Reference from Coast to Coast – Finding Legal Treatises

Welcome to Reference From Coast to Coast: Sources and Strategies, a monthly column written by Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen.

Jan Bissett is a Reference Librarian in the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan office of Dickinson Wright PLLC. She is a past president of the Michigan Association of Law Libraries and has published articles on administrative and research related topics in the Michigan Association of Law Libraries Newsletter and Michigan Defense Quarterly. She and Margi Heinen team teach Legal Information Sources and Services for Wayne State Universitys Library and Information Science Program in Detroit, Michigan.

Margi Heinen is the Manager of Library Services at Sherman and Howard in Denver, Colorado. She has taught courses on Legal Resources at the University of Michigans School of Information and at Wayne State Universitys School of Library and Information Science. She has been a faculty member for several I.P.E. presentations including “Internet Strategies for the Paralegal in Michigan” and ICLEs “Internet Legal Resources” seminar. She is a member of the Colorado Association of Law Libraries and the American Association of Law Libraries.

Every legal researcher dreams of finding a source that covers their research topic (a very specific topic) in detail (but not too much detail) and nothing else (no tangential topics, please!). Since we law librarians are given the task of finding these fantasy books, we devote this column to the task of identifying and locating legal treatises.

You may be using one without even realizing it. You know, that multi-volume book, the one on insurance or contracts, or maybe even more relevant – your state’s employment laws or drunk driving offenses. One of those, you know, the blue or the green or the red one, that’s the one that has all ready pulled together the law and annotated it just for you and your research needs. What you’ve been looking at and using is a secondary source, more specifically, a legal treatise. Secondary sources,and legal treatises in particular,are extremely valuable in legal research because they can provide the state of the law in a particular area as well as commentary, annotations and practice tips. Some treatises are scholarly, some more practice oriented. Some are so well known they’re referred to in what seems like short-hand:Corbin, Williston, Appleman, or Davis. Often requested by author’s name and color of the volume rather than title, these materials may seem mysterious to the uninitiated or envied when your research area lacks such a source. The question is how do you find out if there is such a source for the topic you’re researching?

Several pathfinders from our academic colleagues help you identify treatises by subject: Legal Treatises by Subject, The Legal Treatises and Treatises and Looseleafs Arranged by Subject. Although these pathfinders refer users to their respective library collections, these lists may help you identify treatises in major subject areas. Katherine Touplos’ Legal History from the Reference Desk: Connecting the Past to Today’s Information Needs provides a brief listing of “classic treatises”.

You may be tempted to seek lists of recommended treatises in standards such as the ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools, Chapter 6 of which deals with Law Library requirements, but these standards are too general to deal in specific titles. Rather, you can seek out recommendations for law library collections such as Maryland Reference/Research Titles Recommended for County Public Law Librariesor the AALS Law Books Recommended forLibraries by the American Association of Law Schools (although this title is more useful for older classic titles). Alternatively, you might wish to learn which treatises are most often cited by judges to determine which to purchase. Fred R. Shapiro has created such a listing in The Most-Cited Legal Books Published since 1978, 29 Journal of Legal Studies 397 (2000). Checking the “how often cited” status of a title may be helpful if you are trying to decide between several treatises covering the same subject matter when your budget will accommodate only one purchase.

Zimmerman’s Research Guide here at LLRX offers a helpful entry on Legal Treatises recommending standard collection development tools as well as bibliographic searching. We cannot recommend too highly the valuable print volume, Ken Svengalis’ Legal Information Buyer’s Guide and Reference Manual. This manual is the place to begin if you are building or evaluating a treatise collection. Mr. Svengalis provides prices and descriptions of the best known treatises by subject and his introduction offers additional guidance on locating treatise titles. The Buyer’s Guide also will supplement the lists of “most-cited” treatises by describing recent changes in publisher or updating practices that may alter your decision on which of two treatises to purchase. The often cited Corpus Juris Secundum (CJS), for instance, has been steadily losing ground to American Jurisprudence 2nd (Am Jur) and both are now published by West Group. Kent Olsen’s Legal Information:How to Find It, How to Use It also offers major legal treatise titles.

Where else do we find legal treatises? Yes, in the old standby, library catalogs. This source is much easier to use now that the Internet opens so many fine library catalogs to us. You can search by subject or keyword at the Library of Congress or choose from law school library catalogs. A broad list of library catalogs covering different types of libraries (including law libraries) and a variety of countries can be found at LibDex: The Library Index. If you want to limit the list to law libraries you can find links to law school library catalogs on Findlaw’s USA Law School page.

Another classic source should not be overlooked – law librarians. Knowledgeable colleagues are sometimes the only source for finding relevant material embedded within treatises when the treatise title does not reveal the breadth of its coverage. Most of us have experienced the frustration of looking for a very specific topic only to realize that one of the comprehensive CCH® looseleaf services covered that topic along with many others in a broadly titled banking or securities or credit treatise. Be considerate, however, and do some hunting through other sources before expecting busy colleagues to interrupt their work to offer advice.

Another helpful source that opens treatise contents to us is IndexMaster™. A valuable source and a great time saver, you can search by keyword and IndexMaster™ will retrieve the table of contents and the index from treatises that meet your search criteria. One advantage is obvious – you don’t have to search individual publisher web sites looking for materials on your topic. In addition, there may be publishers you have not considered that are included in this database. The pricing for searching this helpful source is flexible – you can arrange for a year of unlimited usage with prices based on the size of your firm or you can “pay as you go” and obtain 48 hours of searching for $25.00.

Obviously, the strength of IndexMaster™ is dependent upon participation by publishers. Although consumers benefit greatly when publishers to participate in this type of collective data, there has apparently been reluctance on the part of some publishers. As of this writing, the IndexMaster™ list of participants does not include some of the big names in legal publishing – Commerce Clearinghouse (CCH®), Bureau of National Affairs (BNA®) or Lexis Publishing™ and its partners like Matthew Bender® and Michie™. LexisNexis™, according to our Library Relations Consultant, Matt Wagner, does not charge anything for looking at Tables of Contents of treatises on Lexis, but there is a charge of $15.00 if you are tempted to click on a link from the Table of Contents into the actual full-text treatise material. Matt also tells us that as of this writing Lexis Publishing™ is still considering the question of placing Matthew Bender and other Lexis book product information on IndexMaster™.

Finding the legal treatise you need can be a time consuming adventure. Professional cooperation and vision has made the task easier with publications and Internet-based catalogs and collegial e-mail lists such as law-lib. Similar cooperative ventures such as IndexMaster™ have made a great start, but it remains to be seen whether legal publishers will help or hinder our search for specific legal material. Good luck on your next treatise search.

Links Mentioned in this Article

Findlaw’s USA Law School page

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Legal Information Buyer’s Guide and Reference Manual

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Legal Treatises

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Legal Treatises by Subject

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LibDex: The Library Index

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Library of Congress

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Maryland Reference/Research Titles Recommended for County Public Law Libraries

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Posted in: Legal Research, Reference from Coast to Coast