LEGAL DICTIONARIES AND THESAURI
© Copyright 1999 by Suzanne Ehrenberg and Susan Valentine
Location: 9th Floor behind Library Services Desk
Words and Phrases: Stack 929
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Welcome to the IIT Downtown Campus Library. We're standing at the library services desk on the Ninth Floor of the Information Center. This is the hub of activity in the librar, and where you'll find Reference Librarians to assist you with your research questions. The Reference Librarians can be your best friends in the library. All of our Reference Librarians hold both a J.D. and a Master of Library Sciences degrees and can be very helpful in assisting you with your research. On the Ninth Floor, you'll also find computers terminals, where you can access our on-line catalogue system, known as CLARK. You can also access materials placed on closed reserve by your professors. Finally, this is the place where you can check out circulating library materials.
The Ninth Floor is probably the most heavily used location in the library because it houses many of the primary and secondary sources that we'll be discussing in our tours. It also houses the federal reporters, containing decisions of the federal courts; regional reporters, containing the decisions of state courts; federal statutes, regulations and legislative histories; and Illinois reporters and statutes. You'll also find a complete set of Shepard's Citations, a set of books that will be essential to you in updating your research.
Let's begin our tour of secondary source materials with legal dictionaries. These are kept both on the shelves to the left of the library services desk and in the stacks on the Ninth Floor. Legal dictionaries are nothing more than dictionaries that define legal terms. Many of you have probably purchased a legal dictionary and have already looked up unfamiliar legal terms that appear in the cases you are reading for your classes. Legal dictionaries, however, can also be very useful in starting your legal research.
Suppose your supervising attorney asks you to consider whether a store can be held liable under the doctrine of "respondeat superior," where its employee used racist and abusive language in dealing with a customer. Your mind goes blank. Not wanting to reveal your ignorance, you nod agreeably and you run straight for a legal dictionary to look up the term. The two principal legal dictionaries are Black's Law Dictionary and Ballentine's Law Dictionary. If you look up the term "respondeat superior" in Black's Law Dictionary, you find that the dictionary does not merely provide a literal translation of the Latin words, but also provides a rather detailed description of the legal doctrine and its limitations. In addition, the dictionary entry cites at least half a dozen cases. Although these cases may not be the most current on the issue, they can serve as a starting point for your research and enable you to locate more recent authority through use of the West key number system. You also learn from reading the definition in the dictionary that, under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer may be vicariously liable for the tortious acts of its employees where those acts occur within the scope of employment. Armed with this knowledge, you can go back to your supervising attorney to ask questions. Alternatively, you may use the terms you learned, such as "vicariously liable" or "scope of employment," as search terms for launching a full-scale research project.
In sum, legal dictionaries serve three purposes in legal research. First, a dictionary can provide you with definitions of words that you do not understand - whether they appear in cases you are reading or in the research problem itself. The legal dictionary can also be useful in developing a research strategy because it may provide you with synonyms for some of the search terms you have formulated yourself. The more terms you have to use in your legal research mission, the more successful you will be. Finally, legal dictionaries provide citations to cases which define the term you are looking up. Thus, they can provide you with a "jumping off" point for your research.
The legal thesaurus, which is also located on the shelves to the left of the library services desk, serves a function similar to that of a legal dictionary. It provides synonyms, not only for legal terms of art, but also for ordinary words that may commonly be used in the context of a legal document. The thesaurus does not actually explain the meaning of the word and contains no case citation; nevertheless, this resource can help you expand your list of search terms for a research project or provide you with language that will add variety and energy to your persuasive writing.
One final research tool that can be used to define legal terms is a set of volumes called Words and Phrases. It is published by West Publishing Co. and is also located near the library services desk. These volumes list legal terms alphabetically. Each term contains a paragraph from a judicial decision that has defined the term, and provides citations to other cases that have used the term. Words and Phrases covers both broad legal concepts such as the phrase "knew or should have known," as well as narrower, more obscure terms like "kuleana" (a Hawaiian term for a special form of land grant). Each volume is updated with a pocket part. Words and Phrases is a resource that you may find useful to consult, particularly in contract cases or other cases where the question revolves around a definition of a particular term. A legal dictionary is also a good place to find a quick and easy definition of a term; however, Words and Phrases may provide case citations that are helpful to your research. Even though Words and Phrases provides more extensive references to case citations than a dictionary, its references to case law are not sufficiently complete to serve as a substitute for other types of case-finding tools like digests. It can be useful if you need a "dictionary-type" definition of a term to plug into a legal analysis and you want to cite to a case rather than a legal dictionary. Always remember, however, that it is preferable to cite to primary authority, such as cases or statutes, rather than secondary authority, such as dictionaries or encyclopedias.
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