Introducing research in law and beyond
Introducing research in law and beyond

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Introducing research in law and beyond

3.2 What to read?

A successful literature review will have references from a number of different types of sources; it is not simply a book review. What is much more important than the number of references is that you have a selection of literature that is appropriate for your research; what is appropriate will depend on the type of research you are undertaking. For example, if your topic is in an area of recent legal debate, you will probably find most of the relevant material in journal articles or conference papers. If you are studying policy issues in law making, you would expect to cite more government reports. In either case, you will need some core references that are recent and relevant. A research project could also contain a number of older citations to provide an historical context or describe established methods. Perhaps a recent newspaper, journal or magazine article could illustrate the contemporary relevance or importance of your research.

You will have to use your own judgement (and the advice of your tutor) to ascertain what the suitable range of literature and references is for your review. This will differ for each topic of research, but you will be able to get a feel for what is appropriate by looking at relevant publications; most publications fall into the following broad categories:

Online legal databases

Online legal research services such as Westlaw UK, Lexis Library, JSTOR, BAILII or HeinOnline are a good source of journal articles and as a repository of legislation, case law, law reports, newspaper and magazine articles, public records, and treatises.

Journal articles

These provide more recent discussion than textbooks. Peer-reviewed journals are the gold standard for academic quality. Having at least some journal articles in your literature review is almost always required. Note that the lead time on journal articles is often up to two years, so they may not be sufficiently up to date for fast moving areas. Look for special issues of journals, as these usually focus on a particular topic and you may find that they are more relevant to your area of research.

Many law schools host journals which contain articles by academics and students; these may also be of interest. Other sources could include online newspapers such as The Conversation which are sourced from academia and designed to highlight current academic research or respond to current events.

Conference literature

Academic conferences are meetings in which groups of academics working in a particular area meet to discuss their work. Delegates usually write one or more papers that are then collected into a volume or special edition of a journal. Conference proceedings can be quite good in providing a snapshot of a topic, as they tend to be quite focused. Looking at the authors of the papers can also give you an idea of who the key names in that area are. The quality varies widely, both in terms of the material published and how it is presented. Most conferences include some professional researchers, some of whom can be contacted, and lots of students. Conference papers are often refereed but usually not to the same level as journal articles.

Having conference papers in your literature review does lend academic credibility, especially in rapidly developing areas, and conference papers generally contain the preliminary work that eventually forms journal articles.


Textbooks are good for identifying established, well-understood concepts and techniques, but are unlikely to have enough up-to-date research to be the main source of literature. Most disciplines, however, have a collection of canonical reference works that you should use to ensure you are implementing standard terms or techniques correctly. Textbooks can also be useful as a starting point for your literature search as you can investigate journal articles or conference papers that have been cited. Footnotes are a rich source of preliminary leads.

Law magazines

These can be useful, particularly for projects related to the role of lawyers. Be aware of the possibility of law firm bias (for example in labour law towards employers, employee rights or trade unions) or articles that are little more than advertisements. Examples of professional journals include the Solicitors Journal (England and Wales), (Scotland), Law Society Gazette, Counsel Magazine (England and Wales). Most jurisdictions have some form of professional journal.

Government and other official reports

There are a wide range of publications, including ‘white papers’, official reports, census and other government produced statistical data that are potentially useful to the researcher. Be aware of the possibility of political or economic bias or the reflection of a situation that has since changed.

Internal company or organisation reports

These may be useful in a few situations but should be used sparingly, particularly if they are not readily available to the wider community of researchers. They will also not have been through a process of academic review. Such unpublished or semi-published reports are collectively called ‘grey literature’.

Manuals and handbooks

These are of limited relevance, but may be useful to establish current techniques, approaches and procedures.


Specialist supplements from quality newspapers can provide useful up-to-date information, as can the online versions of the same papers. Some newspapers provide a searchable archive that can provide a more general interest context for your work.

The world wide web

This is widely used by lawyers today. According to the 2011 American Bar Association Report, 84.4% of attorneys turn to online sources as their first step in legal research (Lenhart, 2012, p. 27). It is an extremely useful source of references, particularly whilst carrying out an initial investigation. Although sites such as Wikipedia can be very helpful for providing a quick overview of particular topics, and highlighting other areas of research that may be connected to your own, they should not usually be included in your review as they are of variable quality and are open to very rapid change. Treat information you find on the internet with appropriate care. Be very careful about the source of information and look carefully at who operates the website.

Personal communications

Personal communications such as (unpublished) letters and conversations are not references. If you use such comments (and of course, you should respect the confidence of anyone you have discussed your work with), you should draw attention to the fact that you are quoting someone and mark it as ‘personal communication’ in the body of the text. Responses you might obtain from, for example, interviews and questionnaires as part of your research should be reported as data obtained through primary research.


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