Updated Oct. 23, 2014.
Prepared by Mary Whisner. Adapted from a handout distributed to the Basic Legal Skills classes.
Secondary sources criticize, describe, discuss, and summarize the law as found in primary law sources, such as constitutions, laws, judicial opinions (cases), and regulations. When you begin research on an unfamiliar topic, start with secondary sources. They will provide citations to the most important primary law and help you learn the vocabulary and specialized terms used in that area of law.
This guide identifies some approaches to finding secondary sources.
Use the Law Library's online catalog, to find books, practice guides, videos, journals, and other material. Search by keywords, author, title, etc. Once you find a book, look for tables of contents, indexes, and tables of cases.
The Reference Area contains hornbooks, commonly used treatises, study aids, and some practice materials. Other locations include:
Major treatises are comprehensive, scholarly works on specific topics. Use one of the Law Library's research guides and/or Georgetown Law Library's Treatise Finder to identify individual titles by subject. Many treatises are located in the Reference Area and on Lexis and Westlaw.
Articles in law reviews and other legal magazines and journals are great places to begin your research.
You can find articles in many places:
Access these databases via the list of Selected Databases on the Law Library homepage.
Both encyclopedias cover U.S. law generally (with an emphasis on caselaw). Both have general indexes for the whole set and title indexes for individual articles. Articles (or "titles") may be hundreds of pages long; each begins with a scope note and an outline. Articles are arranged in alphabetical order. The indexes refer to the topics by abbreviated titles; each index volume has a list of the abbreviations. Both sets are updated with pocket parts and occasional replacement volumes.
Tips for using legal encyclopedias:
American Law Reports contain selected, illustrative cases, accompanied by "Annotations," which are articles summarizing legal issues and noting cases from around the country. Annotations are on more focused topics than legal encyclopedia articles e.g., a specific issue concerning a store's liability for a customer slipping and falling in the store, rather than all of negligence. A six-volume Index to Annotations covers all A.L.R.s except the first series (which is very dated). Check the pocket part or the Annotation History Table at the end of the S-Z volume of the Index to see if your annotation has been superseded. A.L.R.3d, 4th, 5th, 6th, and Fed. are updated with pocket parts.