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Law Research Guide: Dictionaries

This guide is an introduction to legal research for undergraduate students.

Accessing Legal Dictionaries

Black's Law Dictionary is the most commonly used law dictionary.  It is available in print in the K College Library's reference section at KF 156.B53

Nolo's Plain English Law Dictionary is available in print in the K College Library's reference section at KF156 .N654.

Both WMU's library and the Kalamazoo Public Library also have law dictionaries.

About Dictionaries

Legal dictionaries are trustworthy sources to use to look up unfamiliar terminology - including Latin words and phrases - that you encounter in your legal research or in your other law school courses.  The most commonly used legal dictionary in the U.S. is Black's Law Dictionary, but there are a number of others available to legal researchers.

Like all dictionaries, legal dictionaries provide brief definitions and pronunciations of words, but legal dictionaries often offer more.  Definitions may be accompanied by citations to relevant primary law sources, such as cases, which can jump start your research in an unfamiliar area of law.  Some dictionaries contain other useful material.  Black's, for example, provides references to the West Digest System Topics and Keywords under which case law related to certain defined terms may be found.  The print version of Black's also includes some popular "extra" appendices, including a list of legal abbreviations, a reprint of the U.S. Constitution, and a "legal maxims" section, which explains the meanings of certain established principles in law as expressed in Latin phrases (for example, Veritas est justitiae mater).

So keep a legal dictionary handy as you begin your research.  However, remember that legal dictionaries, like all secondary sources, do not contain official, authoritative pronouncements of the law.  Rather, they repackage legal information in a way that is easy to grasp.

How to Use

Legal dictionaries work like all dictionaries.  If you know the correct spelling of the word for which you are seeking a definition, the process is as straightforward as using any dictionary.  If you are using the electronic version of Black's in Westlaw, use the "Template" tab and then enter the word you are searching for in the box under "Enter Dictionary term".  If you are using Ballantine's in Lexis, click the database's Source Description icon (the little "i" in a small pale yellow box) to get to some hints on how to best search the dictionary.

Never think of a legal dictionary as a final stop in your research.  While some, like Black's, are considered very trustworthy, remember that the definitions in a legal dictionary are not official, authoritative statements of the law.

How to Cite

While you generally will not cite to a legal dictionary, Rule 15.8 of The Bluebook (19th edition) covers how to do so.  The following examples are included in this Rule:

Black's Law Dictionary 712 (9th ed. 2009).

Ballentine's Law Dictionary 1190 (3rd ed. 1969).

The components of the citation are, in order:  the name of the dictionary; the page number of the entry; and the edition and copyright date of the dictionary, which can be located on the reverse side of its title page.

See also Basic Legal Citation from the Legal Information Institute.