Book Review: Finding the Answers to Legal Questions by Virginia Tucker and Marc Lampson

Virginia Tucker and Marc Lampson. Finding the Answers to Legal Questions. Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2011, 274 pages, paperback, ISBN 978-1-55570-718-7.

The authors state that their intended audience is public library librarians, and their work seems a natural extension of their experience as teachers in the School of Information and Library Science program at San Jose State University. I wholeheartedly recommend this book for public librarians, as well as library science students, foreign students, and anyone learning about legal research, such as in pro per litigants.

Chapter 1 provides a brief background of the structure of the American legal system that becomes an excellent foundation for legal research. The authors make the material easy to learn and remember by creating “The Rule of Threes”, where they emphasize the three types of primary law, three branches of government, and three levels of court. This may strike some as a simplistic device, but for the intended audience, it should work well in helping them learn the fundamentals of our legal system.

Chapter 2 covers secondary sources. While the placement of the second chapter recognizes the importance of secondary sources, the authors insufficiently emphasize the value of secondary resources. Even legal professionals with years of experience often reach for a treatise such as Witkin’s Summary of California Law rather than directly researching codes or cases. For the public or uninitiated legal researcher, the need for secondary guidance is even greater. Imagine, for instance, answering a question about Medicare, by sending the patron to 42 USC 1395 et. seq.  Obviously, the patron would easily be lost, or a follow-up question might allow the librarian a chance to re-direct that patron to a better source of explanatory information in a secondary source. I agree with the authors that every librarian should be sufficiently familiar with the full range of secondary legal materials, as long as they understand the role played by these sources in finding primary legal resources.

Chapter 3 covers finding federal law very nicely, but raises the question of how to teach legal research to the novice student or researcher. Researching federal law can be a daunting task, and students may fare better if they begin by learning state law, then applying the “Rule of Threes” to see the similarity between the state and federal systems.  I would also like to see a reminder in each chapter that secondary sources usually provide crucial citations to primary law material, and make research much easier in the first instance.

Chapter 4 covers generic State and local law resources, which is especially difficult to do, given the variations in the 50 state systems. The authors could choose a state such as California, to demonstrate actual research questions, then analogize to other state systems.

The authors include very nice chapters on legal research and resources beyond the public library. They follow with chapters on specific topical research such as lawsuit procedures, family law, landlord-tenant, wills & estates, debt collections, bankruptcy, employment, and criminal law. By this point, I am sure that after I bought this book, I would be sure to keep it at my desk for future reference, and I believe it would be one of those books that would always provide some guidance, even as some legal resources change over time. That’s why I recommend this book to anyone working at a public library, as well as anyone interested in learning legal research without going to paralegal or law classes.

Reviewed by Steven R. Feller, Reference Librarian, Bernard E. Witkin – Alameda County Law Library, Hayward Branch.

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