What are all those books in a lawyer's office?

It seems to me that when you see lawyers on television they’ve always got an office packed wall-to-wall with those big ominous looking legal books. I imagine some of them must be listings of local and federal statutes and such, but I wouldn’t imagine that all that could occupy what seems to be thousands of enourmous volumes.

The short answer is that the U.S. legal system is based on “common law” and precedent. The vast majority of those books are not listings of various statutes, but rather the majority and minority opinions redered by various State & Federal courts.

For example, there is no explicit “Miranda law” on the books regarding the rights of the accused. “You have the right to remain silent…” is the result of a court interpretation of the Constitution.

Today, those books are fairly well just for looks. It is so much quicker to look things up on a computer. A lawyer may look up cases relating to some matter of law on a computer and then find the book with the case that applies printed out to use during a trial (again for appearances). There probably are some lawyers who just don’t trust those new fangled gizmoes and still use the books.

I think they go to Bed Bath and Beyond a buy the Deluxe Lawyer Book Accent Package for $1995. Comes with everything to make a ho-hum room into a first-rate law office. Lamps with green glass shades. Them book collections. Wood desks. Self-lobotomy kit. Some other stuff.

You missed the decimal point. It should be $19.95.

You will notice no one ever goes to those bookshelves and removes a book. Why? It’s wallpaper.

Most modern law offices look very little like what you see on television.

The books that you do see are generally statutes, casebooks, and legal encyclopedias and treatises. For example, a complete annotated set of Federal statutes–the United States Code Annotated–runs about two hundred volumes. The regulations–the Codeof Federal Regulations–run another couple hundred volumes (although you seldom see them on television because they are softbound and don’t look as impressive on the shelf). The published opinions of the Supreme Court run hundreds of volumes more, and in the last decade the reported opinions of the Federal trial courts passed the thousand-volume mark and the reported opinions of the lower Federal appellate courts passed the two-thousand-volume mark. You can still find all these books in any good law library, along with the statutes and opinions of the state in which the law firm practices, and secondary sources such as encyclopedias and treatises.

But what you often see on television is a law library in each lawyer’s office. I have worked in three firms, and visited dozens of others in almost as many different states, and I have never seen more than a few dozen books in any individual office. The cost of stocking each lawyer’s individual library with a complete set of even a single kind of book–just the statutes, for example, or just the cases–would be prohibitive. Even the nation’s largest firms centralize their books in a library that is accessible to all the firm’s lawyers.

Today, the law library is rapidly disappearing. Practically every kind of printed legal resource is now available online or in some other electronic format, which each lawyer can access and search electronically and print out from his or her own desktop computer. My firm’s library has shrunk to about a quarter its size from a decade ago. The books do look good on the shelf, but books and floor space cost money, so within the next decade television will be about the only place that you can see an old-fashioned law library.

I looked at http://www.lawlibrary.com/

Turns out it’s a sleep shop. How fitting.

If you’re a librarian, you usually can pick out the books from their bindings.

For lawyers, it’s usually an annotated set of the state codes. Those are usually pretty big and take up a lot of shelf space.

TV reporters sometimes pose with books in the background if there is no dramatic visual for them to show. Invariably they stand behind a set of “Facts on File” which presumably makes it look like there are facts in what they are saying.

That source is rarely used in print anymore.

Many, many years ago a couple of us who were just starting out in the law racket had a talk about the minimum required library. The conclusion we came to was that the absolute minimum was a set of the State code as published by the State Printing Office, about $300 every two years, a set of the State Code Annotated, about $2000 for starts and maybe $750 a year for updates, and a set of the State Digest, also about $2000 for starts and an annual $500 or $600 for updates. For the actual case law decisions we figured we could rely on the court house library, but the Code, the Code Annotated and the Digest were indispensable. This was before computer libraries. Computer libraries put a huge amount of stuff at the practioners fingertips at a reasonable cost if you figure $5.00 for twenty minutes to be reasonable. Even with a computer or Internet library available I think the three hard print sets are indispensable.

The big fancy books you see in the background on TV are, as often as not, a couple sets of Martindale-Hubble, an annual listing of all the lawyers in the country. Once a bio in M-H was about the only advertising a lawyer could do.

I believe they are books of precedents. Now-a-days, they’re more for show than anything else; people can just use computers. Also, I would assume that paralegals would be doing this work.

No. While a paralegal may undertake some basic legal research, the lawyer must analyze the applicable law and reach an independent professional judgment about what the law requires. Failing to do so, or relying on a paralegal’s research without independently checking the law, can result in sanctions or liability for malpractice.

I agree: I have noticed Martindale-Hubbel on the background shelving in television shows as often as any other legal publication. They were probably very popular with television producers because (1) the hefty volumes, with the two-tone maroon-and-tan binding with gilt lettering, looked more impressive than most volumes of statutes or cases; and (2) a brand new 20-volume set came out annually, making the preceding year’s set obsolete, so one could score a set that was only a year or two out of date far cheaper than a set of statutes or opinons.

I had the pleasure of being left alone in a courtroom (San Diego Municipal Court) over a long lunch hour. I found that one row of books was “Proof of Facts.” It consisted of descriptions of how to prove all sorts of facts. It was all fairly commonsensical – how to prove that a car had hit another car: look for skid marks, dents, etc. How to prove that a person had been in a fight: look for bruises, scrapes, etc. I had a great time browsing!


Working in a UK law library, I spend altogether too much time hunting through those books you refer to. Most of the ones we have are extremely old (there’s a book of letters from 1745 behind my desk which crackles like cereal when you open it) and are concerned mainly with amendments to statutes and such like. We have a lot of session reports too; mostly High Court judgements and notable cases (the trial of Oscar Wilde is a blast!)

Most of the stuff lawyers actually need for cases are gleaned from loose-leaf binders; much easier to find specific amendments if you can just rip and replace the relevant pages. Her Madge’s Stationery Office is also pretty good at keeping up to date and puts pretty much any new legislation on their website, so there’s little need to refer to these big dusty tomes.

Don’t forget, they are lawyers. That means they are probably just false fronts for the real material, which is most likely animal porn, personal ads for scat fetishists, and the ilk.

Amazing how easily the random bashing of lawyers is accepted.

Yeah, but it is better than bashing real humans.

My stepfather is a lawyer by training, and he has a bookshelf in his office at home. It containes several copies of something called “American Jurisprudence”, but most of the books are not related to the law profession.

I assume that this is the case with other lawyers.

Normally, it’s not. But since you seem to have taken the moderator duties for yourself today, I can relax and let it pass.

Carry on, folks.

Another thing to note – the books you see may depend on whether you’re visiting a litigator or a transactional lawyer. Transactional lawyers (like me) will usually have the documents from the various deals they’ve worked on bound into volumes; for larger deals, it is not uncommon to have these bound pretty nicely, with the spine giving the parties and size of the tranaction, plus the lawyer’s name; each lawyer on the transaction gets a set.

I have one pretty nice bound set from one deal that spans seven volumes, with each volume being four or five inches thick. It’s massive. :slight_smile: