If you need to find a general definition of a legal term, you can use a legal dictionary. We have a variety of legal dictionaries in the law library, with copies distributed throughout the library for easy access. Westlaw has Black's Legal Dictionary, if you have a password. There are also a number of free legal dictionaries and glossaries available on the web.
But sometimes a general definition is not enough. You may need to find how the courts of your jurisdiction have defined a term. The best source for finding cases that have defined a legal term, rather than just discussing it, is Words and Phrases, a West publication available in three ways.
- Words and Phrases is a multi-volume set with abstracts of cases that have defined terms. The set includes cases from all state and federal courts, and it is arranged alphabetically by defined term. In the SIU law library, Words and Phrases is shelved right after the legal encyclopedias and dictionaries.
- The West's Digest for your jurisdiction will have one or more Words and Phrases volumes, usually at the end of the set with the Descriptive Word Index and the Table of Cases. If this set is available to you, it is a better source for finding definitions by courts of your jurisdiction. It contains case abstracts only from courts of the jurisdiction(s) covered by the digest.
- To find cases that have defined a term on Westlaw, do a terms and connectors search of the appropriate case database using the Words and Phrases (WP) field. For example, if you wanted to find cases that had defined the term "unconscionable," your search should include WP(unconscionable) plus any other relevant search terms and connectors.