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Legal Research: An Overview: Secondary Sources

Why Use Secondary Sources?

Secondary sources are background materials that describe an area of law. Such sources detail and give context to the legal issue you are researching and identify relevant statutes and regulations and leading cases. Secondary sources are not themselves the law. Rather, they are a helpful way to get an overview of an area of law, to get perspective on how your specific issue fits into the broader legal context, and to get references to the leading primary sources for an area of law. Secondary sources often are the best place to begin legal research.

If you know the title of the secondary source you would like to explore, it is a good idea to go to that title directly, either in print or online. For online access, often in a database like Lexis or Westlaw, you can get to that title simply by typing it into the search box on the home page. Remember that each database has different secondary sources available.  Accordingly, you should explore different databases to see what is available and most useful for your research.

Tips for Using Secondary Sources

Many lawyers find it easier to work with print secondary sources than with online editions. This is because it is easier to skim print materials, to flip back and forth between relevant sections, and to review the table of contents so that no relevant information is overlooked. When working with print materials, keep in mind the following:

  • Use the index and table of contents. Typically, to determine where to look in a print resources, you will use these finding aids. The index usually is found at the back of the book or, for large multi volume sources, in a separate volume at the end of the set. You can look up keywords in the index to see where the relevant discussion appears. Most secondary sources have a table of contents at the beginning of the book and often have a more detailed table of contents for each chapter at the beginning of the chapter. Skimming the table of contents is another good way to find a relevant discussion of your issue.

  • Skim the sections that are proximate to relevant sections. Whenever working with any secondary source, once you find a relevant discussion of your issue, review the sections that come before and after that discussion to be sure that you are seeing all the information offered on your topic. If you fail to look at the broader context offered in the secondary source, you may miss important details, such as exceptions to the general rule, definitions specific to the topic, etc.

  • Review the pocket part or supplement. It is important to keep in mind that books are only as up-to-date as their publication date. Accordingly, it is common for legal materials to be updated with "pocket parts" (where updates are filed in a special "pocket" designed to hold the update) or supplemental volume. Pocket parts and supplements update the main volume and are typically at the end of the volume. Whenever you are working with a print resource, it is critical that you consult the pocket-part or any other available update.

Online resources provide a rich array of secondary sources, and it is likely that you will be working with the digital versions of certain secondary sources. The most common ways to access secondary sources in online databases are (1) through general keyword searching and (2) by browsing the available secondary sources to determine the titles that seem most relevant. "Browsing Online Databases for Additional Secondary Sources," on this webpage gives you instructions for accessing secondary sources in the most common databases.

The following tips will assist you in working with online secondary sources:

  • When reviewing results from keyword searches, make sure you are working with a relevant title. It is common when running keyword searches in large databases to get results from a wide array of sources. When you review search results, look for results from the sources that are most applicable to your issue. For example, if your question involves a civil procedure issue and you run a general search for relevant secondary source information, you will get search results from civil procedure practice guides and general legal encyclopedias, and you are also likely to get results from lots of practice guides specific to particular areas of the law from animal law to zoning. Review the results from the most relevant titles first.

  • Review the table of contents for the chapter in which your search result(s) appears. Whenever working with any secondary source, once you find a relevant discussion of your issue, it is important to review related sections to be sure that you are seeing all the information offered on your topic. When reviewing a search result, there is typically a table of contents link towards the top of the display. Clicking on this link will allow you to see the broader context for your search results and will help you not to miss important details, such as exceptions to the general rule, definitions specific to the topic, etc. Think of your search as helping you to get to the right neighborhood of relevant information. The table of contents helps you visit the correct address.

  • Once you have found a relevant title, skim the full the table of contents and look up your keywords in the index. Every online secondary source will include a table of contents, and many also have an online index. For the most relevant secondary sources, use these online tools to be sure that you are not overlooking a relevant discussion of your issue.

Commonly Used Secondary Sources

Legal encyclopedias provide an overview of the law. Legal encyclopedias typically have a wonderful breadth of coverage, giving background information on a wide range of legal topics and areas of the law. They are often a great starting point for your research.

Legal encyclopedias may be state specific or more general. The most common general legal encyclopedias are:

California legal encyclopedias include:

More information about legal encyclopedias can be found on the home page of the Law Library's Secondary & Practice Guides Research Guide in the section General Encyclopedias & Guides.  

Practice guides are books that go in depth on a particular area of the law. Practice guides typically are geared towards attorneys practicing in those areas, and practice guides tend to be more detailed than legal encyclopedias. Accordingly, while legal encyclopedias will provide a good starting point to get oriented to an area of law and to identify the legal issues, practice guides will assist you in developing a more comprehensive understanding of the topic and should provide even more references to cases and other primary authority.

The Law Library's Secondary & Practice Guides Research Guide identifies hundreds of practice guides on ninety-nine different legal topics. All of the practice guides identified in that research guide are available at UCLA in print, electronically, or both. That guide also discusses other useful tools for finding practice guides.

It should be noted that, in California, one of the most popular series of practice guides are those published by the Rutter Group, commonly referred to as Rutter Guides. If you are researching California law, it is always a good idea to see if there is a Rutter Guide on your topic. The home page for the Secondary & Practice Guides Research Guide, includes a list of all the Rutter Guides available at UCLA. The Rutter Guides are also available in Westlaw.

American Law Reports (ALR) annotations provide articles on a huge array of very specific legal topics.  Each article not only discusses the topic but also includes one of the most comprehensive primary source citations available.  If you can find an ALR article on your topic, it truly can be the keys to the research kingdom.  

ALR includes seven general ALR series (ALR 1st through 7th), covering topics that tend to come up at the state level, and three federal ALR series (ALR Fed. 1st through 3rd), covering federal law topics.  ALRs are available in Westlaw and Lexis.  Westlaw's coverage is a bit more comprehensive, as Lexis does not include the ALR 1st series.

When working with ALRs, it is easy to get carried away, reviewing ALR articles on topics related to your topic but not directly on point, in the hopes of finding just what you need.  To avoid falling down the "rabbit-hole" of ALR research, you may find it useful to set a time limit to work with this resource -- maybe an hour give or take.

Draft forms are available in a variety of places including but not limited to form books; online databases such as Westlaw, Lexis, and Bloomberg, court web sites, and agency web sites.  When working with draft forms, consider the reliability of the source.  Also, draft forms need to be adapted based on your professional judgment and the specific needs of your client.  Nonetheless, they can be a helpful starting point when you need to draft documents, such as transactional documents or documents relating to litigation.

The following resources are a useful starting point when looking for forms:

Jury instructions are often overlooked as a legal research tool.  However, jury instructions can be very useful, as they provide succinct descriptions of causes of action and defenses and typically cite to cases and statutes that identify the elements of each.  The following are useful for locating jury instructions:

Browsing Online Databases for Additional Secondary Sources

There are a number of ways to find relevant secondary sources in Westlaw.  While it is tempting to simply click on "Secondary Sources" from the Westlaw home page, you may find more efficient to hone in on relevant sources by first exploring secondary sources by jurisdiction and/or by practice area.  If those methods don't get you want, then access the full secondary source library.

  • To review available secondary sources by jurisdiction 
    • Select the appropriate jurisdiction from the Westlaw home page. For example, to find California materials, select "State materials" and then select "California."
    • From the page of jurisdiction-specific materials, look for the "Secondary Sources" menu, and select the option that will allow you to see all available secondary sources for that jurisdiction. For example, on the "California" page, click on "All California Secondary Sources" under the "Secondary Sources" menu, which will take you to a list of available secondary sources for that jurisdiction. From there, use the filters to help you find just what you need. Be mindful of links to more selections and of menus that can be expanded. For example, to find secondary sources on landlord/tenant law in California, from the California secondary sources, go to the filter marked "Topic," click on the "+" sign next to "Real Property," and select "Leases." 
  • To review available secondary source by practice area 
    • Select the appropriate practice area from the "Practice areas" tab. For example, to get to the employment law practice area page, select "Employment."
    • Look for the "Resources" menu, and select "Secondary Sources," which will take you to a list of available secondary sources for that practice area.
    • From there, use the filters to help you find just what you need. Be mindful of links to more information and menus that can be expanded. For example, to find Rutter publications regarding employment law, go to the filter marked "Publication Series," and select "Rutter Group."
  • To browse the complete secondary source library 
    • Select "Secondary sources" from the "Get Started" section on the Westlaw home page.
    • Use the filters to help you find what you need. Be mindful of links to more information and menus that can be expanded. For example, to find federal criminal law materials, look for the section organized "By Topic" and select "Criminal Law." Then choose the filter marked "Jurisdiction," and select "Federal."

Exploring available secondary sources in Lexis is very straight forward.  

  • Browse all secondary sources
    • Select "Secondary Materials" from the Lexis home page.  
    • Browse secondary sources by "Content Type" or "Practice Area." You also can browse by "Federal" sources or select a state under the "State" menu.  
    • Often when you make a selection from the main secondary sources page, you are taken to another page identifying selected secondary sources.  To see all of what is available be sure to look for the selection that allows you to see all titles.  For example, to see secondary sources relating to internet law, from the secondary source home page, go to the "Practice Area" menu, click on "Computer & Internet Law," and click on "All Computer & Internet Law Treatises, Guides & Jurisprudence."
  • Browse by jurisdiction or topic 
    • Secondary sources can also be accessed by jurisdiction or by "Practice Area."  
    • For example, to see secondary sources that provide guidance within the 9th circuit, access the "Federal" tab, select "9th Circuit," scroll down to the "Secondary Materials" menu, and select "All Federal Secondary Materials."  
    • Similarly, to find contract law treatises, access the "Practice Area or Industry" tab, select "Contracts Law," scroll down to the "Secondary Materials" menu, and select "All Contracts Law Treatises, Practice Guides & Jurisprudence."

To explore secondary sources available in Bloomberg, follow these steps:

  • Choose the "Secondary Sources" tab.
  • You will see options to review "BNA Manuals," "Books & Treatises," "International Resources," and more. The BNA Manuals and BNA Portfolios definitely are worth a look, but the bulk of the secondary sources are available by selecting "Browse Books & Treatises." You will see options to "Search Books by Subject Matter," "Search Books by Publisher," or browse by practice areas. 

Secondary sources are available from many publishers. Consult the Law Library's A-Z Databases research guide for a complete listing.