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Secondary Sources

Secondary sources criticize, describe, discuss, and summarize the law found in primary law sources. (Primary law includes constitutions, laws, judicial opinions, and regulations.)

Experience Breeds Expertise

Some beginning legal researchers ask which secondary sources are "the good ones"— the ones they should always turn to first. The answer is that it depends on what you need.

As you work on research projects, you'll develop a sense of what sources are most effective for different types of questions. Through reading and using different sources in your life, you've learned that People is more likely to interview Oscar winners than Sports Illustrated is. Now you will learn through using them which secondary sources in law will work best for your different questions.

For This, Try That

Here are some generalizations about what sources to try for different needs:

For definitions of legal terms

  • law dictionaries
  • legal encyclopedias (longer, more discussion)

For very recent developments (cases, legislation, etc.)

  • legal newspapers
  • legal newsletters
  • legal blogs
  • standard news sources

For recent (but not too recent) developments

  • law reviews (It may take a year or more for a law review article or student piece to get published!)

For scholarly analysis

  • law reviews
  • treatises
  • journals and books from other fields

For overviews of broad subjects

  • study aids (e.g., Hornbooks, nutshells, outlines)
  • legal encyclopedias

For citations to cases from around the U.S.

  • A.L.R. (focused subjects)
  • legal encyclopedias (broad subjects)
  • treatises

For discussion of Washington law

  • local practice materials
  • some law review articles (often from in-state journals)