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First Year Legal Research Guide

This guide provides resources to help new Scalia Law students become more familiar with legal research tools and strategies.

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Secondary Sources

The main categories of secondary sources are legal encyclopedias, law reviews, treatises and study aids, Restatements, American Law Reports, and other resources like jury instructions, practice series, research guides, and more. Most of these secondary sources come with their own set of tools, like the Table of Contents, Index, and Footnotes, that will help you quickly find explanations, analysis, search terms, and primary sources. 

Most secondary sources online are updated automatically, and the date is usually at the top or bottom of the screen or found via the source info link (a little “i” symbol). In print, updates are found in separate supplements or pocket parts in the front or back of the book. You’ll have to check the publication date in the main volume, and the dates of any additional supplements. 

Legal Encyclopedias

Legal encyclopedias offer a broad overview of major legal topics, and are therefore a great secondary source to start off with. They are descriptive, rather than analytical. There are two main national legal encyclopedias – American Jurisprudence, or AmJur, and Corpus Juris Secundum, or CJS – and many other state-specific legal encyclopedias. We have print copies on the 2nd floor. 

When you know your jurisdiction, we recommend starting your legal research with an encyclopedia from that state, and then consider using a national encyclopedia for more information or detail. The state-specific legal encyclopedia for Virginia is called Michie’s and can only be accessed online through Lexis. Don’t cite to a legal encyclopedia – they are only brief articles and have very low citability even though they are very helpful to start with. 

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Treatises and Study Aids

Treatises and study aids go into more detail than encyclopedias to explain and analyze the law. Most treatises are geared towards legal scholars, and study aids like hornbooks (a one-volume treatise that summarizes a specific area of law) and nutshells (more basic overviews of legal topics) are more for students. 

Certain treatises are considered leading secondary authority on particular subjects, such as Wright & Miller’s Federal Practice or Nimmer on Copyright. You can cite to leading treatises, but not to hornbooks and other study aids which are written mainly for students and not strong persuasive authority.  

Since you’re new to legal research, we wouldn’t expect you to automatically know the leading treatises. Please start off with our Top Treatise Finder research guide to locate the best authority in an area of law that’s unfamiliar to you. You can also Google “treatise finder” to find other law school research guides, or ask a librarian, your professor, or your supervising attorney if you’re out on an internship. Well-respected treatises are often known by author name. 

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Law Review Articles

Law review articles are published in legal periodicals and journals, and tend to cover “hot topics”. They can offer a narrow focus with much greater detail on particular legal issues. Because they are peer-reviewed and scholarly, they can be cited as persuasive authority. It’s best to use law review articles when the area of law is very narrow, or if you’re researching a significantly new or historical legal issue. 

HeinOnline has the largest database of law review articles, but they can be found on Lexis, Westlaw, and other legal databases as well. There are also bar association and other more practice-oriented journals geared towards practitioners. 

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American Law Reports

Commonly referred to as the A.L.R., these brief annotations are a series of articles on narrowly defined legal questions and emerging legal issues, prepared by editors at West. A.L.R. annotations are similar to legal encyclopedias, but are usually more specific and contemporary.  

They are available on Westlaw, Lexis, and in print on the 2nd floor of the Law Library current through 2015. Although you can view A.L.R.s on Lexis, viewing them online via Westlaw also provides you access to the browsable A.L.R. Index, organized by subject. Each article provides an overview of the law, and includes a Table of Jurisdictions with citations to on-point state case law nationwide. 

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Restatements of Law

Restatements of Law are blackletter rules of law (rules that are well-established and no longer subject to reasonable dispute) based on an analysis of nationwide case law. 

Restatements also include case annotations prepared by the American Law Institute, made up of judges, professors, and lawyers, and cover broad topics such as Contracts, Property, and Torts. You can cite to the Restatements – they have strong persuasive authority and are recognized by courts. 

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Other Secondary Sources

There are many other secondary sources in addition to encyclopedias, treatises, legal periodicals, American Law Reports, and Restatements. While secondary sources are written to educate you on an area of law, direct you to primary law, and maybe even serve as persuasive authority, it’s actually not common for one source to do all three. Please diversify your secondary sources and look at more than one! 

Other secondary sources include AmJur Proof of Facts, which explains how to prove facts in a range of specific situations, and Causes of Action, which focuses on different types of actions and identifies their various elements. There are also model form books with blank templates. 

There are other jurisdiction-specific practitioner sources such as the Virginia Practice Series, which provides extensive explanations of Virginia law organized by topic. Practice series can resemble encyclopedias but they don’t cover as many topics, and they can also resemble treatises depending on how in-depth they go. With that being said, practice series can be a great place to begin your research along with legal encyclopedias. 

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