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Legal Research Process

How to Use Treatises

Searching Across Treatises

Lexis: Unfortunately, you can narrow secondary sources far enough to exclude law reviews, but not legal encyclopedias.

Westlaw: Fortunately, you can narrow secondary sources far enough to exclude law reviews and legal encyclopedias.

Finding Tools Within an Individual Treatise

There is no set format for treatises. As a result, they can differ greatly in form among different authors, publishers, and topics. Treatises are available online and in print, with those available in print ranging from single to multi-volume sets. It is important to note that not every treatise is available online

If you find a treatise that seems on point, there are four main ways to search it:

  1. Table of contents;
  2. Index;
  3. Natural language; and
  4. Terms and connectors

In print, the best place to begin searching is by using the index or the table of contents. With these two finding tools, you will hopefully be able to get a better sense of whether the treatise discusses the issue you need to research. A treatise's table of contents and index are generally available online. on Westlaw, with a limited number available on Lexis as well (about 60 indexes, mainly for Matthew Bender titles). On Westlaw, within the database for any given treatise, there may be a link on the right hand side of the screen for an index. Once in the index, look for the first result labeled "Table of Contents" to browse the index's table of contents or you can do a keyword search of the index. On Lexis, sometimes even the table of contents is not available.

Online, you can also do a terms and connectors or natural language search, usually within the whole treatise or an individual section or chapter. Therefore, if time allows, it is recommended to try multiple methods of searching a treatise.

Checking for Currency

New developments in an area of law may have occurred since a treatise was last updated, whether in print or online. There is no set standard on how or when treatises are updated. As a result, it is important to check the actual treatise you are using for how regularly it is updated and when it was in fact last updated. Even if a treatise claims to be updated, scan the citations for dates within a relevant section to get a sense of how current it is in reality.

Print treatises are generally updated in one of three ways:

  1. by a new edition;
  2. by loose leafs, inserted as appropriate; or
  3. by pocket part, in the back of a volume.

For a treatise that is only updated by a new edition, you can ask a law librarian or check a catalog to double check that you have the most recent version. To check how recently a pocket part print treatise has been updated, look to the pocket part at the back of the volume. This will contain any additions to the treatise since the edition was published. To check a looseleaf treatise, look at the front of a looseleaf set for the flier indicating the currency of the last set of pages inserted.

To check how recently an online treatise has been updated, look for the scope note -- click the "information" symbol. The scope note contains information such as how frequently updates are made and may or may not note when the last update occurred.

Whether researching in print or online, you can also browse a treatise's table of contents to see whether there's a section at the beginning laying out a publication update (ex: "What's New").

Strengths & Weaknesses of Treatises


The biggest strength in using a treatise is the fact that it compiles information from primary and secondary sources on a specific area of law in one place. 


  • Treatises can be difficult to find given the number of different publishers (beyond Lexis and Westlaw) and varying online and print formats
  • When there are multiple treatises in a given area, it can be hard to assess them; e.g., an online treatise gives no indication of its comprehensiveness as would be the case with a print version's number of volumes on shelf
  • Your institution may not necessarily have the one that you want (i.e., your institution, whether in law school or in practice, does not have it in print or access to the database that contains it)
  • No free, online alternative; only available in print or in licensed databases.
  • Even if you have found one,
    • it may not cover your research topic in sufficient detail
    • you need to check its currency
    • if it is online, it may be harder to use if there is no index or fails to indicate how current it is
    • like many secondary sources, it is not usually the type of source normally cited in a court document