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Legal Research for Undergraduates

This guide provides information on legal research for UCLA undergraduates and non-law graduate students, faculty, and staff.

Types of Legal Sources

Attorneys divide the law into two types of sources:

  • Secondary sources are books and articles about the law.
  • Primary sources are laws made by governments such as:
    • The Constitution of the United States and of each state. 
    • Statutes passed by the U.S. Congress and each state's legislature.
    • Regulations passed by federal and state agencies to add detail to statutes.
    • Cases decided by the federal and state court systems..

Agencies also issue administrative decisions, which are similar to cases but made by agency bodies, and guidance documents such as manuals, opinion letters, and handbooks, which provide even more detail than regulations.

Legal sources are further divided into:

  • Mandatory (binding) sources that must be followed by individuals, companies, and the courts.
  • Persuasive sources that can be cited in legal arguments but do not have to be followed.

To be mandatory, a source must be:

  • A primary source. Secondary sources are only ever persuasive.
  • From your jurisdiction- i.e. from the federal government and the government of your state.
  • If a case, published and, generally, from a higher court in your jurisdiction. This rule is discussed in more depth under the Evaluating Cases tab.

Cheat Sheet to Locating Primary Sources for Undergraduates

There are many places that you can locate primary sources:

  • Most attorneys access primary sources through expensive databases called Lexis and Westlaw.
  • While you are an undergraduate, your best option for accessing primary sources is Nexis Uni, a budget version of Lexis that supplements primary sources with citators, annotations, and headnotes. These tools flag possible problems with a source (e.g. a case that has been overturned or a statute that has been struck down) and allow you to find similar sources. See the tabs on the left for details on how to use these tools.
  • The federal government and most of the states post copies of their statutes, regulations, and cases online. States often contract with Westlaw and Lexis to provide free versions of their laws, without the added tools provided by the paid Westlaw and Lexis databases.
  • Some third-parties (such as the Cornell Legal Information Institute or CLII) gather freely available information and make it easier to browse and search.

The best sources for federal and California primary sources are listed below. To find sources for other states, see the American Association of Law Libraries' State Online Legal Information page.

  U.S. Federal California


Laws passed by the U.S. Congress or state legislatures

Current: U.S. Legislature

Historical: GovInfo

Unofficial: CLII

Official: California legislature


Laws passed by agencies to add detail to statutes

Current: eCFR

Historical: GovInfo

Unofficial: CLII

Official: Westlaw (free access)

Unofficial: CLII


Decisions made by judges

Official: GovInfo

Unofficial: Google Scholar

Unofficial: Court Listener

Official: Lexis (free access)

Unofficial: Google Scholar

Unofficial: Court Listener

Best Bet for Undergraduates

While you are an undergraduate, your best option is Nexis Uni.

The Legal Research Process

Start with secondary sources, books and journal articles about the law. Move on to primary sources- the laws themselves, such as statutes, regulations, cases, administrative decisions, and guidance. Iterate: Read sources carefully for references to more sources. Use citators, annotations, and headnotes on Nexis Uni.