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Law Research Guide

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

Accessing ALR

ALR is available on Westlaw.

WMU also has print copies of the ALR.

About American Law Reports (ALR)

American Law Reports (a/k/a "ALR") is a secondary source which combines elements of legal encyclopedias with elements of case reporters.  ALR contains articles (called annotations) which look similar to articles in legal encyclopedias.  However, where legal encyclopedias provide brief coverage of almost every legal topic, ALR annotations cover much more specific, narrow topics which are presented in more depth and with greater detail than an encyclopedia article. Unlike legal encyclopedias, ALRs do not attempt comprehensive coverage of every topic.

ALR annotations not only contain citations to primary source materials (as with any secondary source), but also citations to law review articles and other related ALR annotations.  Annotations usually focus on developing areas of the law or areas of the law in which not all jurisdictions are in agreement.  If an annotation has been written on a topic you are researching (not a guarantee), it can be a great source for giving you an overview of the current state of the law and for comparing the law in multiple jurisdictions.  ALRs are not intended to be authoritative sources of the law; therefore, they generally should not be cited in court documents or in scholarly articles.

How to Use

ALR is organized into two parts:  six "series" that cover state law topics (ALR, ALR 2d, ALR 3d, ALR 4th, ALR 5th, and ALR 6th), and two "series" that cover federal law topics (ALR Fed, ALR Fed 2d).  To search for your subject, you'll have to start in the index volumes.  The ALR Index is a multi-volulme index which covers all complete series, both state and federal.  Unfortunately, while both state and federal topics are indexed in the same volumes (shelved at the end of the state series), the state and federal sets themselves are not shelved together.  There is, however, a "Quick Index" for each set - a one-volume softbound index which covers the most recent series in each set (3rd through 6th for state, both series for federal).  As with other indexes, be prepared to think of alternate search terms (e.g. "physicians" instead of "doctors").  Once you find the topic in the index, it will refer you to a volume and page number within the series where the annotation begins (e.g. 17 A.L.R. 6th 453 means that you would go to volume 17 of the ALR 6th series, page 453 to find the text of the annotation). 

Once you find your annotation, you will see that it starts with an overview of the topic and a key primary source citation, which is reprinted in full at the end of the annotation (see below for an example). The annotation itself is indexed and includes a list of the jurisdictions whose primary authority is cited within.  The annotation then explains the law on the topic, summarizing key primary source materials along the way, and providing additional citations. ALR is published by West publishing and therefore includes references to Topics and Key Numbers from the West Digest System.

After reading the annotation and consulting the primary sources it refers to, it is important that you update your research.  Usually, the main volume will contain a pocket part (a pamphlet inserted into a pocket in the back of the volume).  Consult this pocket part to find the newest materials related to your topic, using the same topic and section number you searched in the main volume - note that if your section number is not listed, there are no updates.  Occasionally, there is too much material for a packet part to fit inside the main volume.  In that case, you will find updates in a soft-bound supplement shelved next to the main volume, but the technique for finding updates is the same.  You can also use the online versions of ALR to ensure that your updating is complete.

How to Cite

While you generally will not cite to ALR, Rule 16.7.6 of The Bluebook (19th edition) covers how to do so.  The following example is included in this Rule:

William B. Johnson, Annotation, Use of Plea Bargain or Grant of Immunity as Improper Vouching for Credibility of Witness in Federal Cases, 76 A.L.R. Fed 409 (1986)

The components of the citation are, in order:  the author of the annotation; the title of the annotation; the ALR volume number (from its spine); the ALR series (in this instance, ALR Federal); the page number of the first page of the annotation; and the copyright date of the volume, which can be located on the reverse side of its title page.

See also Basic Legal Citation from the Legal Information Institute.