of these self-help books. If you use the catalog, you may want to limit your keyword search to Nolo Press books by entering "nolo" in the "Publisher" box.
3. Legal Encyclopedias
Legal encyclopedias summarize the law for one or more jurisdictions. Like regular encyclopedias, legal encyclopedias try to cover all or most topics to at least some degree and provide useful background information. They also contain many references to both relevant statutes and cases. As a result of their broad coverage however, they are not able to go into a great deal of depth with regard to each topic, which is why you will probably want to consult other types of secondary sources as well.
Legal encyclopedias are organized alphabetically by topic. Each one however also typically contains an index at the end of the set, to help you pinpoint which topical chapter(s) to consult. And since most topical chapters are broken down into numerous sections, the index will also refer you to one or more specific sections within each relevant topical chapter. Each section is numbered and identified by the section symbol (§) followed by the section number (e.g., a reference to Schools, § 35 refers to section 35 of the Schools chapter).
There are two national legal encyclopedias that cover federal law as well as the laws of all 50 state jurisdictions in the United States:
- American Jurisprudence 2d (Am. Jur. 2d)
- Corpus Juris Secundum (C.J.S.)
There is also a California-oriented legal encyclopedia, California Jurisprudence 3d (Cal. Jur. 3d).
All three of these legal encyclopedias are updated with annual pocket parts.
Treatises, like encyclopedias, explain and summarize the law and provide references to primary law sources. Unlike encyclopedias however, they tend to provide less background and general information and instead go into greater depth and have a more analytical and scholarly bent. Each treatise covers one major area of law (e.g., contract law, constitutional law, etc.) and is divided into numbered chapters and sections. Each section number typically includes the number of the chapter where that section is located (e.g., § 11.36 would most likely be found in chapter 11).
At the beginning of each chapter, there will typically be a table of contents outlining the specific sections contained in that chapter. Each treatise will also include a master index at the end of the set, which is especially useful if you are not sure which chapter to start with.
Many treatises are multivolume sets, either consisting of a series of bound volumes or a series of looseleaf binders. If the volumes are bound, the set is typically kept up-to-date with pocket parts or supplements. If binders are used however, the set is kept current by periodically replacing pages that are no longer up-to-date.
Like encyclopedias, some treatises cover one jurisdiction while others are multi-jurisdictional. In California, many attorneys use the Witkin treatises. These contain very good introductions to California law on many topics and discuss relevant statutes and cases. The main Witkin set, Summary of California Law, covers broad substantive law topics, including contract, property, and family law. Three additional Witkin sets cover California civil procedure, California evidence, and California criminal law and procedure.
There are a variety of tools that you can use to find treatises on your topic:
Using the Online Catalog (ADVOCAT)
The USC Law Library catalog, ADVOCAT, can be used to identify treatises on your topic. Because treatises cover broad areas of law, use more general terms when searching the catalog (e.g., "real property," "landlord," or "tenant" as opposed to "unhabitability" or "repair and deduct").
Because the word "treatise" does not usually appear in the name of a treatise, it is sometimes difficult to determine if a particular item is actually a treatise, particularly from the catalog. Most of the library's up-to-date treatises however are kept in the library's Open Reserve section, which begins in the Hugh and Hazel Darling Reading Room at the front of the library. So if ADVOCAT indicates that a particular item is located in this section, this is another indication that the item is in fact a treatise.
If you find some titles from the catalog that look promising, note the locations and call numbers for these items. If you find a treatise in the Open Reserve section, you may also find it useful to browse the surrounding books on the shelf to see if you can find any others that might be helpful. Even if you did not identify any books in Open Reserve, you may still want to go to this section and browse around any of the promising call numbers you noted from the catalog.
Subject Guide to Secondary Legal Sources
The Law Library's Subject Guide to Secondary Legal Sources in the USC Law Library provides a listing of up-to-date treatises in the USC Law Library collection. Titles appear under alphabetically arranged subject headings. The guide also includes a "Contents and Cross-References" section that you can browse to find the most appropriate subject heading(s) for your topic. Each item's entry in the guide includes the library location designation and call number for that item.
Some of the items listed as treatises in the Subject Guide are more scholarly and some are more practice oriented. Depending on your research need, you may find some more useful than others and therefore, may wish to consult a number of the sources listed under each relevant subject heading until you find one that seems appropriate for your needs.
In addition to the web version of the Subject Guide, there is also a hard copy version that is kept both at the library's Service/Circulation Counter as well as in the Reference Office.
IndexMaster is a searchable database of digitized images of tables of contents and indexes from hundreds of scholarly and practice-oriented legal treatises. This database can be accessed on any computer on the USC campus. When you enter the site, you can click on the "Search IndexMaster" tab near the top of the screen to pull up the main search page. IndexMaster provides various search options, including an "Advanced Search" and a "Menu Assisted" option. All of the search options can be accessed from the main search page.
After you run a search on IndexMaster, you will be able to link to the tables of contents and/or indexes that you retrieved from your search. Remember that this database does not include the full text of any treatises, only the indexes and/or tables of contents from the treatises. In order to access the text of any of the treatises included in this database, you will need to check one or more library catalogs to see if any local libraries have them in their collections (since IndexMaster is not tied to any particular library).
Other Research Guides
Research guides can also be used to identify potentially useful treatises and other sources related to various areas of law. In addition to consulting the USC Law Library's Research Guide Series, you may also wish to take a look at guides published by other law school libraries, including the Harvard Law School Library, the New York University School of Law Library, and the University of Minnesota Law School Library.
Another guide on the Web that includes references to treatises for different practice areas is Zimmerman's Research Guide. This guide, organized in an encyclopedic format, also provides general reference and research guidance on a variety of topics of interest to legal researchers.
There is also a print guide to various practice areas, entitled Specialized Legal Research. This book, located in the library's Ready Reference section behind the Service/Circulation Counter, provides references to important resources (including treatises) for a variety of practice areas, including securities law, copyright, patent, and trademark law, federal labor and employment, environmental law, immigration, and banking.
5. Monographs and Law Journals
Books other than treatises (sometimes referred to as monographs) and law journal articles (contained in law reviews and journals) can also be used to both better understand the law as well as find references to primary law authority. Though there are exceptions, the monographs and journal articles available at the USC Law Library tend to focus more on specific topics or themes and provide an even more scholarly and analytical perspective than do treatises. They are also not kept current in the same way that treatises are. However, if you are interested in researching policy arguments or scholarly perspectives on the law, these sources may be particularly useful.
To find monographs on a topic, use the online catalog, ADVOCAT, just as you would use it to find a treatise. Since the monographs generally have a narrower focus than do the treatises, you can be a little more specific in your keyword searches when searching for monographs.
Law journal articles can be identified and retrieved through various periodical databases accessible on the USC campus. For information on these databases, consult the USC Law Library guide How to Find Law Journal Articles. The library also maintains a large collection of legal journals in print.
6. American Law Reports (A.L.R.)
American Law Reports (A.L.R.) is a specialized legal source that contains both select full text court opinions from appellate courts as well as annotated articles (referred to as annotations) that summarize the law on fairly narrow topics as well as cite to published cases from throughout the United States on those topics. A.L.R. is thus a good source for locating a substantial amount of case law. Because the topics of the annotations are quite focused however, they do not lend themselves as well as encyclopedias and treatises to general introductory research. Also, there may not be an A.L.R. annotation that addresses the issue you happen to be researching.
A.L.R. has been published in different series over the years. The 1st through 6th series are devoted to state law issues, and the A.L.R. Fed. series covers federal law issues. A citation to an A.L.R. annotation includes the series designation as well as the volume number and initial page number to enable you to find the annotation (e.g., 25 A.L.R.2d 788 is a citation to an annotation that begins on page 788 of volume 25 of the second series of A.L.R.).
At the end of the entire A.L.R. set is an A.L.R. Index that you can use to look up your topic and see if a relevant annotation exists. The index will provide you with the citation to the annotation so you can look it up in the set.
Each annotation is fairly organized and divided into individual sections. To pinpoint specific sections that might be most useful, you can consult the annotation's table of contents and/or index, both of which are located near the beginning of the annotation.