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Legal Research for Beginners

published November 25, 2004

Sonja Larsen and John Bourdeau
294 pp. Barron's Educational Series. $16.95

By Ursula Furi-Perry
( 120 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.
<<Legal Research for Beginners touts a comprehensive Table of Contents and well-written Chapter Highlights at the end of each section. These tools are particularly useful, as they succinctly summarize the important tactics of legal research and allow readers to keep only the most significant points on hand at all times.

The book's ''Helpful Hint'' sections, peppered throughout each chapter, are indeed helpful: they offer quick descriptions of lesser-known research techniques, like looking through headnotes and turning to newsgroups for help. Some of the hints are rudimentary, however, like urging readers to consult a legal dictionary when they are unsure of a legal term's meaning. Each chapter also contains a useful ''Law Fact'' or two, which summarize the gist of the law pertaining to a particular topic-those tidbits are good ways to keep track of the most important considerations in each chapter.


Some of the book's general explanations of legal research are a bit skewed. For example, Ms. Larsen and Mr. Bourdeau use the term ''Civil Law'' to refer to both civil suits and statutory law-that can get confusing to readers who are not knowledgeable in the legal field. Furthermore, the book's list of possible civil and criminal actions is lacking: as an example, abortion is listed as a crime while drug trafficking and distribution are nowhere to be found; and neither immigration law nor elder law is even addressed under civil topics.

Chapter 3 provides non-lawyers with good, solid advice for finding and phrasing a legal issue. It includes information about brainstorming for search terms, using general indices, and turning an everyday question into a legal question. Later, the authors educate the reader about briefing and deciphering case opinions. Ms. Larsen and Mr. Bourdeau do a particularly good job of describing each part of a case and offering advice on note-taking as it pertains to opinions.

Chapters 4 through 7 describe in detail the many law books and publications available for researching legal topics, including reporters, codes, digests, Shepard's, ALR's, and encyclopedias. Ms. Larsen and Mr. Bourdeau illustrate their explanations with sample pages from actual law books, which help readers who are on unfamiliar territory. The authors also use hypothetical legal quandaries to clarify legal issues and show how to tackle them at the law library-this is quite helpful, although the book may have been better served by one continuous hypothetical as opposed to many short ones, as the latter may be confusing to some readers. Even with the sample pages, it may have been more helpful to stick to one fact pattern and include plenty of information relevant to that case. It's also worthy to note that some book titles and research tools contain inconsistencies: Corpus Juris Secundum, for example, is misspelled throughout.

Chapters 9 and 10 are especially useful for anyone defending himself pro se or deciding to take an administrative or legal matter into his/her own hands. Chapter 9 describes the process of legal analysis, or applying the law to a particular fact pattern. It briefly describes authority and its application to new fact patterns and runs down a list of tips for writing a sample memorandum of law. Chapter 10 addresses the many form books, including practice and transactional forms, as well as practice references, making it easier to find and fill out necessary documents.

Ms. Larsen and Mr. Bourdeau spend little time on computer-aided legal research, perhaps to the detriment of the book. In Chapter 1, the authors contend that computer research can't replace a trip to the library and describe it as an expensive way to research the law; the authors fail to even mention that some law libraries allow patrons to research online for free. Chapter 8 is devoted to computer-aided legal research, describing not only Westlaw and Lexis, but also legal research on free websites and search engines. This chapter includes the basics, such as queries, keywords, Boolean searches, and updating searches. However, the authors' adamant stance that computers can't measure up to the books detracts from the importance, reliability, and convenience of computer-aided legal research.

Legal Research for Beginners contains some useful appendices, including a glossary from Barron's Law Dictionary, common Shepard's abbreviations, and a list of codes and reporters on the state and federal levels. Overall, the book is a great tool for absolute beginners, those who have not stepped foot in a law library. While elementary in content, Legal Research for Beginners provides a clear explanation of the often daunting task of performing legal research.

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