Treatises, not to be confused with treaties, are book-length expositions on the law as it pertains to a particular subject. Treatises may be scholarly in nature, such as Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law, or they may be geared toward a legal practitioner, such as a manual or handbook.
A legal treatise may be a short, single volume or a large, multivolume set. Many are available electronically as well as in print. Different kinds of treatises have different purposes:
Legal hornbooks are designed as teaching tools for law students. Hornbooks provide more detailed treatments of particular areas of law than an encyclopedia or ALR entry. They generally contain summaries of landmark cases and other useful details.
Nutshells provide an overview of a legal topic without the detailed analysis or extensive case referencing found in other treatises.
Some treatises are designed to serve as practitioners’ tools. These works tend to address realistic legal problems and often provide useful features for practicing lawyers, such as forms and tables.
Looseleaf services are an example of treatises designed to serve as tools for practitioners. Such works address realistic legal problems and often provide useful features for practicing lawyers, such as forms and tables. Looseleaf services are frequently supplemented treatises--hence the looseleaf binder format that enables single pages to be easily updated without republishing the entire volume--that often contain primary legal sources and finding aids in addition to secondary analytical material, making them an invaluable resource if one exists for your topic.
Still other treatises are designed to serve as self-help publications for the public, such as those published by Nolo Press.
There are several ways to locate legal treatises:
- The Legal Information Buyer's Guide and Reference Manual by Ken Svengalis
- Legal Information: How to Find It, How to Use It by Kent C. Olson (note: this guide does not include single volume works)
- Legal Looseleafs in Print by Arlene Eis
Using legal treatises is like using any non-law book with a few special advisories.
First, as with any book, use the table of contents and the index to quickly locate relevant sections.
Second, remember that for a publication to provide reliable coverage of contemporary issues, it must be updated regularly and accurately to reflect any changes in the law. Updating may happen through the addition of pocket parts (which are usually tucked in a pocket in the back cover of a volume), by updated pages in a looseleaf, or periodic republication or an entire volume. Researchers should always make sure they are working with the most current edition of the treatise and be sure to consult pocket parts.
Third, while many treatises are still only available in print, more treatises are becoming available online. For example, major treatises on insurance law are available in both Lexis and Westlaw. Electronic versions of treatises allow for full text searching, which can be valuable for research. For more focused search results, consider narrowing your search to relevant sections, if possible. In many cases, you can still access the tables of contents and indexes to help locate chapters or sections of interest.
Remember that you can (and should!) check to see how current the electronic text is by clicking the I link next to the title of the treatise to see how regularly it is updated and when the last update took place.
See Bluebook Rule 15.
RICHARD H. FALLON, JR. ET AL., HART AND WECHSLER'S THE FEDERAL COURTS AND THE FEDERAL SYSTEM 330 (5th ed. 2003).