"Secondary sources" refers to a variety of resources that compile primary law, provide commentary and analysis of primary sources, and provide narrative examples of complex legal concepts that would be difficult for a beginning researcher to understand when simply reading the primary law. Because of this, secondary sources are often a great place to start your legal research. Secondary sources help familiarize yourself with the law, providing enough background to generate search terms. They can also lead you directly to primary authorities.
However, it is important to note that secondary sources are NOT primary authority. Secondary sources tools for grasping a solid understanding of the law and can help you locate and evaluate primary authority. You should NOT quote or cite primary authority from a secondary source -- always cite directly to the primary source.
This guide discusses the types of secondary sources used most often in the legal research process: legal encyclopedias, American Law Reports, restatements, treatises, and legal periodicals.
Using Print Secondary Sources
1) Start with the index or table of contents to find references to material on the topic you are researching. Keep in mind that the index itself might be multiple volumes. As with the index or table of contents in any other book, those in a secondary source will refer you to volumes, chapters, pages, or sections where you will find text explaining the topic you are researching.
2) Using the information you found through the index or table of contents, locate the material in the main text of the secondary source.
3) Update your research findings. Most secondary sources are updated with pocket parts which are organized in the same way as the volume in which you found the text you are updating. If you do not find any reference to your topic in the pocket part, there is no new information to supplement the main text.
Using Electronic Secondary Sources
1) Locate the database for the appropriate secondary source on either Westlaw or LexisNexis.
2) To locate material, browse the table of contents or conduct full-text searches. For most online secondary sources, there is no index available; the American Law Reports on Westlaw is the exception and contains an index.
Legal encyclopedias are a great place to begin research in an unfamiliar area of the law because they provide a general description of the law. They do NOT provide analysis or suggest solutions, but rather simply report on gathering background information on an established legal issue. Legal encyclopedias may have references to primary authority such as statutes, cases, and regulations, but are better used to find a general overview of a particular area of the law. Legal encyclopedias function similarly to general encyclopedias: they are organized alphabetically and sorted into sub-topics.
Print: 5th Floor Stacks: KF154 .A42
Print: 5th Floor Stacks: KF154 .C56
Print: 5th Floor Stacks: KFN5065 .N48 1979
Lexis: New York Jurisprudence 2d
American Law Reports (ALR) contains articles, or "annotations," of narrative text summarizing case law on specific topics across a number of jurisdictions. ALRs provide more in-depth coverage of specific topics. ALRs can be particularly helpful for more detailed information about a legal issue, and also for surveying jurisdictions that have dealt with a legal issue. The ALR is published in a number of different series which cover different time periods. The most recent edition of the ALR is the 6th series. There is also a federal ALR.
Print: KF132.2 .I53 1992 (ALR Index)
LexisNexis: American Law Reports (ALR)
Published by the American Law Institute whose reporters and advisors are well-known scholars and jurists, the Restatements of the Law are probably the most persuasive secondary source available. You will find that Restatements are widely cited in court cases.
The Restatements attempt to organize and articulate the common law rules in selected subject fields, such as Agency, Contracts, and Property. Restatements will also state emerging rules where the rules seem to be changing, or proposed rules in areas where the authors believe a change in the law would be appropriate.
There is no comprehensive index, but each Restatement volume contains its own index. Separate volumes called Restatement Appendix volumes contain case summaries.
Westlaw: Restatements of the Law (filter by Restatements & Principles of the Law under "Publication Type")
Lexis: Restatements of the Law
Whereas legal encyclopedias provide a general overview of a broad range of topics, treatises generally provide in-depth treatment of a single subject, such as torts or constitutional law. Treatises are usually written by someone who is an authority in that area of the law, but can vary widely from scholarly analysis to a basic description of the law.
Treatises may encompass an entire area of law (e.g. Moore's Federal Practice, White, New York Business Entities) or focus on a single, narrow topic (e.g. Robert Bork's The Antitrust Paradox).
Practitioner's handbooks and manuals, published by such groups as ALI-ABA (American Law Institute, American Bar Association Joint Committee on Continuing Legal Education) are less useful for students but invaluable for attorneys. Handbooks and manuals tend to address practical concerns and provide useful features designed to simplify routine aspects of law practice.
Hornbooks and law school texts (e.g. Prosser and Keeton on Torts), as well as the briefer “nutshells,” are written primarily for students but can also be a great resource for anyone seeking an overview of a doctrinal area.
Some of the most influential scholarly commentary in American law appears in law reviews. Law review articles can be useful for obtaining an overview of an area of law, finding references to primary and additional secondary authority, and developing ideas for analyzing a question of first impression or resolving a conflict in the law.
Because thousands of articles in law reviews are published each year, we need to use a finding tool to retrieve articles that are on-point. A periodical index is a subject arrangement of the articles from a number of periodicals. It is used to locate articles on a specific topic, no matter where they were published.
1. Index to Legal Periodicals indexes more than 700 legal periodicals by subject, title, and author. Coverage dates back to 1908.
Online: Index to Legal Periodicals (1981- )
ILP Retrospective (1908-1981)
2. Legal Resource Index (LegalTrac) indexes approximately 1500 legal periodicals including law reviews, legal journals, bar journals and newspapers by author, title, or subject heading. Coverage dates back to 1980.
3. Current Index to Legal Periodicals is a weekly publication which provides the tables of contents and a subject heading arrangement of over 500 legal publications between 4-6 weeks before they are indexed by commercial publications.