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FAQs

This guide collects frequently asked research questions. If you have a general question and aren't sure where to turn, try this guide.

Research FAQs

This page provides answers to legal research questions that we see on a regular basis. Feel free to skim, use the table of contents to jump to a heading, or ctrl / cmd + f. 

Table of Contents

When & How to Get Help

Types of Resources (Treatises, etc)

Weight of Authority

Databases

Legislative History

Class Prep

Research Tips & Strategies 

Other Items 

 

When & How to Get Help

Q: When should I ask a reference librarian for help?  
A: Anytime you have a research question. We are here to help and enjoy doing so. Currently, the best way to start is by emailing us at lawref@gmu.edu.

Q: What's the 15 minute rule?  
A: This is a rule popular in some firms but also applicable to the academic setting. The rule suggests that if your research hasn't turned up anything responsive after 3 searches or 15 minutes of effort, stop and ask for help. Not finding anything at this point is a good indication that you may be looking in the wrong place or may need to rethink your keywords. 

Q: Can I ask for research help on an LRWA project? 
A: Yes, it is not against the Honor Code or LRWA rules to ask a librarian to help you with research strategies for an LRWA assignment.

Q: Can I ask for help with assignments from internships, externships, or jobs? 
A: Yes, the librarians are happy to assist with any legal research needs that arise during internships, externships, or jobs. While the librarians can help guide you to legal tools, resources, and/or materials, we cannot provide legal advice. 

Q: I am working on a spading assignment. Should I contact the Reference Office if I am having difficulty tracking down particular sources?
A: By all means, please do contact the Reference team as soon as you realize that you may not be able to find a source cited for your spading project. The reference librarians can help you find access to all types of sources, even those that are very obscure. Locating some cited documents might require the assistance of interlibrary loan from another library, which can sometimes take days or weeks to complete, so do not wait until the last minute.

Q: Are there any options for research assistance outside the Reference Office's hours? 
A: Email us (lawref@gmu.edu) and we will do our best to work with you on scheduling an appointment that fits your schedule. Additionally, Westlaw and Lexis offer 24/7 support for questions related to their resources. 

Westlaw: 1-800-REF-ATTY (1-800-733-2889) or login to Westlaw and scroll to the bottom for "live chat."

Lexis: 1-800-45-LEXIS (53947) or scroll to the bottom of Lexis+ and click the chat link.    

Types of Resources (Treatises, etc)

Q: What is a secondary source? 
A: A secondary source discusses the law. Typical secondary sources are: law review articles, treatises, legal encyclopedias, study aids, books, and blog posts. 

Q: What’s a treatise?  
A: A treatise is a learned book about the law. Usually written by a well-known professor, judge, or practitioner, a treatise aims to comprehensively describe one area of the law. An example is “Nimmer on Copyright.” 

Q: How do I find the best treatise for an area of law? 
A: Check out our treatise finder, which lists what we believe are the top one or two treatises in each subject. For more than the top treatises, you can Google “treatise finder” for options on other schools’ websites.  

Weight of Authority

Q: What is the difference between "primary" and "secondary" sources?

A: Primary sources are the law and can be either mandatory or persuasive (see next question). They include constitutions, statutes, cases, and agency decisions and regulations. Secondary sources help with understanding the law and are always persuasive. They include things like study aids, treatises, and law review articles.  

Q: What are mandatory (or binding) and persuasive authority?  
A:  Mandatory authority is the law that must be followed by the court you are in. It comes from within the same jurisdiction and from a higher court, and it also includes the constitution, statutes, and regulations of the jurisdiction. We created a visual guide to help explain mandatory and persuasive authority.

Q: When can I cite persuasive authority? 
A: It is best to synthesize a legal rule from binding authority. However, if there is no binding authority on point, or you have already used binding authority to state the rule, you can cite persuasive authority when it: (a) shows how the rule could be modified to provide a better outcome; (b) describes a rule that is undergoing rapid change in a new or emerging area of law; (c) is more factually similar to your case than any of the binding authority. Do not purposely mislead your audience that persuasive authority is binding. 

Q: I’m having a hard time finding the lower federal courts in my jurisdiction. Is there a map or visual I can use?  
A: This map includes both the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals and the U.S. District Courts within each circuit. 

Databases

Q: Which is better: Westlaw or Lexis? 
A: This depends on your needs and preferences. For example, Lexis offers Michie's Jurisprudence of Virginia & West Virginia, which is a well-regarded treatise on Virginia law. On the other hand, Westlaw has Rotunda & Nowak, Constitutional Law Treatise, arguable the top treatise on constitutional law. We’ve created a chart to help you quickly decide which database to use. In law school, it’s good to use both databases (and the others that the library provides). By doing this, you’ll have access to more information and you’ll gain familiarity with multiple databases. Familiarity is important because when you practice, your employer may only subscribe to one database.  

Q: Where do I find databases besides Westlaw and Lexis? 
A: The Law Library subscribes to a wide range of helpful databases. Our law-related databases page, offers a searchable list, with quick descriptions. 

Q: What would I use other databases for? 
A: HeinOnline is great for law review articles, especially when you’re spading. ProQuest has great databases for legislative histories and other legislative documents. The two main ones are ProQuest Legislative Insight and ProQuest Congressional. Both are linked to and described on the P section of our law-related databases page. We’ve also created a helpful chart that gives you the best resources depending on what you’re looking for. 

Legislative History

Q: What is a legislative history? 
A: A legislative history encompasses all the documents and related materials that were produced by Congress in the course of passing, or attempting to pass, laws. Some judges will consider legislative history to explain Congress’ intent when the text of a bill itself is not completely clear. Some documents you might find include different drafts of the bill you're researching, committee reports, congressional debates, committee hearings, and more.  

Q: Where can I find legislative histories? 
A: Compiling a legislative history on your own is time consuming and challenging. Fortunately, there are resources that already have compiled histories for many pieces of legislation. ProQuest Legislative Insight is the most comprehensive, but HeinOnline, Westlaw, and Lexis also have legislative history resources. For further information, please visit the Federal Legislative History research guide

Q: I only vaguely remember how a bill becomes a law. Is there a refresher? 
A: John Scherrer created a great video that goes over the keys. The video was originally done for LRWA IV - don't worry, you won't need to take a quiz.  

Class Prep

Q: How can I be better prepared for class?  
A: Deciphering the law from case snippets, as many casebooks require, is challenging. As with legal research, starting with a secondary source can be a game changer. Try reading the relevant portion of a study aid before diving into your casebook reading. With some background, it should be easier to understand the cases you're assigned and you may be able to get through them faster. The library provides free access to two excellent study aid databases. The databases are a big money saver over purchasing the aids yourself. Our Study Aids guide provides instructions on how to access these databases.

Research Tips & Strategies 

Q: Where can I get a big picture overview of the legal research process to make sure I'm on the right track?

A: We created a PDF that offers an overview of the legal research process. Use it to check your own process or as a quick refresher of what we went over in LRWA research sessions. 

Q: What does it mean to “Shepardize”?  
A: Shepardize means to use a tool available on Lexis to check that a case or other authority is “still good law.” The Shepard’s report will list every case or other document in the Lexis database that has cited yours and will indicate whether the citing source treated your authority positively or negatively. Shepard's was the first tool like this, but Westlaw has a comparable tool called KeyCite, and other databases also have this type of tool. Similar to how we use Kleenex to refer to all brands of tissues, attorneys sometimes say Shepardize when referring to the tools in other databases. 

Q: What’s the one good case method? 
A: The “one good case method” describes a useful research techniques that builds from one highly relevant case you’ve found. Here are the main steps in the process. (1) KeyCite or Shepardize the good case to see what other cases and authorities have cited to it. Using filters on the results, you might be able to find additional helpful cases. (2) Use the headnotes at the top of the good case to dive into the subject classification scheme of the database you are using (Topic/KeyNumbers on Westlaw; Headnote Classification on Lexis) to find more cases that are categorized on the same point of law. (3) Use the Table of Authorities or the hyperlinks within your good case to link to cases and other authorities your case cited to. Maybe those cases will be helpful for your analysis, too. 

Q: I am having trouble finding a good case for my (LRWA) research assignment, what should I do?
A: Your searches will likely improve by using the finding aids built into the Lexis and Westlaw platforms. If your issue is one that has statutory authority, you should look at the cases set out in the Notes of Decisions (Westlaw) or Notes to Decisions or Case Notes (Lexis) to see decisions selected as illustrative of the courts’ application of the statute. Also, run the Code provision through citators (Shepard's on Lexis and KeyCite on Westlaw) to find materials. Use secondary sources to help build your understanding of the area of law, identify useful search terms, and find relevant primary authorities. Use Westlaw’s Key Number System and Lexis’ Topical Outline of the law as inroads to finding relevant cases. See the FAQ on the “one good case method” when you do find a relevant case. 

Q: How many cases do I need to cite for each point of law in my brief or memo? 
A: It depends. Generally, one binding case that clearly states the law is sufficient. However, you should consult with your professor to find out their preferences and expectations.  

Q: How do I know when to stop researching?
A: Each project is different, but the general wisdom says to stop when you either (a) start seeing the same resources over and over when using different search methods or (b) you run out of time. When it comes to running out of time, remember that most legal projects involve both research and writing, so it’s important to leave enough time for writing. This CALI lesson addresses the issue, too. 

Q: I got on a journal and have to write a note/comment? Do all the research techniques I learned in LRWA I & II apply to my note/comment? 
A: Yes and no. The general techniques you learned, like how to craft a search, use terms and connectors, and post search filtering will all still apply. One of the biggest differences between LRWA I & II and what you’ll do in Scholarly Writing is that there are fewer limits on what you can cite to in Scholarly Writing. This means that you can, and should, expand your research beyond the cases and statutes that you focused on in LRWA. Also, you will likely need to go beyond Westlaw, Lexis, and Bloomberg into additional databases and resources. We have a Scholarly Writing & Spading guide with more details.  

When & How to Get Help

Q: What does the Mason libraries catalog search? 
A: By default, the catalog searches for books (online and in print) owned by any Mason library. It also searches many, but not all of the databases we have access to. For example, it does not search our ProQuest Legislative Insight database. There are also some ebooks that may not come up in catalog searches. To sum up, the catalog can be a good way to cover a lot of ground quickly. However, if you're after a certain resource and not seeing it, please reach out to the reference team (lawref@gmu.edu) - we may know of a place to find the resource.