The end goal of legal research is often to discover relevant primary sources of law like statutes, judicial decisions or administrative rulings. Primary sources are official statements of what the law is, and they are the documents that have binding legal authority.
While it is possible to search primary law directly, it is often a better idea to start with secondary sources. Secondary sources are all of the research materials that are derived from primary law. Secondary sources provide analysis, commentary or a restatement of the law. You can use secondary sources to introduce yourself to a new area of the law, look up key terms and technical jargon, find primary sources of the law that are relevant to your question, and provide persuasive authority for your argument. In fact, for some questions, you will discover that a secondary source has already completed your research for you. All you’ll need to do is make sure everything is up to date and your task is done.
Secondary sources are often the best place to start your research for several reasons. First, they are organized so as to be easy to find. Once you know how to navigate them, it is often much faster to find information through secondary sources than by searching primary law directly. Second, because they have a broader perspective on the law, they can help you identify issues that you might miss if you try to learn the law through judicial decisions that are concerned with specific fact patterns. Finally, they are written with the goal of educating, and different sources are written for different levels of education and familiarity with the area of law in question. This means that there are secondary sources that are perfect for people who know nothing about the law, sources that are designed to answer questions that come up for practitioners, and sources that provide extremely detailed analysis to assist expert scholars.
Because there are many different kinds of secondary sources, it is important to have an idea of what information each category of source contains, and what kinds of questions they can help you answer. This guide will provide descriptions of these categories, as well as tips on how to find and use them.
If you are completely unfamiliar with an area of law, it is often wise to start with a legal encyclopedia to familiarize yourself with basic terms and concepts before you search further.
Always look up unfamiliar terms in a legal dictionary. Remember that some terms have special meaning in the law.
When beginning research on a specific legal question, check to see if there is a relevant American Law Report annotation on your question.
To learn about an entire area of the law, or for in depth, authoritative analysis, find a treatise.
If you are researching a legal question that doesn't seem to have a definitive answer, or that has only recently come up, you may be able to find an article in a legal periodical that explores your question in depth.