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Legal Research Resources for Beginners

This research guide provides basic information about the types of legal research resources and when to use them.

Secondary Sources


Secondary sources for legal research are items that explain, analyze, comment on, or teach someone how to practice the law. They are not the law itself, but they are a great tool for understanding the law. They can also help you locate primary law such as statutes and case law. There is a wide variety of types of secondary legal resources, aimed at everyone from absolute beginners to law students to experienced practitioners. This page will help explain what the purpose of each type of resource is and who may find them helpful.

Self-Help Books

What are self-help books?

Self-help books are plain-English, general overviews of legal topics geared towards consumers or lay people with no legal experience. Self-help books will explain the basic concepts of the law and give some citations to the actual law involved, but are usually not good sources for finding extensive primary law or as starting places for in-depth research. They usually strive to explain the law in a real-world context and will offer tips and advice for how a non-legal professional can handle various legal problems without having to involve an attorney. Some self-help books will include template letters or forms for basic legal tasks like resolving credit report errors or creating a will.

Who are these for?

Self-help books are written for people who have little or no experience with the law. They are great for beginners or for people who need very simple information or advice.

Why would I use these?

If you need a straightforward explanation of the law or of your rights without a lot of legal jargon, a self-help book is a good place to start. Common topics for self help books are consumer issues like credit repair, landlord/tenant issues, and family law issues. 

Self-help books are also excellent guides for taking care of simple legal maneuvers without having to hire an attorney. If you need a divorce, a will, to form a basic nonprofit organization, to stop debt collector harassment, to file for a patent, to rent a house, or to probate a will, we have a self-help book that can help you!

If you have a library account in good standing, you can check out an OverDrive e-book title or access our remote databases. Don't have a library account? Texas residents can register for a library account from home! Learn more about how to register from home.

Below are some - but not all! - of the many self help e-books available from the Texas State Law Library. For more, please visit our Digital Collection or our catalog.

If you have a library account with us that is in good standing, you can access our remote databases from home. The Legal Information Reference Center is a remote database that contains self-help books from legal publisher Nolo on a wide variety of subjects. If you are a Texas resident but don't have a library account with us, you may register for a library account online.

Below are just some of the self help books in the Texas State Law Library's print collection. These resources cannot be accessed online. The Texas State Law Library has many other resources in addition to the highlights we present below. Please call us at (512) 463-1722 if you have any questions about these materials or if you would like to place a hold.

Texas Resources:

General/Federal Resources:

Legal Encyclopedias

What are legal encyclopedias?

Legal encyclopedias offer brief, two- or three-paragraph long explanations of legal topics. They are excellent introductions to an area of law. Because they cover almost every aspect of the law, the coverage is broad and not deep. In addition to a quick summary of the law, each article will contain a few research references such as relevant statutes, case law, or a digest number where you can find additional cases. These research references are very useful in taking the next step to research the topic.

There are two prominent encyclopedias of American law: American Jurisprudence and Corpus Juris Secundum. Texas also has an encyclopedia of state law, Texas Jurisprudence. Texas Jurisprudence is similar in form to American Jurisprudence but only covers Texas law. 

Legal encyclopedias are most effective when you have a handful of keywords or search terms to start with. Legal encyclopedias are arranged alphabetically by subject so they are easy to browse using keywords. The legal encyclopedias in our collection have subject indexes to help you find the sections that will be most helpful for you. You can also use the computers in the library to conduct keyword searches of Texas Jurisprudence and American Jurisprudence through Westlaw. Many annotations in Vernon's Annotated Texas Statutes will refer to a specific section of Texas Jurisprudence for additional information.

Who are these for?

Legal encyclopedias can be used by people of any level of legal knowledge. The articles are very brief and written in easy-to-read language, without too much legal jargon. 

Why would I use these?

Legal encyclopedias are great places to go if you don't know where to start. They will explain a concept, list the relevant statutes and case law, and suggest additional resources. They'll give you a preliminary knowledge of a topic as well as the next step to take in your research. They're not good on their own if you need a deep understanding of a subject, but they can help show you where to go to gain that knowledge.

There are not many free, online legal encyclopedias. The State Law Library does provide free electronic access to Texas Jurisprudence and American Jurisprudence through Westlaw Next, but you can only access these databases from the library's computers. 

Texas Resources:

General/Federal Resources:

Nutshells

What are Nutshells?

Nutshells are short titles written with the purpose of giving the reader a basic overview of the history and established law in a certain area. They are generally a quick read but still are comprehensive in terms of presenting the core law and structure of a particular subject. Nutshells fall somewhere between legal encyclopedias and treatises - they will give you more detailed information than an encyclopedia, but will not give you the theoretical or practical information that a treatise offers. For brevity's sake, nutshells may not cite to other secondary resources but will include a complete table of the statutes and cases discussed. The authors may also cite a more thorough treatise in the preface where readers can go for a more detailed analysis.

The series "...In a Nutshell" is a series published by West Academic Publishing, but the term "nutshell" has become shorthand for any brief but thorough primer on a topic. The "Short and Happy Guide to..." is another series from West Academic Publishing with a similar focus on concise summations of established law in a specific field.

Who are these for?

Nutshells are commonly thought of as study aids for law students. They will be most helpful for readers who have a little more legal knowledge than a complete novice, but one doesn't necessarily have to be an experienced attorney to use and understand them. Those looking for a thorough discussion of the most important points of established law in a given area will also find them useful.

Why would I use these?

Nutshells are intended as thorough but not comprehensive introductions to an area of law. If you are looking for information on an area of law that you're unfamiliar with and need something beyond the simplicity of a legal encyclopedia, a nutshell is a good next step. Nutshells are also great sources for finding additional primary law on a topic. They also make handy quick reference guides.

If you have a library account in good standing, you can check out an OverDrive e-book title or access our remote databases. Don't have a library account? Texas residents can register for a library account from home! Learn more about how to register from home.

Below are some - but not all! - of the many nutshell and "Short and Happy Guide" e-books available from the Texas State Law Library. For a comprehensive list, please see this search results page from our catalog. If you have a library account, you can also browse the nutshells available through the West Academic database. For more, please visit our Digital Collection or our catalog.

Below is a list of only some of the many nutshells we have available in print in our library. For a complete list, please see this search results page in our catalog. You can also use our catalog to create your own custom search for nutshells!

Treatises

What are treatises?

Treatises are very detailed, in-depth discussions of a single topic of law written by legal scholars. They range from narrowly focused single volume books to very broad, multi-volume sets. Regardless of the scope, they aim to be comprehensive on the topic by providing a thorough discussion of the law itself, analysis and commentary on the law, and additional resources to continue your research. Treatises are extensively footnoted; you will find references to statutes, important cases, other treatises, government publications, law review articles, and more. Treatises may also contain practice information such as forms and checklists.

Many classic treatises are considered to be the authoritative source on a field of law. When searching for treatises, beginners may be confused that they don't actually have the word "treatise" in the title. A good rule of thumb is that if you see a person's name in the title, such as Nimmer on Copyright, Corbin on Contracts, or Appleman on Insurance, it is most likely a treatise. 

Our librarians have compiled a list of Recommended Titles and Treatises by subject to help you get started locating treatises relevant to your research.

Who are these for?

Because treatises are so in-depth, they will generally be most useful for practitioners or those who need to do extremely thorough research on a topic. They are scholarly resources, so they will use legal terminology as opposed to plain English. Those unfamiliar with an area of law or who just need an overview may not find them as helpful as a legal encyclopedia or nutshell.

Why would I use these?

Treatises are helpful for finding answers to very specific questions about an area of law. Because treatises cover a topic in extreme detail, you are more likely to find information about very specific issues within a topic. They are also excellent starting points for exhaustive research on a topic. A solid treatise will provide plentiful references to additional resources in the library.

If you have a library account in good standing, you can check out an OverDrive e-book title or access our remote databases. Don't have a library account? Texas residents can register for a library account from home! Learn more about how to register from home.

Below are some of the treatises available in e-book format from the Texas State Law Library. For more, please visit our Digital Collection or our catalog.

Texas Resources:

General/Federal Resources:

Below is a list of a few of the many treatises we have in print at the Texas State Law Library. To find more, please see our catalog or our list of Recommended Titles and Treatises.

Texas Resources:

General/Federal Resources:

Practice Guides & Form Books

What are practice guides?

Practice guides are resources that explain the procedural steps that one must take during litigation to successfully complete a legal task. They are aimed at working attorneys or self-represented litigants who are actively involved in lawsuits. These resources are less about understanding or analyzing the law and more about how to actually accomplish certain tasks. Readers will find helpful guidance for each step of the legal process including checklists and sample forms.

What are form books?

Form books are resources that give the reader the building blocks they need to create pleadings and motions to file in court. Drafting guides will provide standard language and give advice for what must be included in the document that the reader will then need to write themselves. Other form books, like Texas Jurisprudence Pleading and Practice Forms, contain fill-in-the-blank forms as well as the legal information necessary to use them. There not pre-written fill-in-the-blank forms for every purpose, so it may be necessary to use a drafting guide to create your own documents.

Who are these for?

Practice guides and form books are written for attorneys and pro se litigants who need to know how to actually accomplish legal tasks. One does not need to be an attorney to use or understand practice guides. In fact, they are great resources for pro se litigants who need to know what steps they need to take in the course of their litigation. 

Why would I use these?

Practice guides and form books are useful in real world situations where you need to know exactly what steps to take or what to file for your case. They are intended to help you through litigation by providing practical and concrete advice.

Pro se litigants without an extensive legal background will find form books with fill-in-the-blank forms to be straightforward resources for use in selecting and filing pleadings and motions. These sorts of books will also offer contextual information for the form that a less experienced litigant will find helpful. Drafting guides are more challenging as they require some legal knowledge to put the guidance in the book into practice.

If you have a library account in good standing, you can check out an OverDrive e-book title or access our remote databases. Don't have a library account? Texas residents can register for a library account from home! Learn more about how to register from home.

Below are some of the practice guides available in e-book format from the State Law Library. For more, please visit our Digital Collection or our catalog.

Texas Resources:

General/Federal Resources:

Legal Periodicals

What are legal periodicals?

Legal periodicals include publications like law reviews, law journals, bar association journals, and legal newspapers. They tend to be very in-depth, more theoretical than informational, and aimed at legal professionals. Because legal periodicals are published more frequently than treatises, they can keep pace with current events and therefore are good sources for information about recent developments in an area of law. Legal periodical articles may also offer historical background on primary law, commentary about what a recent change in the law may mean, or arguments for legal reforms.

While legal periodicals are traditionally print materials, more and more are moving online. The database HeinOnline offers an amazing wealth of legal periodicals in its collection. The State Law Library offers remote access to HeinOnline to registered patrons. 

Who are these for?

In general, legal periodicals are intended for legal professionals. They are often highly analytical and beginners to legal research may find them difficult to read. That isn't to say that they can't be helpful for beginners, but in general they contain advanced legal discourse.

Why would I use these?

Legal periodicals are excellent resources for staying on top of developments in a legal field. If you need commentary or analysis of a recent law or ruling, a legal periodical may be a good source to consult. Legal periodicals can also be helpful if you are researching a particularly obscure or narrow topic - legal periodicals can cover the esoteric aspects of law due to the much narrower focus than other resources.

The Library no longer maintains any legal periodical subscriptions in print. We now provide access to thousands of legal periodicals digitally through the database HeinOnline. Registered patrons can access this database from home or in the library.