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Legal Research Process

What Are ALR Annotations?

American Law Reports (ALR) is mainly used for its annotations, cross-jurisdictional surveys of case law on selected topics. (The word "Reports" is in the title as it publishes selected cases in addition to annotations.) In surveying case law, ALR annotations are akin to another type of legal research resource, 50 state surveys of statutes and regulations.

An ALR annotation tends to cover topics where there are disagreements between courts and compiles judicial decisions from around the country on a specific issue. An annotation can also help summarize the evolution of a legal topic.

Annotations differ from legal encyclopedias and treatises in their extreme narrowness of focus. Because it is not a comprehensive resource, there often is not an ALR annotation on point for a specific issue. In that sense, ALR annotations are more like law reviews. However, ALR annotations are more practical than law reviews in that, for the topics they do cover, each annotation takes a utilitarian approach to laying out its analysis and is mainly a tool for researching case law.

When to Use ALR Annotations

An ALR annotation is probably the last secondary source one should check before moving on to primary law. An ALR that was recently published and on point can be a gold mine. However, it is mainly a tool for finding case law, not statutes and regulations. Other secondary sources should be considered first to be sure you have the big picture before trying to find relevant ALR annotations. ALR annotations are not generally cited for court.

There is no free, online alternative to the ALR.

How to Find the ALR

Annotations are contained within the ALR. The ALR is available online in Lexis Advance and WestlawNext, as well as in print. As of Jan. 1, 2013, Bloomberg Law did not include the ALR.

At Tarlton, the print version is located in the main reading room on the second floor.

How to Find ALR Annotations

Print: 

  1. Consider all the pertinent keywords for the topic you wish to research;
  2. Look these terms up in the index volumes provided, located toward the end of the set.
  3. Unlike legal encyclopedias, the ALR's index is in hardbound volumes. Check the index's pocket part for any more recent annotations.
  4. Look up the annotation in the appropriate volume.
  5. Check the pocket part in the back of the volume for any updates.

Online: You can do a natural language or terms and connectors search. If using a terms and connectors search, you can limit it by doing searching different segments (on Lexis) or fields (on Westlaw). In particular, on Westlaw, you can try searching the title field by entering ti(“search term(s)”), or searching the annotation summaries field, su(“search term(s)”).

On Westlaw, you can also browse or do a keyword search of the index; look for the link at the right hand side and then click the first result for Table of Contents. Unfortunately, Lexis Advance does not offer a workable index, but this is less of a concern for the ALR than it is for legal encyclopedias--the ALR is more narrow in scope and annotations go out of date relatively quickly.

Using Westlaw, when you select ALR, you can either enter search terms, or you can select from a list of topics, such as Bankruptcy, Family Law, or Tax.  If you select one of these topics, Westlaw brings up a list of the top 10 most recent updates related to that topic. You can then search further within that topic, or select one of the listed documents.

Whether researching in print or online, scan any ALR annotation you have found for a list of additional, related annotations, either in the “Research References” section or in the first section of each annotation. Checking this area within an annotation can be a good way to double check that you have found the most relevant one.

How to Use ALR Annotations

If you are lucky enough to find a relevant annotation, you can browse it to see if it addresses the specific legal question or fact pattern you are researching. (An annotation is not intended to be read all the way through like a law review article.) An annotation begins with a paragraph summary of its topic, followed by a table of contents or "Outline," as it is referred to online. The organization thereafter varies a bit between print, and Lexis and Westlaw. But all of them include an "index" (a finding tool just for that annotation) and a table of cases pointing you to the relevant section of the annotation. The table of cases is organized with those from the U.S. Supreme Court listed first, followed by federal and then state cases.

Currency

Although ALR annotations are updated weekly with relevant new cases, the overall analysis does not necessarily get updated. While Lexis unfortunately does not appear to include the date when an ALR annotation was originally published, Westlaw does. You should be sure to look up citations to primary law within an annotation to verify that they are still in effect and are still good law, especially if the date of original publication is some time ago. Online, as new annotations replace older ones, you will be automatically redirected to the updated version, but in print, you will only be notified in the pocket part.

Strengths & Weaknesses of ALR Annotations

Strengths

  • Unique tool for finding case law across jurisdictions

Weaknesses

  • Not a comprehensive resource; it is hit or miss on whether there is an ALR annotation on your topic
  • Be sure to double check the currency of the primary law cited within an ALR annotation
  • No free, online alternative; only available in print or in licensed databases
  • Not a resource that you would normally cite in a court document