Secondary Sources

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.

Books & Other Library Materials

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:

  • Classified Stacks (on floors L1 and L2)
  • Compact Stacks (on floor L2)

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:

  • Lexis Advance and WestlawNext law reviews and journals files
  • LegalTrac, and index to articles from 1980-date (also includes the complete text of some articles)
  • LexisNexis Academic (for nonlaw students and others who do not have individual passwords to Lexis or Westlaw)
  • HeinOnline (great for retrieving articles to which you have a citation)

Access these databases via the list of Selected Databases on the Law Library homepage.


Legal Encyclopedias

  • American Jurisprudence 2d (AmJur 2d) (green): KF154.A42 at Reference Area
  • Corpus Juris Secundum (C.J.S.) (dark blue): KF154.C562 at Reference Area

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:

  • Be patient with the index. Suppose you start with a heading A, and look for subheadings on your topic. You might find some references to topics and sections; you can go look those up. But you might also see cross-references to other headings. A cross reference to "B (this index)" means you should go look under that heading (B). A cross reference to "X, infra" or "Y, post," or "Z, supra" means stay with the same heading you started with (A), but look under X, Y, or Z as a subheading. (Am.Jur. 2d uses "infra" and C.J.S. uses "post.") Be aware of indents; some index headings have sub-sub-subheadings.
  • Occasionally you will follow an entry from the index and find that the section you looked up does not match the topic in the index; if so, check to see if there's a table indicating the article was renumbered when the volume was revised.
  • Watch the dates. Some volumes are 30 years old; others were revised within the last few years. Be sure to check pocket parts for new material.


American Law Reports

  • A.L.R., A.L.R.2d, A.L.R.3d, A.L.R.4th, A.L.R.5th, A.L.R.6th and Index: KF132 at Reference Area
  • A.L.R.Fed.: KF105 at Reference Area

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.


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