Seventh Annual Bridge the Legal Research Gap
June 25, 2002

Breaking the Magician’s Code:
The Secrets of Secondary Sources

Bob Menanteaux, Information Services Librarian,
Stephanie Wilson, Reference Librarian,
Kara Phillips, Collection Development Librarian
Seattle University Law Library


Presentation Outline

  1. What Are Secondary Sources?
  2. What Functions Do They Serve?
  3. What Do I Need to Know About Secondary Sources That Would Help Me Select the Best One for My Research?
  4. How Do I Get A List of the Best Sources to Use?
  5. How Can I Use Secondary Sources to Think Outside the Box?

Resource List

 Legal Encyclopedias

Using an encyclopedia is an easy way to get an overview of an area of law from a multi-jurisdictional perspective. Structured like a typical encyclopedia, legal encyclopedias are organized alphabetically by broad topic with a detailed subject index for access. The UW Law Library site ( has some good hints on using the indexes. To get the most out of this research tool, follow up on footnoted cases cited in relevant sections by exploiting the topic and key number analysis. To do this, pick out a case of interest from the encyclopedia and look it up using Westlaw or the regional reporter citation. Note the topic and key numbers which come closest to your personal research interest. Using the Washington Digest or the Washington cases on Westlaw, look up your topic and key number or do a topic key number search to see if Washington has treated a particular issue. The two major legal encyclopedias, Corpus Juris Secundum and American Jurisprudence, 2d, are national in scope and both cover federal and state issues. Each title also includes pocket part supplements and subject indexes. For those with access to online services you will find electronic equivalents on Westlaw (CJS or AMJUR) or Lexis (Am Jur only in the 2NDARY library, filename, AMJUR).

American Jurisprudence 2d

Corpus Juris Secundum

American Law Reports

Using A.L.R. annotations can save research time. The series editor begins by selecting a key case in a growing area of law and then writes an annotation. The resulting essay comments on the points of law raised in that case by exploring related decisions from all over the country. The footnotes, law review, and treatise references offer a good launching point for research. Don’t forget to look at the corollary references if the annotation you are examining is not exactly on point. The American Law Reports are available through Lexis (ALR;ALR) or Westlaw (ALR). You can manually search for information by using the ALR Index located at the end of the set.

American Law Reports

Finding Legal Periodicals

Law reviews and journals reflect the latest thinking on topical issues. Close to a thousand titles are published in the United States and both institutions receive almost all of them. To find articles on particular topics use either Current Law Index or Index to Legal Periodicals. Both titles offer indexes by author, title, subject, case, and statute. They are also available on Lexis or Westlaw.

Index to Legal Periodicals

Current Law Index (also known online as Legal Resource Index)

Restatements of the Law

The Restatements have garnered a reputation as authoritative statements of the common law cited by practitioners, scholars, and judges alike as persuasive authority. They usually take the form of a blackletter rule followed by notes, comments and illustrations designed to show how the rules have been applied. Although the Restatements cover a narrow range of subjects, they can provide a good research approach for the topics they include regardless of jurisdiction. Utilizing the techniques discussed in the section on legal encyclopedias, supra, you can use the back door approach to discovering relevant cases. The Restatements are available on Westlaw or Lexis. To find the correct database use the word “restatement” (no quotes) and a key word from one of the titles given below. On Westlaw, search these words in the IDEN database to discover the correct database identifier. The same terms can also be used on Lexis by entering them in the source selection box. To locate the titles in paper use the same terms (i.e., restatement and a title word) in a keyword search on MARIAN (the UW Law Library system) or THEO at Seattle University Law Library.

The current Restatement topics are: Agency, Conflict of Laws, Contracts, Foreign Relations Law of the United States, Judgments, Law Governing Lawyers, Property (Landlord & Tenant, Donative Transfers, Wills and Other Donative Transfers, Mortgages, Servitudes), Restitution, Security, Suretyship and Guaranty, Torts (Apportionment of Liability, Liability for Physical Harm, Products Liability), Trusts (Prudent Investor Rule) and Unfair Competition.

Other Recommended Publications Discussed

Doyle, Francis R. Searching the Law, 2d. Edition.

Doyle, Francis R. Searching the Law: The States, 3rd. Edition.

Hazelton, Penny et al., Washington Legal Researcher's Deskbook, 3rd. Ed., Chapter 4.

Svengalis, Kendall, Legal Information Buyer's Guide and Reference Manual, 2002 Edition, Chapter 27.

West’s Washington Law Finder.

(Check the catalog at either institution for additional locations)

Finding Secondary Sources on Westlaw and Lexis

Both services provide several ways to access material.  Here is a quick summary.

  1. If you know the name of the source:

If you have a specific secondary source to search, try using one of these:

Westlaw:  Find-a-Database-Wizard

This is on the left column of the "welcome" screen.  Type the name of the source (for example, "Washington Practice"); you don't need to use connectors.  The box will lead to templates - check these off as appropriate, and keep going.  The end result will show where Washington Practice is housed on Westlaw.  You can then access the database.

Lexis:  "Find a Source"

On the opening screen, this is under "Look for a Source,"  "Option One." Type the name of the source in the box; the result will show you everywhere your source is housed on Lexis.

  1. To see a list of databases:

This is handy if you have an idea of what you are looking for; for example, if you want materials for a specific jurisdiction.

Westlaw: Directory:

This is located along the top of the screen; you can also access it on the left where it says, "list of databases."   The Directory gives you an expandable tree of sources, and is useful if you already know something specific about what you are looking for. (For example, if you know you want to find secondary materials pertaining specifically to Washington, you can easily see a list of those using the Directory.  Select Washington, and the list opens up to include cases, statutes, forms and treatises.  Open "forms and treatises" to see Washington specific forms and treatises.)

Lexis: Explore Sources:

On the opening screen, this is under, "Look for a source," "Option Two."  Here you will see folders of material divided up by type- case law, news, etcetera.  You can see jurisdictionally specific secondary sources by opening up "States Legal."  You can also explore secondary sources by hitting the "Secondary Legal" folder.  This will lead to further choices, including law reviews, area of law treatises, and bar journals, which you can then search.

  1. To see sources by subject area:

These points of entry are helpful if you are just getting started.  They may not give you all secondary sources in an area, but they will break topics into smaller pieces, suggest sources, and give you a way to examine the specific topic within those suggested sources.

Westlaw: KeySearch

Access this via the "KeySearch" tab on the top.  This option will show folders of main legal topics. Click a folder and you will see further sub-divisions within the topic.  Eventually, you will be led to a screen that allows you to search that topic in either primary or selected secondary sources. 

Lexis:  Search Advisor and Practice Area Pages:

Search Advisor:

Access this from the "Search Advisor" tab at the top of the page.  This option on Lexis presents materials arranged by legal topic.  Click on a folder to see further divisions within that topic.  Eventually, this option will show you excerpts of secondary sources on your topic, and allow topic specific case law searching.

            Practice Area Pages:

Access this via the small button at the top of the screen.  While not available on every topic, the Practice Area Pages provide one-stop shopping for areas of law.  Select an area and the topic will open to include topic specific searchable areas for news, primary authority, and secondary sources.  The  "New Litigation Associates" section (under Litigation) also provides help for specific tasks, such as motion drafting, discovery, and trial preparation.