Category Archives: Teaching Legal Research

Legislative History “genres”

In my last post I mentioned that the technical/mechanical tools for working with legislative materials (at least at the federal level) have lately become much more accessible and, if not intuitive, at least not so much of an actual barrier to research. This has in fact been the general trend in legal information, and therefore legal research — improvements in interface design, and the alignment of law-specific information-seeking with online search and retrieval techniques we use elsewhere in our lives have removed much (not all!) of the sheer mechanical and ‘interface level’ obstacles from specialized research. This is not to say that learning particular tools and interfaces is now unimportant. I, for one, still think every legal and/or scholarly researcher would benefit greatly from an understanding of controlled-vocabulary indexing, for example, and “Google-style” search can certainly be done either well or poorly.

But it does seem quite apparent that the mere mechanics and process of research have become accessible to a degree that proportionately more of our attention can be devoted to the other difficulty of being a good legal researcher; that of simply knowing enough of the institutional structures, law-making activities, and written work-product of the governing institutions you are concerned with that you have an adequate knowledge of what it even is that you are looking for.
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Demystifying Legislative History

Knowing how to do legislative-history research, at least in the federal system, is now not really any different than simply having general knowledge of the work-product of Congress: what, in a documentary sense, is it that the legislature actually does?

It wasn’t always so. “Legislative history” research has long had a sort of mystique among legal practitioners, and even among librarians. Early in my career, I even worked for a senior librarian who would “spring” a mock legislative history question upon unsuspecting candidates for entry-level librarian jobs: the idea (besides assessing general demeanor and presence in a reference discussion) was that familiarity with certain indexes and other finding tools was the perfect proxy to distinguish the candidate who actually knew his practical art as a reference librarian from someone who might have gone to law and/or library school but hadn’t acquired any real hands-on depth in the field.

But the world has changed.

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Short Book Review: Typography for Lawyers

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Case Western Reserve University Law School’s library.

Book Cover Image

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Matthew Butterick’s 2010 Typography for Lawyers: Essential Tools for Polished & Persuasive Documents, with a forward by legal (and non-legal) style and usage expert Bryan Garner, is a must-read for law students interested in mastering the presentational aspects of legal documents. A Los Angeles litigator with previous visual-arts experience, including as a font designer, Butterick seems to have taken maximum advantage of his unusual set of credentials in two distinct fields to have produced this book. A companion website is also full of valuable information.
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Federal Statutory Codes: Free (official? authentic?) Research Here?

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Case Western Reserve University Law Library.

I recently wrote about the fact that website distribution of digitally-signed PDF facsimiles of the “classic” printed versions of certain Government Printing Office publications made it possible to do “official” research into federal administrative regulations freely, online. Among those free resources is the Code of Federal Regulations, the codification of federal administrative-agency regulations.

There isn’t any quite comparable access to “fully official” online legal research in statutory law in the federal system, due to the complicated status of the United States Code.
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Free, Official, Federal Regulatory Research

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Case Western Reserve University Law Library.

In finding free, or very low cost, ways to conduct legal research one of the obstacles is often the unofficial status of freely available web-based tools. In other cases, even where the official, formal, “weight” of free (or low-cost) resources is equivalent to, say, much-prized unofficial resources like the annotated codes available in print or through Lexis or Westlaw, the effective cognitive authority and assumed merit (deservedly or not) of the resource is much lower.

In the case of Federal regulatory resources, however, the most official and formal research methods — hearkening back to those used for “old fashioned” print-bound regulatory research — are available, for free, online. There is a penalty in convenience, and there are drawbacks in terms of updating to which the wary researcher must be attentive. But the tools are there and they are used, in fact, very much in the fashion of print-based research into the Code of Federal Regulations, the Federal Register, and the other tools and tables that connect those resources together in response to a real research question.

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State-Specific Legal Encyclopedias

(In a previous post we discussed the legal encyclopedia as a genre of secondary source. We’ve also talked about some ways of analyzing secondary sources.)

Legal publishers have also used the genre of legal encyclopedias to cover specific, state-level, jurisdictions. Like American Jurisprudence, 2nd and Corpus Juris Secundum these state-specific encyclopedias are tools that are likely to be most useful to you early in a research endeavor, and are valuable both as tools to find (basic) explanation of doctrine and citations/references to a wealth of further sources and as tools to “model” some explication of a widely-understood structure for the topical organization of law.

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Legal Encyclopedias

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Case Western Reserve University law school library.

We recently wrote about the value of secondary sources to the legal researcher. So-called “legal encyclopedias” are a valuable secondary-source research tool. When you are conducting topical legal research in a comparatively unfamiliar subject or (especially in the case of state-specific encyclopedias) jurisdiction, a legal encyclopedia can provide a valuable starting point.

This is largely because encyclopedias score well on the ‘contextualizing’ and the ‘citation mining’ facets of analyzing secondary sources. Read the rest on

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Bankruptcy, A Research Guide

This article is a revision and reformatting of a research guide that first appeared here on the website of the Judge Ben C. Green Law Library.


Federal bankruptcy law governs the disposition of property from the estate of a distressed borrower who either voluntarily seeks liquidation or reorganization of debts under the terms of the Bankruptcy Code or whose creditors seek to involuntarily impose such liquidation or reorganization. Bankruptcy procedures balance the need to offer debtors a “fresh start” as economic participants, the desire to save some businesses that may be of more value as “going concerns,” and the need to allocate recovery fairly between the various creditors of a person or firm that is unable to pay all of its debts according to the original terms.

Bankruptcy itself is federal law, and Congress has the power to create uniform federal bankruptcy laws under Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution. The current Bankruptcy Code was enacted in 1978 and last extensively revised in 2005, is codified as amended as Title 11 of the United States Code.

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On the Last Day of Legal Research Class

Today was the last day of our semester in Advanced Legal Research. On the whole, I think the course was a success, although I’ve a number of ideas for future iterations of the course. ALR had dropped off of the curriculum here, for a variety of reasons, and bringing it back was an important goal for my first year on the job. The student reception was certainly sufficient to make me think that the investment of time and energy (my own and that of my colleagues) was worthwhile.

It was a semester during which we saw the expansion of Google Scholar results to cover case law and had our first glimpse of WestlawNext. One theme I try to get across to the students is that we now work in a research environment (in fact we’ve been there for some time) in which you don’t have to work with tools that convey and communicate structure. You have to provide the structure, and be alert to which certain research resources (treatises, statutory codes used correctly) continue to tell you something about the context and organization of the law and the ways in which some community of practice has constructed a broader notion of legal structure. What will be the long-term effect on the law of legal research conducted (and therefore legal analysis informed) primarily within an organic “web” of resources that are not bounded by ordered, classified, finding tools (e.g. Digests)? I don’t know. But I do know that, in the transitional environment of the foreseeable future, the inherited cognitive structures of the law aren’t going to simply collapse — they’ve merely become easier to miss for the casual user of unstructured online search tools. And that law school legal research teachers (who could once primarily focus on the limited, mechanical, skills tailored to a closed universe of discrete tools) must instead now focus on training students to be conscious of and attentive to their own interactions with retrieved legal work-product.

It has, I think, become much harder (if it ever was easy) to separate research skills from some broader idea of knowledgeable information seeking.

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