Primary sources have documents that are "the law." The documents are created by bodies with legal authority. For example, cases are decided by courts; statutes are enacted by legislatures; regulations are issued by administrative agencies.
Secondary sources are all the materials that are about the law. They are written by lawyers, law professors, law students, independent authors, and publishers' staff writers. They are useful in understanding the law, but they are not the law. You can't go to jail for disobeying a treatise or failing to comply with a dictionary!
Law has many types of secondary sources, used for different purposes:
A law library also includes many of the sort of "regular books" you might see in a bookstore or public library, such as works of journalism, history, or political commentary.
Discussions of legal issues are also found in blogs, law firm and government websites, and even Twitter, and so these newer media are secondary sources as well (although this guide doesn't cover them).
Photo credit: U.S. Supreme Court building from http://www.supremecourt.gov/.
It is often useful to start your research by finding an on-point secondary source, especially for an unfamiliar area of law. But why? Why not just start searching for relevant cases or statutes? Well, as explained by Kent C. Olson in Legal Research in a Nutshell (13th ed. p. 25),
Primary sources such as statutes and cases can be confusing, ambiguously worded documents. Secondary sources are usually more straightforward and try to explain the law. They summarize the basic rules and the leading authorities and place them in context, allowing you to select the most promising primary sources to pursue.
In other words, starting with a secondary source is more efficient and will provide you with an understanding of the forest AND help you identify the most important individual trees.
If you would like additional instruction on secondary sources, check out this lesson on CALI (visit the law student restricted databases page if you need the CALI authorization code):
Law Review Articles, Part 1: What Are They? (Gallagher Basics series) (4:17)
Law Review Articles, Part 2: Where to Look Them up (Gallagher Basics series). Discusses where you'll see citations to journal articles. Demonstrates how to look them up in HeinOnline, Lexis, and Westlaw. (5:24)
Law Review Articles, Part 3: How to Search for Them (Gallagher Basics series). Demonstrates searching in HeinOnline, Lexis, and Westlaw. (5:26)
Secondary Sources (Gallagher Basics series)
Introduces major types of secondary sources: legal dictionaries, legal encyclopedias, American Law Reports, treatises and practice manuals.
Most students will need study aids and law review articles before most of these secondary sources, so watch those videos (also in the Gallagher Basics series) first.
Study Aids Part 1: What are They? (Gallagher Basics series) (2:31)
For more about West Academic Study Aids, see the company's video, Study Aids Collection Student Guide (20:00)
Study Aids Part 2: West Academic (Gallagher Basics series) (3:51)
For more about West Academic Study Aids, see the company's video, Study Aids Collection Student Guide 2021 (20:00)
Help! I Have Too Many Results! Tip: Use Secondary Sources
When you run a search and get a zillion cases, you have a lot of options for focusing. This video discusses using secondary sources to get an overview (with citations to cases) before searching for cases directly. (4:54)
Finding Secondary Sources Using Nexis Uni
This video demonstrates how to use Nexis Uni to find law journal articles and news stories. (5:25)
(Nexis Uni is a Lexis product that the University Libraries subscribes to for the whole campus. UW Law students will generally prefer Lexis+, which is licensed only for UW Law users.)
Finding Secondary Sources with Westlaw Campus Research
Westlaw Campus Research is available to UW users outside the law school. This video demonstrates finding secondary sources. (5:31)
Start Your Paper with HeinOnline
How do you get started on a paper when you don't even have a firm topic? This video shows how to use HeinOnline's Law Journal Library in the early stages of a research paper. Brainstorm some ideas, then try a broad search. Sort, filter, and refine your search to find a few articles to read first. Read those articles to get an overview of the issues and leads to primary and secondary sources. You're well on your way to a successful paper project! (11:02)
Retrieving Magazine Articles: Tips for Source Gathering
This video demonstrates how to find magazine and journal articles using the UW Libraries list of e-journals, starting with a known citation.
Call Number Browsing: Another Way to Find Good Stuff (5:07)
Once you find one relevant book, you can find more on similar topics by browsing the shelves--or by browsing call numbers in the library catalog. It's all thanks to the magic of call numbers!
Keeping Track of Books in the Catalog. A handy feature of our library catalog lets you save records to refer to later. It's an easy way to create a reading list or a list of material for a research project. This video shows you how. (2:39)
Books Without "Books": Tips for Source Gathering
How can you gather sources and confirm citations when the libraries are closed? This video shows how you can use ebooks through the library, Google Books and Amazon, and sources on Bloomberg Law, Lexis, Westlaw, and HeinOnline. (It was created for the COVID-19 situation, but all these techniques will still be useful when the libraries open up again.)