How to do research on law? Laws are enacted for the purpose of governing society. These include local, state, and federal codes, legislation, regulations, and court decisions that have either upheld or rewritten longstanding laws. There are also various consumer laws, labor laws, family laws, bankruptcy laws, laws for renting and selling a home, or leasing and purchasing a used car, and city ordinances banning smoking in public places or the use of certain trash receptacles.
Fortunately, many legal resources have been published, including hundreds of indexed and full-text articles in major law reviews, legal newspapers, bar association journals, and international law publications delivering authoritative and critical accounts on notable people, trials, and other legal topics for research papers.
Available in both print and electronic form, most of the above resources can be found at your local public and college and university library, or university law library, as well as on the World Wide Web. Recommended references follow.
Selected Subject Headings
Listed below is a sample of a few broad Library of Congress subject headings—made up of one word or more representing concepts under which all library holdings are divided and subdivided by subject—which you can search under and use as subject terms as well when searching online library catalogs for preliminary and/or additional research, such as books, audio and video recordings, and other references, related to your research paper topic. When researching materials on your topic, subject heading searching may be more productive than searching using simple keywords. However, keyword searching when using the right search method (Boolean, etc.) and combination of words can be equally effective in finding materials more closely relevant to your research paper.
Suggested Research Topics in Law
- Administrative Law
- Agriculture Law
- Air and Space Law
- Animal Law
- Art Law and Cultural Property
- Bankruptcy Law
- Civil Law
- Civil Procedure
- Civil Rights and Discrimination
- Commercial Law
- Communications Law
- Comparative Law
- Computer Law
- Conflict of Laws
- Constitutional Law
- Consumer Protection Law
- Criminal Law and Procedure
- Dispute Resolution
- Education Law
- Elder Law
- Employment Practice
- Energy and Utilities Law
- Environmental Law
- Estate & Gift Taxation
- Estate Planning and Probate
- Family Law
- Food and Drug Law
- Gender and Law
- Government Contracts
- Health Law and Policy
- Housing Law
- Human Rights Law
- Immigration Law
- Indian and Aboriginal Law
- Insurance Law
- Intellectual Property Law—International business transactions
- International Law
- International Trade
- Labor Law
- Land Use Planning
- Law and Society
- Law Enforcement and Corrections
- Law of the Sea
- Legal Analysis and Writing
- Legal Education
- Legal History
- Legal Profession
- Legal Research and Bibliography
- Medical Jurisprudence
- Military Law
- Motor Vehicles
- Natural Resources Law
- Practice and Procedure
- Products Liability
- Professional Ethics
- Property—Personal and Real
- Securities Law
- Sexuality and the Law
- Social Welfare
- State and Local Government Law
- Supreme Court
- Tax Exempt Organizations
- Taxation—Federal Estate and Gift
- Taxation—Federal Income
- Taxation—State and Local
- Trade Regulation
- Transportation Law
- Water Law
- Workers’ Compensation Law
Selected Keyword Search Strategies and Guides
Most online library indexes and abstracts and full-text article databases offer basic and advanced “keyword” searching. In this case, combine your keyword terms of your thesis question or topic with relevant subject headings using the Boolean search method (employing “and” or “or”) to find research appropriate to your research paper topic.
If your topic is “illegal immigrants and welfare,” for example, enter “illegal immigrants” and “welfare” with “and” on the same line to locate sources directly compatible with the primary focus of your paper. To find research on more specific aspects of your topic, from your list of keywords that you developed alternate with one new keyword at a time in between (for example, “illegal immigrants and eligibility and welfare,” “illegal immigrants and laws and welfare,” “illegal immigrants and rights and welfare,” “illegal immigrants and restrictions and welfare,” etc.).
For additional help with keyword searching, navigation or user guides for online indexes and databases by many leading providers—including Cambridge Scientific Abstracts, EBSCO, H.W. Wilson, OCLC, Ovid Technologies, ProQuest, and Thomson Gale—are posted with direct links on library Web sites to guides providing specific instruction to using whichever database you want to search. They provide additional guidance on how to customize and maximize your search, including advanced searching techniques and grouping of words and phrases using the Boolean search method—of your topic, of bibliographic records, and of full-text articles, and other documents related to your research paper.
Selected Source and Subject Guides
As part of your preliminary research to find appropriate resources for your research paper, information source and research guides are available at most public and academic libraries and are keyword searchable through your library’s online catalog (to search and locate guides, enter your “subject” followed by these keywords one search at a time: “information sources,” “reference sources,” and “research guide”). Printed guides available for this subject area include
Encyclopedia of Legal Information Sources: A Bibliographic Guide to Approximately 29,000 Citations for Publications, Organizations, and Other Sources of Information on 480 Law-Related Subjects, 2nd ed., edited by Brian L. Baker and Patrick J. Petit, 1,083 pages (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1993)
Find the Law in the Library: A Guide to Legal Research, by John Corbin (Chicago: American Library Association, 1989)
Legal Information: How to Find It, How to Use It, by Kent C. Olson, 333 pages (Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1999)
Legal Research: How to Find and Understand the Law, 15th ed., by Stephen Elias, 386 pages (Berkeley, Calif.: Nolo, 2009)
In addition to these sources of research, most college and university libraries offer online subject guides arranged by subject on the library’s Web page; others also list searchable course-related “LibGuides” by subject. Each guide lists more recommended published and Web sources—including books and references, journal, newspaper and magazines indexes, full-text article databases, Web sites, and even research tutorials—that you can access to expand your research on more specific issues and relevant to your chosen paper subject.
Selected Books and References
Dictionaries and Thesauri
Black’s Law Dictionary, 9th ed., edited by Bryan A. Garner, 1,940 pages (St. Paul, Minn.: West Group, 2009)
The most up-to-date authoritative legal dictionary of its kind, Black’s Law Dictionary covers in easy-to-understand language more than 45,000 terms and definitions, including 2,000 more terms since the eighth edition and 19,000 more since the seventh. Besides offering brief and clear definitions, this premier stand-alone legal resource, first published in 1891, includes guides on legal maxims, the U.S. Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a time chart of the U.S. Supreme Court, a federal circuit map, and much more. Unlike previous editions, this latest edition does not feature references to court cases from which the definitions were derived.
Burton’s Legal Thesaurus, 4th ed., by William C. Burton, 1,040 pages (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006)
This fully updated and revised thesaurus contains more than 7,000 terms, synonyms, definitions, and parts of speech related specifically to the legal profession—including more than 1,000 new terms not in previous editions. In this comprehensive and easy-to-use edition, terms added cover such critical subject as electronic commerce, intellectual property, and other new developments and related laws. A thorough index accompanies the volume for easy cross-referencing of subjects.
The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations, Second Edition, by Hugh Rawson and Margaret Miner, 912 pages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993)
This updated source boasts nearly 6,000 quotations. It includes a comprehensive collection of the most famous passages of U.S. judges and legal commentators and sayings from literature, humor, motion pictures, and even some song lyrics relating to American law. A CD-ROM edition was published in 1999.
Martindale-Hubbell International Law Digest (New Providence, N.J.: Martindale-Hubbell, 1993– )
Formerly published as part of the Martindale-Hubbell Law Digest, this leading legal resource provides summaries of statutory law for more than 60 countries. Content of the print edition is searchable online and on CD-ROM through LexisNexis.
Martindale-Hubbell Law Digest, 2 vols. (Summit, N.J.: Martindale-Hubbell, 1990– )
Martindale-Hubbell Law Digest offers detailed summaries of statutory laws in the United States, Canada, and the European Union, compiled and updated each year by leading legal scholars and law firms. This two-volume reference is available by itself or as part of the multivolume Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory. The Law Digest is also accessible online in full-text form through LexisNexis.
Shepard’s Acts and Cases by Popular Names: Federal and State (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Shepard’s Citations, 1968– )
Lists in alphabetical order all federal and state acts and cases cited by popular names. Included are citations of the U.S. Constitution, U.S. code, or U.S. statutes cited by the U.S. Supreme Court and the lower federal courts or as cited in subsequent acts of Congress, U.S. Supreme Court reports, states codes or statutes and other legal sources.
The Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, 27 vols. (New York: Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, Inc., 1931– )
Perhaps the most widely consulted and accepted biographical directory in the legal community, The Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, in print since1931 and issued on CD-ROM in 1998, features more than 900,000 individual entries for lawyers and law firms in the United States and 140 other countries. Information listed includes attorney and law firm names, date an attorney was admitted to the bar, branch office locations, practice area, and more. This popular reference is also accessible and searchable through LexisNexis as The Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory Online and The Martindale Law Directory on CD-ROM.
Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, 2nd ed., edited by Leonard W. Levy and Kenneth L. Karst, 6 vols., 3,200 pages (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000)
This encyclopedia contains synopses of hundreds of court cases related to constitutional law and biographies of every Supreme Court justice and U.S. president. Volume 6 features many worthwhile and related appendixes with full-text of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States, chronologies relating to American constitutional law, a glossary of legal terms, case index, name index, and subject index.
Encyclopedia of the American Legislative System: Studies of Principal Structures, Processes, and Policies of Congress and State Legislatures Since the Colonial Era, edited by Joel H. Silbey, 3 vols., 1,738 pages (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; and New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994).
This excellent three-volume reference features 91 individually authored essays covering Congress and the state legislatures from the colonial era to the present, complete with a subject index in volume 2.
The Guide to American Law: Everyone’s Legal Encyclopedia, 12 vols. with a 6-vol. supplement (St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co., 1983–85, 1990–95).
Published from 1983 to 1995, this guide covers a wide range of topics and is written for a general audience. Extensively cross-referenced with name and subject indexes, this series contains many other useful elements for researchers, such as tables of legal abbreviations, acronyms, cases cited, maps of the judicial circuits, and popular names for acts.
The Oxford Companion to American Law, edited by Kermit C. Hall, 912 pages (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)
Possibly the best single encyclopedia of American law ever published, this definitive reference features nearly 500 entries written by some 300 legal and historical scholars, law-school faculty members, judges, and legal writers with a minimum of legalese.
West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, 2nd ed., edited by Jeffrey Lehman and Shirelle Phelps, 12 vols., 7,000 pages (Detroit, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2004)
Written in non-technical and non-legal terms, this well-organized, 12-volume reference set features easy-to-follow explanations of more than 5,000 legal topics, including legal terms and events. In addition to defining important legal terms, this encyclopedia also contains biographies of key figures responsible for shaping U.S. law.
Constitutional Rights Sourcebook, by Peter G. Renstrom, 770 pages (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1999)
Thoroughly covers everything related to constitutional rights—nearly 175 Supreme Court cases and individual amendments to the U.S. Constitution—by chapter. Many hot-button legal issues and recent cases are spotlighted, including affirmative action, drug testing, physician-assisted suicide, capital punishment, parental rights, hate crimes, and much more. Content is extensively cross-referenced throughout each chapter and to other cases and information discussed in subsequent chapters.
Great American Court Cases, edited by Mark Mikula and L. Mpho Mabunda, 4 vols., 2,644 pages (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 1999)
This four-volume set, appropriate for students studying government, civics, U.S. history, and law, chronicles every major U.S. court decision—approximately 800 cases in all. Cases are organized by broad legal principles and then arranged under specific legal issues. Approximately 100 illustrations are featured in each volume, along with an appendix with guidelines to reading legal citations, a listing of U.S. Supreme Court justices, a cumulative general index in all volumes, cross-reference lists within each volume, and a glossary of terms.
Volume 1 is devoted to individual liberties and high-profile cases, from Gitlow v. New York (1925) to Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988). Volume 2 probes criminal justice and such major court cases as California v. Acevedo (1991), Escobedo v. Illinois (1964), and Mapp v. Ohio (1961). Volume 3 examines the issue of equal protection and covers cases specific to this topic, including Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), Fronteirro v. Richardson (1973), and Roe v. Wade (1971). Finally, volume 4 deals exclusively with business and government court cases, such as the Dred Scott case (1856), Maryland v. Wirtz (1968), and United States v. Nixon (1974). In addition to the general reference sources listed above, many law encyclopedias have been published covering various laws, codes, and statutes for many different states, written more with legal professionals in mind using more technical language and legalese. Should you be interested in researching this area of the law, consult your reference library staff for a list of recommended reference titles.
Selected Full-Text Article Databases
Academic Search Elite (Ipswich, Mass.: EBSCO Publishing, EBSCOHost, indexing/abstracting: 1984– , full text: 1990– )
A leading general reference database, Academic Search Elite provides access to current and previously published articles from all disciplines in leading scholarly journals and newspapers.
The CQ Researcher (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1983– ) Highlights comprehensive and detailed reports, with bibliographic references, published by Congressional Quarterly, focusing on a wide variety of current events and major political and social issues. Subjects are searchable by keyword and date.
Criminology: SAGE Full-Text Collection (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, 1976– )
Published by SAGE Publications, this popular criminology database covers 21 criminal justice journals with access to more than 4,100 articles on related subjects. Summaries or abstracts are provided with each searchable entry, along with full-text PDF versions of each article. Journals represented in this collection include Crime and Delinquency (1984– ), Criminal Justice (2001– ), Criminal Justice and Behavior (1982– ), Criminal Justice Policy Review (2000– ), Homicide Studies (1997– ), and many more.
Expanded Academic ASAP (Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale InfoTrac, 1980– )
Covering a wide variety of subjects and disciplines, Expanded Academic ASAP indexes more than 2,700 scholarly, trade, and general-interest journals, magazines, and newspapers with full-text coverage of 1,400 titles. Included are many leading law journals, such as Law and Contemporary Problems (1984– ), Law in Context (1999– ) Law, Medicine and Health Now: Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics (1982– ), and Law and Policy in International Business (1980– ).
HeinOnline (Buffalo, New York: William S. Hein & Co., 1808– )
Produced by William S. Hein & Co., Inc., an American legal publisher for more than 80 years, HeinOnline provides full-text access to more than 400 international law journals, both current and historical. The subscription database is very useful for researching articles and journals from the early 19th century to the present that are not covered by LexisNexis Legal Resource Index, or Westlaw. The collection includes U.S. law journals, international law journals, treaties and agreements, U.S. Supreme Court literature, and more.
LegalTrac (Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale)
Indexes 875 current law periodicals, including many leading major law reviews, legal newspapers, bar association journals, and international legal journals, 200 of them in full text, and law-related articles from 1,000 business and general-interest publications.
LexisNexis Academic Universe (Dayton, Ohio: LexisNexis, 1970– )
Especially strong in the area of law, this full-text database covers news, business, medical, and legal information from more than 5,000 sources, including major newspapers, magazines, federal and state court decisions, and law reviews.
ProQuest Research Library (Ann Arbor, Mich.: ProQuest/UMI, indexing: 1971– , full text: 1986– )
Abstracts and indexing, with full-text articles, of more than 2,500 academic journals, popular magazines, and leading business publications, some of which include social science and general-interest publications reporting on criminal justice and behavioral science.
PsycINFO (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association PsycINFO, 1887– )
PsycINFO indexes more than 1,300 psychology and psychological journals, books, dissertations, and technical reports in 25 different languages, including such subjects as sociology, law, physiology, and psychiatry. Law journals cited focus on the psychological and social aspects of law and human behavior. Journals include Law and Human Behavior (1977– ) Law and Psychology Review (1975– ), and Law and Society Review (1983– ).
WilsonWeb (Bronx, N.Y.: H.W. Wilson Co., 1982– )
Indexes approximately 3,800 periodicals, with full text of many journals.
National Law Journal: The Weekly Newspaper for the Profession (New York: American Lawyer Media, 1978– , weekly)
This leading professional journal reports the latest news and legal developments of interest to attorneys, including federal circuit court decisions, legal verdicts, legal news from the business and private sectors, and a host of important legislative issues. Online full-text articles are available through LexisNexis and Westlaw.
The Practical Lawyer (Philadelphia, Pa.: American Law Institute–American Bar Association, Committee on Continuing Professional Education, 1955– , 6 times yearly)
Published six times a year by the American Law Institute–American Bar Association, this journal offers information on legal topics. Articles offer practical solutions to problems in commercial and corporate law, real estate, litigation, tax and estate planning, and more.
Selected Web Sites
American Bar Association Periodicals (Chicago: American Bar Association, current) (http://www.americanbar.org/groups/judicial.html)
One of the most respected legal publishers, the American Bar Association publishes more than 60 magazines, journals, and newsletters. The Web site provides a complete A to Z list of titles. Links provide descriptive information about the background, history, and content of each publication.
The Constitution of the United States (http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/)
Sponsored by the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University Law School, this site contains the entire U.S. Constitution, section by section.
Extremely useful online collection of legal references regarding federal legal issues, indexed by title or topic, by federal statutes and regulations, and by federal and legislative branch. Also provides lists of general legal research and references and professional associations and organizations.
One of the Web’s leading legal authorities, FindLaw.com is a great source for researching local, U.S., foreign, and international legal issues.
Internet Legal Resource Guide (http://www.ilrg.com/)
Categorized directory of more than 4,000 Web sites from around the world concerning the law and legal profession, with a primary emphasis on the laws and legal sources in the United States.
The Legal Information Institute (http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/)
Online resource containing full text of every U.S. Supreme Court opinion since 1990, and court decisions for all 50 states.
U.S. Supreme Court Decisions (http://www.findlaw.com/casecode/supreme.html)
Offered by FindLaw.com, this Web page has a searchable full-text database of U.S. Supreme Court decisions from 1893 to the present.