One of the common questions you’ll face when receiving a new legal research assignment is “Where should I start?” There’s a number of places that work as a good starting place, but one of the best is a legal treatise. Researchers today are often tempted to start searching in a case law database to find the answer to their research questions. The problem with that, however, is that you have to do a lot of work that might already have been done. Legal treatises are works written by experts on a specific area of the law. So, if you have a contracts question you could check out Corbin on Contracts or Williston on Contracts and find an expert explanation on the law as well as case citations. Better yet, if you can find a state-specific legal treatise you’ll find an explanation of state law as well as many cases in your jurisdiction.
Many legal treatises are available on Westlaw and Lexis these days, but they aren’t cheap outside of law schools. Find out from your employer what legal treatises they have access to and if it’s alright to use them. Many firms still have copies of legal treatises in print, so don’t forget about them. If you need to find out what legal treatises are out there on a topic I usually go to Harvard’s Legal Treatises by Subject or Georgetown Law Library’s Treatise Finder.
For more information about using legal treatises in legal research take a look at my short column on legal treatises written for Student Lawyer magazine – Smart Researchers Save Time by Starting with Legal Treatises.