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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.

Using Legal Periodicals

The Problem:

California Western Law Review

The partner you work for has asked you to draft a memo on the possible future effects of a recent administrative ruling on telecommunications law. You have tried your favorite practice guides and legal encyclopedias, but can't find any discussion of it. Are you going to have to spend the night researching cases and administrative regulations? What if you simply don't understand this area of law well enough to know what the future effects of this ruling will be? Don't give up! Someone may have already written an article on just this subject in a legal periodical, doing most of your work for you!

What is a legal periodical?

Legal periodicals, including law reviews or law journals, are secondary sources which analyze, describe and comment on the law. They contain articles written by law faculty, attorneys, law students or other experts in an area of law, not by courts or legislatures. Legal periodicals are usually affiliated with law schools, but some are published by non-academic institutions. Those published by law schools are usually edited by students. California Western publishes two legal periodicals, California Western Law Review and California Western International Law Journal.

Traditionally, legal periodicals have been print publications. However, some legal periodicals are now also published electronically on the Internet. The library has begun to subscribe to some of these publications.

What are they used for?

A legal periodical article can be a good introduction to the law in an obscure or newly-developing area, or can provide useful discussion of the background of an important case, as well as its affect on the law. Legal periodical articles often cover areas which practice manuals, treatises and other standard sources do not address, whether because the topic is too specialized, or because the developments have happened too recently. You can also look at legal periodical articles for:

  • Detailed background information on primary laws.

  • General overviews or the current status of an area of law.

  • Arguments suggesting reforms to primary law.

  • References to primary law, and other secondary materials.

Distinguishing between types of legal periodicals.

Different legal periodicals contain different types of articles, are published more or less frequently, and can be found at different places; some are much more difficult to locate, and therefore use, than others.

Minnesota Law Review

General. Ex.: California Western Law Review, Harvard Law Review. These "law reviews" publish articles on a wide range of legal topics. We subscribe to many in print, and most can also be found through services like HeinOnline (see below).


Special Interest. Ex.: California Western International Law Journal, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. These "journals" focus on a specific area of law or are interdisciplinary, and we subscribe to many in print and through HeinOnline (see below). Some are published in a magazine format.

California Bar Journal

Bar Association Journals. Ex.: ABA Journal, San Diego Lawyer. These journals contain practical articles pertaining to recent news and the interests of association members. Journals of national associations are often available at California Western in print or on HeinOnline (see below), local and regional journals from other parts of the country are usually available on microfiche.

National Law Journal

Legal Newspapers. Ex: L.A. Daily Journal, National Law Journal. Current law-related developments, including court decisions and rule changes. These are usually available in print or on microfiche, and some are available online through LegalTrac (see below).


Newsletters. Ex: Federal Sentencing Guide Newsletter. Also known as 'current awareness' periodicals, these are published daily, weekly or monthly on a specific topic, and contain the latest developments in the area. California Western subscribes to many of these either in print or online. Otherwise, they can be difficult to locate, and are often not indexed.

Distinguishing between types of articles.

In casual reference, anything printed in a legal periodical is often called an "article." In fact, there are different types of articles, and an article's "type" will affect its "authoritative value," or the weight to which a judge will assign something quoted from that article.

For example, an article written by a judge or professor would have more "weight" than a note or comment by a student. You can determine the type of article you are reading by looking in the table of contents at the beginning of the periodical issue.

Yale Law Journal
  • Articles. Longer works, written by attorneys, judges or law professors. They contain extensive citations to primary and other secondary materials.
  • Essays. Shorter works with less extensive citations, written by attorneys, judges or law professors.
  • Symposium. An entire journal issue containing works on the same topic. Symposium issues are often published once a year by a general journal.
  • Feature Article. The main article in a particular journal issue. The rest of the issue contains commentary about and and discussion of this article.
  • Note or Comment. A piece written by law student regarding a broad topic.
  • Case Note/Case Comment/Recent Developments. A piece written by a law student on a narrow topic or recent court decision.
  • Book Review. A review of a book related to the subject of the journal.

How to find legal periodical articles.

The easiest way to find a legal periodical article is through an online search service. Printed or online periodical indexes, however, are often the most thorough way to find articles on a particular subject.

Historical research may require searching print indexes, because important and well-known articles by distinguished authors, such as Langdell or Brandeis, are often not incorporated into electronic indexes because their publication pre-dates some index coverage.

If you are searching for articles about a particular case or statute, you may also be able to find law review and journal articles through citator services such as Shepards and KeyCite.

Electronic indexes and search services.

Indexes organize articles by their topic, rather like the index in a book or the subject headings of a library catalog do. In contrast, search services will search for words in either an "abstract" or the full text of a journal article, the way a Westlaw or Lexis search for cases does. Both are useful when searching for articles on a particular subject or by a particular author.

Below are links to the online indexes and searching services for legal periodical articles available to California Western faculty and students. Some of these, such as LegalTrac, can be used as both indexes and searching services. Others are purely search services. These resources are available only on campus, or off campus with a California Western network login and password. Individual databases may require their own IDs and passwords; see the descriptions for details.

California Western subscribes to many more searching and indexing services for journals and periodicals on the arts, humanities, medicine, and other subjects. Go to our list of research databases narrowed to those used to find articles to see these.

Print Indexes.

Index to Legal Periodicals and Books

At left is a picture of the Index to Legal Periodicals and Books, and below is a list of some of the indexes located in the Reference area of the California Western Library, or, occasionally, in our microform collection. As you will see, the indexes cover different time periods, and some cover only selected areas of law.

In addition, you should check the front pages of an index if you want to determine whether it covers a specific periodical. Often you will need to use more than one index to do an effective search. "Access points" are the different ways that you can find articles in an index. For example, you may be looking for articles about a specific statute. The fastest way to find these articles will be to look in an index which has a "Table of Statutes" as an access point.

How do I use these?

Indexes work like old-fashioned library card catalogs, with entries for authors, subjects and titles. The publishers mix their entries together in different ways. For example, the Index to Legal Periodicals and Books combines the subject and author entries, but has a separate section indexing book reviews by the title and author of the book; the Current Law Index, in contrast, mixes its entries of titles and authors, but has a separate book of subject entries. They both have separate tables of cases and statutes. These tables will help you locate articles which deal with a specific statute or case.

Subject Headings have subtle differences between indexes. Current Law Index classifies its articles based on the Library of Congress subject headings (the same classification system used by our library, and contained in the red books located near the Reference Desk), but not all indexes do. Make sure to follow cross-references (for example, under a particular subject heading, it might say, "See also: Class Actions." Articles listed there might also be useful to you), and use the thesaurus, when it is available, to make sure you are finding all useful subject headings.

Important: Printed Indexes are often not cumulative, i.e. you must check numerous volumes or supplements to comprehensively research a topic over a period of time. In contrast, electronic indexes are cumulative, and so you can search the entire chronological coverage of the index with one search query.