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Legal Research Process

What Is a Legal Encyclopedia?

Legal encyclopedias, such as American Jurisprudence (AmJur), Corpus Juris Secundum (CJS), and Texas Jurisprudence (TexJur), are secondary sources that provide general background information on different areas of the law. They also provide citations that can be helpful, mainly to cases, but occasionally to other primary and secondary sources.

TexJur is specific to Texas law and is one of the existing state specific legal encyclopedias.  Beyond Texas, only 15 other states have their own legal encyclopedias. Lexis publishes encyclopedias for Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. West publishes encyclopedias for California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina.

When to Use a Legal Encyclopedia

Legal encyclopedias are typically used to gain a broad overview of a particular legal subject, and to become familiar with a subject's terminology and contexts in which the law is used. Accordingly, legal encyclopedias should be used early in the research process. (Wikipedia is the closest free, online alternative to a legal encyclopedia, but Wikipedia can be spotty and unreliable in its coverage.)

How to Find Legal Encyclopedias

Legal encyclopedias are available in print and online. At Tarlton, all three can be found in the main reading room on the second floor.

Online coverage, as of Jan. 4, 2015:

AmJur CJS TexJur
Bloomberg No No No
Lexis Yes No Yes
Westlaw Yes Yes Yes

How to Use a Legal Encyclopedia

Print

In general, using print is a four-step process:

  1. Think of keywords to look up--this may involve some trial and error with the index.
  2. Look these terms up in the index volumes provided, which are soft bound and located at the end of the set;
  3. Refer to the encyclopedia volume with the topic and section referenced in the index; the word in the topic you seek may not necessarily appear on the spine of the volume;
  4. Check the pocket part in the back of the volume for any updates.

Some other finding tools in print that can be helpful instead or in addition to the index are the Table of Laws and Rules and Table of Cases (although AmJur lacks a Table of Cases). For example, if you know a USC, CFR, or case law citation already, you can look it up to see where it is discussed in the legal encyclopedia. (Depending on the time of year, an additional update volume may be on the shelf for the indexes of TexJur and CJS.)

Online

The online versions include tables of contents, but an encyclopedia's contents are so vast that a table of contents is not of much help. Indexes can be difficult to use online compared to print. Lexis Advance does not make the indexes available at all. On WestlawNext, the indexes are searchable and browseable, but are still easier to use in print.

When researching online therefore, a researcher will probably end up doing a terms and connectors or natural language search. Because short entries lend themselves to flipping quickly back and forth between sections, it may still be useful to seek out the print versions of the legal encyclopedias, in addition to or as an alternative to the online versions.

Strengths & Weaknesses of Legal Encyclopedias

Strengths:

  • Provides a broad overview of a legal subject to become familiar with terminology
  • Provides basic citations

Weaknesses:

  • Some of legal encyclopedias' strengths can be weaknesses if not used as intended (i.e., too broad)
  • They are not always best for statutory research (e.g., AmJur and CJS do not provide citations to state statutes, although jurisdiction specific encyclopedias like TexJur do)
  • No free, online alternative; only available in print or in licensed databases.