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Legal Skills

This is a companion guide for a series of sessions introducing legal research resources to students in Legal Skills.

Start Research With the Index to a Legal Encyclopedia

Students will be able to...

  1. differentiate a general from a state specific legal encyclopedia.
  2. recognize finding aids used with legal encyclopedias.
  3. differentiate Witkin's Summary of California Law from other legal encyclopedias.
  4. extract law relevant to legal problems from a legal encyclopedia.

Watch this video and read the content below to learn how to use the index to a legal encyclopedia to start your research on almost any topic. The video uses an example about a criminal stalking matter in California.

About Legal Encyclopedias

Definition, Content, & Organization

Legal Encyclopedias are secondary resources that summarize the law. Using them effectively not only lets you develop a basic understanding of a legal topic related to your legal research problem, it can also let you know about other important legal topics related to you legal research problem that you may not even have thought about before using the legal encyclopedia.

Legal Encyclopedia articles cite authority to support their summaries of legal topics, and those citations show you primary law and secondary resources critical to the legal topic being discussed. The basic understanding of a legal topic that you get from effectively using a Legal Encyclopedia acts as a context to prepare you to interpret and understand the primary law that controls your particular legal research problem later in your research process.

Put bluntly, it’s worth the time you spend developing your understanding of a legal topic by efficiently using a Legal Encyclopedia because it will be less time and less effort than trying to develop your understanding of a legal topic by reading primary law, which is often much less concerned with giving its readers the big picture, using plain language, and being brief.

Jurisdictions

General legal encyclopedias, like American Jurisprudence, deal with the laws at the federal and state levels. State-specific legal encyclopedias, like California Jurisprudence and Witkin's Summary of California Law, deal with the laws of a particular state only.

Finding Aids: Foundational

  1. Index
    • The General Index is typically one of the last volumes on the shelf in print, requires several clicks to access electronically, yet is one of the first things you examine. The index is an alphabetical list of every topic discussed in the legal encyclopedia, and it shows you every section where each of those topics is discussed. The index may show you that your legal topic is actually discussed in multiple sections of several articles when your topic applies in various legal contexts. This develops your understanding of the legal topic by showing you areas of the law that could be relevant and that you may not have identified before to you used the index.
      • Make a list of every relevant section. Once your list is complete, look up each section and read it taking notes on any relevant summaries of the law and the authority (primary law or secondary resource) cited to support the each summary.
  2. Table of Contents
    • Turn to the Table of Contents for the larger article that holds each relevant section that you read. The Table of Contents shows you where the article’s author placed your section in the organizational scheme of the article. The titles of sections near yours could indicate that they have relevant information on your topic. There is even more important information you can get from the Table of Contents. The placement of your section in the article in relation to the other sections gives you contextual information that you can use to develop your understanding of your legal topic. (E.G. Is your section listed under a heading like exceptions or exemptions to some general rule? If so, you need to find out about that general rule, and the Table of Contents is likely to show you another section where it's discussed.)
      • Add to your list of relevant sections any more that you find with the Table of Contents. Continue to read each section taking notes on any relevant summaries of the law, the authority (primary law or secondary resource) cited to support it the summaries.

More Finding Aids

  1. Table of Cases
    • If you know of a case relevant to your legal problem, then you can use the Table of Cases to find every article in the encyclopedia that cites it as authority. The Table of Cases lists every case cited anywhere in the legal encyclopedia. This allows you to see any other legal issues that could be related to a case relevant to your legal problem.
  2. Table of Laws and Rules
    • If you know of a statute or court rule relevant to your legal problem, then you can use the Table of Laws and Rules to find every section in the encyclopedia that cites it as authority. The Table of Laws and Rules lists every statute and court rule cited anywhere in the legal encyclopedia. This allows you to see any other legal issues that could be related to a statute or court rule relevant to your legal problem.
  3. Word Searches
    • Last, least important, and often dangerous is the keyword search. It can be very convenient if you know exactly what you need to find and already understand an area of law thoroughly, but that convenience comes at a price especially high for beginners when you lose all context with which to evaluate your search results. The keyword search is designed to find any information relevant to the words that you enter, and not designed to find the information you need for a particular legal problem and give you the ability to interpret that information. While excellent for quick information seeking, it is less useful for research. Still, it has been years since the deceptively dangerous word search's pithy, profane promises of annoyingly accessible answers tempted adventurous and carefree folk to follow haphazard research paths to their doom as they missed critical sources to which indexes and tables of contents would have guided them!

Formats & Updating

  • Legal Encyclopedias are available in print and electronically. Updates to articles accessed in print are in pocket parts inside the back cover of each volume. Updates to electronically accessed articles are integrated into each article's text.

Selected Legal Encyclopedias