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School of Law

Research for Scholarly Writing

Developing an idea:

In addition to the standard news sources, you might want to check the resources listed in the handout “The search for intelligent topics in the Law Library”. If you discover a useful source of current information in your subject area, you may want to return to it frequently during the research process to check for recent developments.

Doing an initial literature search:

This is a critical step in your research project, and it has two functions. One is to see if what you intend to write has already been written; since your goal in writing a paper is to make a new and unique contribution to the literature, an existing article preempts your efforts. You may, of course, find a different approach or interpretation that will complement rather than copy what has already been published. The second purpose of the literature search is to assay the existing resources for your project. Articles on your general topic will provide lode of information that can be mined for ideas, cases, statutes and facts. All legal research builds on prior research; that is what footnotes are all about. You will build the foundation of your paper with the footnotes of others, and your footnotes will acknowledge that use. If, however, you manage to pick a topic with little or no prior publication, your task will be much more difficult, since you will have to develop not only a theory and its testing, but also create the factual and intellectual background in which to frame it.

The place to start a literature search is in the periodical indexes listed in “Using the Library catalog, journal indexes & research databases”. The online versions should be sufficient. You may supplement them with searches in the full-text journal databases in Lexis and Westlaw, which allow you to find your terms within the body of an article. The journal indexes, however, cover many more journals over a longer time period than are available full-text online.

Research Review:

Texts and treatises - Use the Library catalog to find books on your subject. You can search not only the Law Library's holdings, but those of the entire University System of Maryland. If you want to find books beyond those held in the system, use Worldcat, a database listing almost all books owned by libraries in the United States. Worldcat is one of the subscription databases in Research Port and accessed via the Library's web page.

Lexis & Westlaw - Both Lexis and Westlaw group some of their databases by subject. Here you will find selected subsets of their case databases, as well as newsletters, journals and treatises. Using the subject approach to these services can be a fast way of finding out what material is available online. Look in the Lexis menu for Area of Law - By Topic; look in the Westlaw directory for Topical Materials by Area of Practice.

Case Law - West's digest system is still the premier finding tool for case law. You will also want to use online searches in Lexis and Westlaw. The American Law Reports can be especially useful, if an “annotation” has been written on your topic; ALR annotations are the product of exhaustive research, are constantly updated, and provide some basic analysis of the cases reported. Not all case reports are published in one of West's reporters. There are many special subject reporters that print otherwise unreported reports in their field; this is another use for the looseleaf services. If you want more information on a case than is available in the published court opinion, you may be able to obtain the “Records and Briefs” that were submitted to the appellate court by the parties. The Law Library has records and briefs for the Maryland appellate courts, and for the U.S. Supreme Court. Recent briefs for the Supreme Court are also available on Lexis and Westlaw. A guide to finding which digests and reporters go with which state (“Finding Case Law”) can be found on the Library's web page under Maps and Locators.

Statutes - The Library has the codes for all fifty states and the District of Columbia, as well as the U.S. Code in two annotated versions. We also have the state and federal session laws. Statute research is made difficult by the variability of language, organization and indexing among the various codes. Nothing is more difficult than trying to find a law on a particular subject in all fifty states (unless it is a uniform law). Usually, your best hope is that someone has already done the work and published it as a table or footnote in an article. Some other, possibly useful resources for this task are: the annual Subject compilation of state laws [in law review articles], the National survey of state laws, and the Law Digest volumes of Martindale-Hubbell. Legislative history materials for federal statutes are reasonably complete and fairly easy to find. The Congressional Universe database on Research Port is a good starting point. For Maryland, we have microfilmed bill files for the legislative sessions from 1979 through 1993. Later bill files must be used in their paper format in Annapolis. Legislative materials for earlier sessions may be identified by using the aptly titled pamphlet, “Ghost-finding in Maryland”. If you wish to identify and track the progress of current legislative activity either at the state or federal level, there are bill-tracking databases on both Lexis and Westlaw.

Non-legal Resources:

Some topics require, and many can be enriched with information and scholarship from other fields, such as science, medicine, politics and history. Some of this non-legal material can be obtained from books listed in the UMS catalog of library holdings. Articles can be identified using some of the databases listed in the second part of “Using the Library catalog, journal indexes & research databases”.

Obtaining Material:

If you see a book listed in the catalog as belonging to a different campus, you may use the Hold/ Recall function on the catalog to have it sent to you. If you are looking for a book that is not in the system's catalog, or is not available to circulate, ask a librarian for an interlibrary loan form. Interlibrary loan is also available for articles in journals not held by either UB library, and not available online from Lexis Westlaw, or one of the Research Port databases.


Ask a reference librarian if you have any question about what is available where, or how to accomplish an efficient and effective search. We have different areas of experience and expertise, so if the person you ask isn't familiar with the field, they will call in someone else on the reference staff. We want to help, and we work as a team. You may want to enlist the help of someone working in the area you are writing about. Many causes have advocacy groups with a legal department or legislative liaison. You can check for such a group in the Encyclopedia of Associations, available in the Reference area of the Library, and in the Research Port database Ready Reference Shelf. You may also want to contact one or more of the counsel involved in a case; the Martindale-Hubbell directories and the West Legal Directory on Westlaw can help locate them. If you want to contact an author of an article, the American Association of Law Schools Directory, and the various university web sites should be useful.

I hope that your research project goes well, and that the staff of the Law Library can be of help.

Will Tress
UB Law Library June 2004