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Law and Legislation: Background Research

When to use secondary sources

Secondary sources are not the law themselves, but they contain useful analysis, interpretations, and commentaries on the law.

Beginning your legal research by consulting secondary sources can help you gain a big-picture understanding of the issues at play. As an added bonus, a good secondary source will point you toward relevant primary authority that may be useful for your research.

Types of secondary sources used for legal research

Here is a quick rundown of different kinds of secondary sources that may be helpful when starting legal research.

  • Legal dictionaries: Black's Law Dictionary is a go-to resource for legal professionals seeking clarification of a specific term or phrase
  • Legal encyclopedias: These are great places for starting your research on a topic or part of the law you are unfamiliar with
    • American Jurisprudence is an especially popular legal encyclopedia and can be accessed through Westlaw
  • Law review articles: Legal scholars and legal professionals publish their more academic musings on the law in law review articles, which means the articles are more useful for finding arguments related to the law as opposed to dispassionate summaries of legal issues
    • HeinOnline is a good starting point for trying to find law review articles on a specific topic
  • American Law Reports: ALR entries tend to be very narrow in their focus, but finding one about your exact topic can provide you with a great starting point and extensive citations pointing you to the relevant primary authority in multiple jurisdictions
  • Nutshells: A nutshell is usually short and sweet with a relatively simple overview of a legal topic
  • Hornbooks: The primary audience for hornbooks is law students seeking supplementary texts about a specific area of the law
  • Treatises: These book-length treatments provide much more in-depth analysis of a single subject
  • Restatements of the Law: The American Law Institute publishes the Restatements as a way to group common law court rulings from different jurisdictions and identify underlying similarities and areas of consensus

Finding secondary sources

Selecting "Secondary Sources" from Westlaw's main page will allow you specify how you would like to browse or search its collection of secondary sources. You have three options:

  • By Type: American Law ReportsAmerican Jurisprudence, law review articles, treatises, etc.
  • By State: Limit your sources to ones that focus on any of the 50 states or Washington, DC
  • By Topic: Focus on a particular portion of the law, such as bankruptcy, immigration, or intellectual property

Westlaw homepage with "Secondary Sources" link highlighted

HeinOnline contains a wealth of materials related to legal history and legal scholarship. The main page gives you the opportunity to limit your search to specific collections, like the Law Journal Library, that may be useful for finding relevant secondary sources.