Legal Encyclopedias: Research “Well Begun”

Vol. 39 No. 2

By

Shawn G. Nevers (neverss@law.byu.edu) teaches legal research and is head of reference services at the Howard W. Hunter Law Library at Brigham Young University.

Well begun is half done. The old saying applies to legal research just as it does to much of life. Finding a good place to start makes a big difference in how quickly and productively you research. Legal encyclopedias are some of the best tools for ensuring that a legal research assignment is “well begun.”

Encyclopedias have long been effective tools for getting a jump on a topic. My earliest research memories revolve around a severely outdated set of World Book Encyclopedias my grandparents bought when my dad was a kid. While encyclopedias have morphed over the years (Microsoft Encarta anyone?), they continue to be relevant resources. Wikipedia is our go-to encyclopedia these days. And, although some don’t like comparing it to the professionally edited encyclopedias of yesterday, it’s a great place to start when you want to learn something—even if you should be skeptical of its contents.

Like general encyclopedias, legal encyclopedias provide summaries of a broad array of alphabetically arranged topics. This breadth of coverage is a key difference between legal encyclopedias and legal treatises, which tend to focus on one subject. The expansive scope of legal encyclopedias means lawyers are likely to find something about nearly any topic from agriculture to zoning. This is especially important for new lawyers and law students who frequently encounter unfamiliar legal topics.

I am often pleasantly surprised at what I can find in a legal encyclopedia. For example, one well-known legal encyclopedia contains 2,804 sections under the topic “Job Discrimination,” including the ever- popular “No-beard rules as sex discrimination.” Legal encyclopedias also cover legal topics that may not be covered extensively elsewhere, such as “Funeral Directors and Embalmers” or “Laundries, Dyers, and Dry Cleaners.”

The purpose of legal encyclopedias is not to give an extensive analysis or commentary on the law, but to provide a brief, noncritical recitation of the law. This gives researchers a great place to discover the general principles surrounding a legal issue and explains why legal encyclopedias have been called “the practitioners’ textbook.”

The best-known legal encyclopedias are American Jurisprudence, 2d and Corpus Juris Secundum. You’re more likely to know them by their acronyms, Am.Jur.2d and CJS. Both are national encyclopedias—meaning their entries attempt to state the law generally as it applies across all jurisdictions. While it is important to focus on your specific jurisdiction, a national encyclopedia can be a great place to start to get an understanding of the area of law you must research.

Suppose, for instance, your employer’s client believes that he was defamed when an acquaintance told others he is a terrorist. When confronted by your client, the potential defendant said he was only joking. You’re asked to determine whether a statement can be considered defamatory if it’s only a joke.

The topic “Libel and Slander” in Am.Jur.2d includes a section regarding “statements made in jest; humorous remarks.” In five brief paragraphs, it states the general rule on the topic: Such a statement can be defamatory if a reasonable person would not have thought it was a joke. This section also provides references to West Topics and Key Numbers and an American Law Reports ( ALR) annotation that will lead you to cases in your jurisdiction that are on point.

But, that’s not the end of a legal encyclopedia’s usefulness. (“Can there be more?” you exclaim in disbelief.) I imagine that even though learning about defamation in law school was compelling, you may not remember all of the finer nuances (or, let’s be realistic, even the essential elements). Well, a legal encyclopedia has got you covered. With more than 500 sections on “Libel and Slander,” Am.Jur.2d will make sure you’re up to speed and conversant on the general topic.

One of the least helpful aspects of the national legal encyclopedias are the case citations they provide.Unlike ALR, Am.Jur.2d and CJS do not attempt to provide comprehensive case citations. Most of the time you will find that the case citations are merely illustrative and rarely do they cite to your jurisdiction. But this is not the case with state-specific legal encyclopedias, which focus on specific jurisdictions in addition to providing broad coverage. This means you’re getting a state-specific summary of the law as well as citations to pertinent case law in your jurisdiction.

If you’ve never used a state-specific legal encyclopedia, do yourself a favor and take a look at one the next time you research. They are beautiful things. Not only do they provide broad coverage like the national encyclopedias, but they focus on a specific jurisdiction. That means you’re getting a state-specific summary of the law, as well as citations to pertinent case law in your jurisdiction.

Currently only about 20 states have their own legal encyclopedias. For the most part they are who you’d think they’d be: California, New York, Texas, etc. But, some smaller states, like New Hampshire, have also been invited to the state-specific legal encyclopedia party. It pays to find out if your state is partying too.

Take, for instance, our defamation example above. If you were researching California law, you could turn to either Witkin’s Summary of California Law or California Jurisprudence, 3d. In each you will find a brief section laying out the law in California, which you could have otherwise spent hours searching for. You will also find citations to California court cases that will be helpful to your research. In practice, you’ll find legal encyclopedias if you know where to look. Am.Jur.2d is on both Westlaw and LexisNexis, while CJS. appears only on Westlaw. State-specific legal encyclopedias are usually either on Westlaw or Lexis, although sometimes they are on both. In addition to keyword searching these electronic legal encyclopedias provide tables of contents, which are extremely helpful in an unfamiliar area of law.

While you may prefer the electronic, I think you’ll be surprised at the number of firms that still own print encyclopedias. I know one small firm whose only print resources are a state code and a set of Am.Jur.2d. Because of the cost, many firms no longer update their encyclopedia sets, but the main text is still available and quite useful.

No matter what format you use, don’t overlook legal encyclopedias as a great place to start. With brief summaries of general legal principles on a broad range of topics, legal encyclopedias will get your research headed in the right direction. Now that’s research “well begun.”

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