Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

1L Survival Guide: Your First Day

Basic Law Library Survival Information

1L Skills

Legal Authorities

An authority is a statement of law used to support a legal proposition.

Authorities are divided into primary and secondary; mandatory and persuasive.

Primary Authority

Primary authority is the law itself.  This includes constitutions, statutes, published opinions, regulations, treaties and court rules.

Secondary Authority

Secondary authority is commentary on the law.  Treatises, Restatements, journal articles, A.L.R. Annotations, legal encyclopedias, hornbooks, etc. all comprise secondary authority

Mandatory Authority

Mandatory authority is primary authority that binds a court.  The court must follow mandatory authority when reaching its decision.

Persuasive Authority

Persuasive authority does not bind a court.  A court may follow persuasive authority when reaching its decision when it is persuaded to do so.

Like to Study with Roaches?

You don't like to study with roaches, do you?  Then, you'll understand our food and drink policies.

  • Food, drink, live plants, tobacco products, cooking/boiling appliances and pets are not permitted in the law library. 
  • Only library-approved closed beverage containers are allowed.

These policies are designed to avoid damage to library materials, electrical fires, and insect and other pest infestation in the law library.

Guiding dogs and police dogs are exempt.


Your First Day

Tour the Library

The first day of any new venture is confusing, frightening, exciting and hopeful.  It's no different with law school.  You feel all of those emotions.  But, the more comfortable you are with your surroundings, the easier it will be to settle in and begin your new life. Library hours are posted on the door as well as online.  Be sure to check the hours often since the Law Library may be closed for holidays.

If you reviewed the virtual law library (Before the First Day) you should be ready to tour the law library. Walk around the law library and see everything described on the page, Before the First Day.  It's OK to take books from the shelves and touch them.  (Books actually like being touched.)  Open them and see what's inside.  Soon you will be using these materials in your class work. 

How to Operate a Book

Since books are the original way we researched the law, and, honestly, not everything is online, it is smart to learn how to operate a book especially if it's been some time since you used reference books.  Nonfiction books often have a Table of Contents and an Index.  Legal research books often are in multi-volume sets.  Using an index to a multi-volume set is crucial to your being able to find what you're looking for in the volumes.  Both the Table of Contents and Index lead you to the content inside the book but in different ways.  You can think of the Table of Contents as an outline.  (Remember this when you have to create an outline for one of your classes.)  The Index functions more or less like a keyword index except that a print index can quickly lead you to a better search term through the Serendipity Factor.

HORNBOOKS.  West Publishing has a Hornbook Series on various legal topics.  They are bound in green and have gold font on the cover and spines.  Hornbooks can be located in the catalog by searching for the keyword "hornbook."  Another type of hornbook, the Nutshell, is also published by West Publishing.  Nutshells are concise overviews of an area of law and can be found in the reserve collection.

A hornbook is a book that explains the basics of a given subject.

The Serendipity Factor

Serendipity is an unexpected fortunate discovery.

I like to think of this as the placebo effect of research.  You can't get this effect online where you have to know the precise term in order to find what you're looking for.  But say you're reasearching the law on real estate titles or deeds.  From the index in a print publication you see a lot of references to the term "conveyance" and quickly realize that "conveyance" is a better search term. It probably took less time finding a better search term in print through the Serendipity Factor than it would to open your browser and type in the search terms.

Law Books That Operate Differently

Not all legal reference books work in the simple, straightforward way described above.  Many do, but many add layers to aid in organizing a complex area of law.  Some books you just have to learn how to operate.  I've listed some of them below.  If you have difficulty with any of these sets ask for a librarian at the Circulation Desk. 

TIP:  When all else fails read the instructions in the front of the book.  (It will save you time ultimately.)

DIGESTS.  The Digest System (created by West Publishing) is a topic and key number system.  First you find the topic and second, you find a refinement of the topic in the topic's table of contents. The number associated with the refined topic is called the key number.  Sometimes students mistakenly call this the "Key Number System," but that is not accurate since a key number only exists within a topic. Browse a Digest set and see what else is there.

RESTATEMENTS.  Each Restatement attempts to gather and synthesize the case law on a topic, to organize it, and to present the "rules" distilled from the cases. These "rules" are the American Law Institute's attempt to provide "black letter law" for common law (case law or judge-made law) issues. Each restated subject area is divided into chapters, and further divided into topics and sections; the sections represent the "black letter law." Typical sections contain the rule of law, comments and illustrations used to clarify the rule, and major exceptions to the rule. Since 1976, case annotations appear in Appendix volumes specific to each restated subject area. The Appendix volumes supply case annotations to specific Restatement sections. They include a brief synopsis of the case and its holding, and are conveniently organized by jurisdiction. [Note that appendices are issued by date so there may be several volumes of appendices to check.] The appendices are updated with pocket parts. Restatements are shelved in the Reference Area.

LOOSELEAF SERVICES.  As their name implies, looseleaf publications are in large looseleaf binders.  Looseleaf publications cite relevant cases, state and federal statutes and regulations in a particular area of law.  They are in a looseleaf format to aid in frequent updating (daily, weekly, or monthly) as the law changes.  It pays in time savings to read the instructions in the front of the first volume since each looseleaf publication seems to have its own system.  Looseleafs can be organized by paragraph, section, or page number.  Some have companion volumes. Scan the index and table of contents.  Pay attention to the context. Large publishers of looseleaf services include Matthew Bender, BNA and CCH.  Look for these publishers on the spine of multi-volume sets throughout the collection.

Books to Buy

Black's Law Dictionary

 The Bluebook - 19th edition

Elements of Style - Strunk & White


Abbreviations for Notes

Contract - use 'K'

Defendant - use 'D' or a triangle (delta)

Plaintiff - use 'P' or a Pi sign

More Research Guides