Researching and legal writing are two central tasks that attorneys perform frequently. There are three major legal databases: LexisNexis, Westlaw, and Bloomberg. I’m certain you will become very familiar with them throughout your legal career. Although I was familiar with legal research and databases, I had no idea what the best way to perform research was or really how to start my research. Legal research can be very daunting. Many law students (especially 1Ls) do not know how to conduct effective research. Thus, when they receive their first legal research assignment, they are uncertain how to proceed or even where to start. However, research does not have to be an awful experience. Instead, it can be an easy and quick experience that will give you the one-up on your classmates and get you ready for practice. This guide will focus on a great first step to research: secondary sources.
What are Secondary Sources?
Secondary sources are the sources that are secondary to primary sources. They are different types of authority that are not binding but are persuasive on issues of law. Thus, these sources are NOT per se the law but they do help you gain a better understanding of a certain issue of law. Lawyers tend to use secondary sources in order to quickly evaluate the area of law and determine their plan of action in pursuing the claim. Typically they are resources created by legal professionals and experts in an area of law. These sources seek to explain a certain area of law and give you a clear path of pertinent issues and how to deal with them.
Why Should I use them?
Although secondary sources are not authoritative law, they provide a great snapshot of what the law is all about. Thus, they are a great place to start your research. Secondary sources help you determine what primary sources are relevant to the area of law you are researching. By first looking at secondary sources, you will have a clear picture of what is important for your research topic. Secondary sources will also lead you to the cases and statutes that are relevant for the specific topic. This helps narrow down your research and streamline your process. This saves you time (and stress!)
How to use Secondary Sources?
In order to utilize secondary sources, you need to check the legal database of your choosing. Each database has their own quirks and features, but they all essentially do the same thing: allow you access to an infinite supply of cases, secondary sources, statutes, and more. Once there, you can search for your specific legal topic and narrow by secondary sources. Then choose the secondary source of your liking. From there, you will be presented with an overview (or a narrowed-down topic) of your researched topic. This will help lead you to more cases, statutes, and sources that are relevant to your topic. The information you receive may clarify your questions, give you a better understanding of what your analysis should be, and how to proceed from there.
Types of Secondary Sources
There are many different types of secondary sources and each have their own features. Below are the most popular forms of secondary sources (and the ones I have found most helpful!)
Practice guides are a practitioner’s how-to. They guide the individual in how lawyers typically handle a certain topic and what complications or issues that may arise as well. These typically include relevant law, checklists, and practical advice.
Treatises, along with practice guides, aid lawyers in practice. They usually contain legal analysis and practical advice from legal experts and professionals. These are a go-to for lawyers for primary sources and relevant cases/statutes.
Restatements are concise statements about the rule of law on a certain legal topic. Typically they explain the common law or case law rules and provide guidance in how to understand the specific rule.
Law Reviews and Journals
Law reviews and journals contain extensively researched, peer-reviewed articles which provide analysis on certain legal issues. Typically they are in-depth and address current issues that are pressing in law. Usually these are written by judges, legal practitioners and law school faculty, and may contain shorter notes or comments by students.
American Law Reports (ALR)
ALRs are essentially encyclopedias of case and statute annotations. These provide detailed discussions on narrow issues of law and can help aid you in understanding the underlying meaning behind certain cases or statutes.
Research can be a scary, daunting experience. Regardless of how much exposure you had to legal research before law school, it is not everyone’s favorite part of their legal careers. There are always methods to make things easier, including how you conduct your legal research. Secondary sources are a great way to narrow down your research and get a better understanding of a certain area of law.
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