What are Secondary Sources?
When you are unfamiliar with an area of law, secondary sources are the best place to begin researching. But what are secondary sources?
They are resources such as journal articles, commentaries on case law, or legal encyclopedias that are written by legal scholars, law professors, judges, practicing attorneys and even law students. Secondary sources comment on, analyze, or define the law but they are not the law itself. In contrast, primary sources include case law, statute, regulation, and legislative history.
Popular secondary materials include the Restatements, the American Law Reports (A.L.R.), treatises as well as practice materials, or newspapers. Each of these materials have their own approach in describing materials.
For example, New York Jurisprudence 2d is a legal encyclopedia that gives a brief overview of the law. It will provide key numbers and common phrases which will help you find cases and other resources for your topic. Law reviews and the A.L.R. offer a more in-depth discussion of a particular legal issue and generally have larger references to cases. Hornbooks are written for the law student while treatises are written for the practitioner. Additionally, companies like NOLO produce books for the lay person. It is important to consult more than one secondary source when becoming familiar with an area of law.
But remember to always ask yourself when using secondary materials, when has this been updated? The law is constantly changing and materials written today, may not be the law tomorrow.
How are Secondary Sources Used?
Secondary materials offer the ability to define your search before starting your research. Using the index and the table of contents of print secondary materials is the most cost-effective way of beginning your research. You can develop keywords and look at references to find relevant cases and statutes before you start an expensive search on Westlaw or Lexis.
Searching Print Sources:
Encyclopedias, treatises, and other practice materials often have single or multi-volume indexes. Start with the index to find what the material offers on your topic. This can not only save you time spent flipping through the book or table of contents but may also lead you to related areas you may not have thought about.
Be sure to check when the material was updated. Many encyclopedias and other materials have pocket parts just like statute books. These can give you helpful information regarding changes in the law related to your topic.
Just like your case law research, searching for secondary sources involves starting with a good search. Picking the right keywords is essential to finding the secondary sources you need. Westlaw, Lexis, and Bloomberg have options to search only secondary sources and allow you to further refine your search by looking only for materials such as law review articles or encyclopedias.
Other databases such as HeinOnline can be useful when looking for law review articles.
Although e-resources have the benefit of being easier to update, they also often do not have easily accessible indexes. Sometimes, it is best to hit the books before starting your online search.