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Sources for Finding General Explanations of the Law

Legal Encyclopedias, Dictionaries & Restatements of the Law


Last Updated 8/2005. Links verified 4/2012.  Direct feedback on this page to lawlib@umn.edu.

Legal Encyclopedias


To get an overview of a certain legal topic, a legal encyclopedia is one of the best sources to use. A legal encyclopedia is composed of articles arranged alphabetically by subject. Each article contains explanatory text and lists citations to other materials, such as case law and statutes. Legal encyclopedias are a good place to begin when you know very little about a subject.

When beginning to use a legal encyclopedia, it is a good idea to first consult the subject index for the encyclopedia. The subject index is usually the last volume or two of the set and is very detailed. The index refers you to the appropriate article and subsection of that article. Find the article within the main volumes of the encyclopedia. Most articles begin with an outline of the contents of the article. This gives you an overview of the subject.

There are several legal encyclopedias from which to choose, two of which are national in scope and others that are limited to specific states. The national encyclopedias have a broader scope than the state encyclopedias.

National Encyclopedias

1. American Jurisprudence 2d (Amjur 2d) (Law Library Reference KF154.A42). Available on the web from: Westlaw ( AMJUR database) and LexisNexis.

2. Corpus Juris Secundum (CJS) Available on Westlaw ( CJS database).  Law Library print copy KF154.C56 (cancelled in 2010).

There is another encyclopedia written in plain English which provides basic information about legal topics, and includes indexes, sample forms and historical documents. It is a multivolume reference work entitled Gale Encyclopedia of American Law 3d. ed. (Law Library Reference KF154.W47 2011).

State Encyclopedias

1. Minnesota has one legal encyclopedia: Dunnell Minnesota Digest (KFM 5455.A17 2001). Available on LexisNexis.

2. The library does have legal encyclopedias for several other states. They are shelved with the state reporters on the first floor (Plaza level).

An update service, either pocket parts in the back of each volume or a separate supplement, is usually a part of every encyclopedia. BE SURE TO UPDATE EACH ARTICLE THAT YOU READ.


Legal Dictionaries


Legal terms have developed very complex and specific meanings. This makes a dictionary that specializes in legal definitions of terms a necessity for anyone seeking to understand the law. Like regular dictionaries, legal dictionaries arrange the terms alphabetically.


Black's Law Dictionary (Reserve & Reference Office: KF156.B53 2009 ) and on Westlaw (BLACKS database) is a very popular one-volume legal dictionary. Many of the definitions are taken from cases and the case citations are provided.

Ballentine's Law Dictionary (Reserve KF156.H36 1969) and Ballentine's Legal Dictionary and Thesaurus (Law Library Reference Office KF156.L95 1995) are also excellent legal dictionaries. If you do not find a term in Black's Law Dictionary, be sure to check the Ballentine's dictionaries, since each dictionary contains terms not found in the other.

Another source that has some features of a legal dictionary is West's Words and Phrases (Law Library Reference KF 156 .W6712). This is a multiple volume set which reprints parts of court opinions that define legal terms. It is arranged alphabetically by the terms being defined. It is much more detailed than either Black's or Ballentine's and should be used for locating definitions only if more detailed information is necessary.

Other Legal Dictionaries (Available on the Web)

Restatements of the Law


Restatements of the Law; Location: Reserve (call number varies with title).  Also available on LexisNexis and on Westlaw (REST database).

Restatements of the Law provide a clear and concise statement of the rules of common law in various fields such as agency,contracts, judgments and torts. They are written by eminent legal scholars, recruited by the prestigious American Law Institute (ALI) to summarize and restate the common law, operative in the large majority of states. Restatements are often cited by the courts and therefore can be cited to, with care, for their persuasive value.

Over time, as developments in the law warrant, the publication of a new edition or "series" of a Restatement may be undertaken to reflect new concepts and analysis, and to address topics not covered in the original Restatement.

The rules or principles of law addressed under a particular Restatement appear in bold face type and are arranged numerically by section numbers. For example, §266 of the Restatement of Contracts, 2nd Series, is titled "§266 Existing Impracticability or Frustration". Each rule is followed by "Comment" and Illustrations" sections that explain the application of the rule.

The "Reporter's Note" which follows the Illustrations section contains citations to related case law, statutes and law review articles. In addition, the Restatement Appendix volumes provide citations to and synopsis of cases, that have cited a particular Restatement sections. Finally, Shepard's Restatement of the Law Citations (Law Library Reference KF 395 .A4 S49 & and on LexisNexis allows you to shepardize Restatement sections to find federal and state cases and law review articles that cite to a Restatement.

A proper citation to a Restatement includes the series and section numbers, and the year of publication, e.g. Restatement (Third) of Unfair Competition § 3 (1985), (see the Bluebook: a Uniform System of Citation(Law Library Reserve KF245.B58 & Reference Office), Rule 12.8.5).