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Locating Legal Information in Primary and Secondary Resources: #1A: Basic Legal Research Materials

How to use specific legal resources.

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Basic Legal Research Materials

Howard W. Hunter Law Library

 Legal Research Guide #1A

 Basic Legal Research Materials


Legal research materials help us find out what the law is. They include secondary and primary sources.

Secondary sources explain the law. They include legal dictionaries, legal encyclopedias, legal periodicals, annotations, and treatises.

Primary sources are the law. They include codes and cases.

It is mandatory for us to follow primary authority from our jurisdiction. Authority that is merely persuasive includes all secondary authority as well as primary authority from other jurisdictions (and from courts that are lower than the one we’re dealing with, in our own jurisdiction).

Many legal research materials have tables of contents and alphabetized topical indexes to help us find the information we need.

Legal research materials are often updated with supplements. Some supplements are placed inside the back cover and are called “pocket parts.” Some supplements are separate additional or replacement volumes. Some legal research materials come in a “looseleaf” format and are updated by replacing outdated pages with new pages.

Legal Dictionaries

Legal dictionaries give definitions of words related to law. The words are arranged alphabetically. One common legal dictionary is Black’s Law Dictionary. Another is Words and Phrases. Black’s Law Dictionary provides a basic definition for each word, often from a single jurisdiction. Words and Phrases often provides many definitions, from a variety of jurisdictions.

Legal Encyclopedias

Legal encyclopedias are multi-volume sets that provide information on many topics of law. The topics are arranged alphabetically.

The two major legal encyclopedias are American Jurisprudence 2d and Corpus Juris Secundum. Some states have their own legal encyclopedias.

There is an index for each encyclopedia set. The index helps us find encyclopedia sections by subject.

Legal Periodicals

Legal periodicals provide articles on a wide variety of law topics. There are two major legal periodical indexes that help us locate law articles. They are the Current Law Index and the Index to Legal Periodicals. Each has hardbound annual volumes and paperbound monthly supplements.

The Current Law Index goes back to 1980. We can search it by author, title, and subject. (An online version of this index is called Legaltrac.)

 The Index to Legal Periodicals goes back to 1908. We can search it by author and subject.

Each index includes a table of statutes and a table of cases.


An annotation is a collection of case summaries on a certain topic. A major set of annotations is called American Law Reports. It includes a first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, federal, and federal second series. The first series of American Law Reports covers the years 1919 to 1948. American Law Reports 2d covers 1948 to 1965. American Law Reports 3d covers 1965 to 1980. American Law Reports 4th covers 1980 to 1991. American Law Reports 5th covers 1992 to 2005. American Law Reports 6th covers 2005 to present. American Law Reports Federal covers 1969 to 2005. American Law Reports Federal 2d covers 2005 to present. These last two sets cover federal law which was previously included in the other sets.

Each annotation is based on a full-text court opinion, called a “principal case,” which is contained in the same American Law Reports volume as the annotation.

The annotations can be located by using an index or a digest. Most annotations have a “table of jurisdictions” that tells which jurisdictions the case summaries have come from. Each volume is updated with a pocket part or other supplement.

Another related set is United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers’ Edition. It contains similar annotations, based on U. S. Supreme Court cases. It is also one of the three major reporters of U. S. Supreme Court cases.

Annotations also may be found in materials such as legislative code sets. Legislative code annotations summarize cases on topics related to specific code sections.


Treatises are a rich source of legal information on a wide variety of topics. They are often written by highly respected authors. They can be located by author, subject, title, keyword, etc., using a library catalog. Indexes and tables generally accompany each book or set of books to help us locate the sections that cover various subtopics.  Many highly regarded treatises are found in our Reserve Library.

One important set of books is called restatements. Restatements provide summaries of rules of law on such topics as conflicts of law, contracts, foreign relations, judgments, property, torts, and trusts. These rules are followed by comments, illustrations, and appendix volumes. The appendix volumes provide case annotations that talk about restatement sections. Restatement sections can be found through a table of contents or by using an index. The index is found either at the end of each volume or at the end of the final volume of each set (not including the appendix volumes).

Legislative Codes

Legislative codes contain laws from the legislatures, the legislative branch of government. These laws are often referred to as “statutes.” They come out, chronologically, as “slip laws” (one by one). Then they are put into bound volumes called “session laws” (compilations of the laws enacted during an entire session of the legislature (usually occurring during a single year)). The session laws collection for United States statutes is called the Statutes at Large. The slip laws in the Statutes at Large are sometimes called “public laws.” The Statutes at Large also contain some “private laws.” There is an index at the back of each volume of the Statutes at Large to help us locate laws by topic.

Statutes are organized, by subject, into code volumes, along with other legislative laws that are still in force in that jurisdiction. Code sets have indexes that can be used to find code sections by topic. Codes sets are generally the only source you need to check for legislative laws.

The United States of America and the individual states have at least one code set. The official code for the United States is called the United States Code. There are also two unofficial codes for the United States: United States Code Service and United States Code Annotated. Each is updated by supplements. Unlike the United States Code, the last two sets are updated quickly and include annotations, historical references, and cross-references to related materials.

Code sets also include court rule volumes that describe court procedures.

The code sets can be searched by topic, popular name, and table of contents. There is also a table that tells where a particular session law is found in the code.

Legislative history materials are materials that provide information about why the legislature made a certain law. They include bills, committee reports and documents, hearings, debates, and presidential signing statements. Committee reports and documents are found in what is called the Serial Set. Hearings are shelved as individual titles. Debates are found in the Congressional Record. Presidential signing statements are found in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents.

The major indexes for finding legislative history materials are CIS Legislative Histories (for references to all bills, reports, debates, and hearings), U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News (for some references to debates and reports, as well as abridged texts of some reports, etc.), and the Statutes at Large (which, at the end of each public law, provides a brief reference to debates and reports). Other valuable legislative history indexes are the CIS US Serial Set Index (for references to reports), the Monthly Catalog of U.S. Government Publications (for references to all government documents, including hearings), and the Congressional Record Index (for references to debates).

 See our "Legislative History-Federal" subject guide for links to databases that contain federal legislative history documents.


Cases are laws that come from the courts, the judicial branch of government. They are referred to as the “common law,” as distinguished from legislative law.  Cases are court decisions (or opinions). They are usually decided by appellate courts. Under the doctrine of stare decisis, these decisions are precedents that are generally to be followed in future disputes.

They come out chronologically in “reporter” volumes. There are reporter volumes for federal cases, containing opinions from the federal courts: United States Reports, United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers’ Edition, Supreme Court Reporter,Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement, Federal Rules Decisions, Bankruptcy Reporter, Federal Claims Reporter, Veterans Appeals, and Military Justice. United States Reports, United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers’ Edition, and Supreme Court Reporter, are for United States Supreme Court cases. The first of the three is the official one.

Federal Reporter and Federal Appendix contain federal circuit courts of appeals cases. Federal Supplement and Federal Rules Decisions cover decisions from federal district courts.

As indicated by their titles, the other reporters, listed above, cover bankruptcy cases, federal claims court cases, veterans appeals cases, and military justice cases.

All of these reporters, except United States Reports and United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers’ Edition, are published by one publishing company: West. United States Reports is published by the United States Government Printing Office. United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers’ Edition is published by LexisNexis.

Many states have reporter volumes containing their appellate cases. State appellate cases are also found in reporters for the following regions: atlantic, northeastern, northwestern, pacific, southeastern, southern, and southwestern.  

The atlantic region includes Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The northeastern region includes Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio. The northwestern region includes Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. The pacific region includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The southeastern region covers Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. The southern region includes Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The southwestern region includes Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas.

These regional reporters cover decisions from all state appellate courts. However, only the decisions from the highest appellate courts of New York and, since 1959, California are found in their regional reporters. All reported appellate decisions of New York are found in New York Supplement and all reported appellate decisions of California are found in California Reporter.

All of the reporters that are published by West comprise what is called the National Reporter System.

There are advance pamphlets for each reporter set. They contain newer cases.

At the beginning of each case there are headnotes that summarize the rules of law found in that case. Each headnote that is produced by West is assigned a topic and key number (subtopic) that is common to other headnotes on the same subject.

Headnotes are organized, by these topics and key numbers, into digest volumes. Cases are easily located in the digests by these topics and key numbers.

Digests contain descriptive word indexes and tables of contents that help us identify appropriate topics and key numbers that will lead to cases on our topic. It is also possible to identify appropriate topics and key numbers by looking at the headnotes for cases we have found through secondary sources, etc. Cases can be located, by name, using a “table of cases.”

There are West digests for United States Supreme Court cases and other federal cases (e.g., a digest for all federal court cases and a digest for bankruptcy cases). There are also digests for the following regions: atlantic, northwestern, pacific, and southeastern. (These four digests cover cases from the same states as the reporters for those regions.) There are also digests for each state except Utah, Nevada, and Delaware.

There is also an American Digest System covering both federal and state cases from all over the United States of America. It includes a century edition (covering cases from 1658 to 1896), decennial digests (covering cases for ten year periods), and general digests (which is a kind of month by month supplement containing new cases). In addition, each individual reporter volume and advance pamphlet actually contains a digest for that particular volume or pamphlet.

Another publisher, Lexis, produces its own digest for United States Supreme Court cases. There are specialized topical reporters (e.g., for court rules and for the Uniform Commercial Code). Cases can also be located through annotations that are found in other sources (such as legislative codes).

Administrative Materials

Administrative laws are laws that are made by administrative agencies. Administrative agencies are part of the executive branch of government.

Administrative law includes administrative codes (i.e., regulations and rules such as the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) and the Utah Administrative Code) which are made by the administrative agencies, under the authority of the legislature. They also include cases or other writings by administrative law judges or other members of the executive branch (e.g., proclamations and executive orders from the President or governor, as well as attorney general opinions). These materials can be located through indexes or tables of contents.

The C.F.R. is updated by the Federal Register (published daily, Monday through Friday). The Federal Register also provides other materials from the executive branch of government, such as presidential documents. An update service, called the List of Sections Affected (L.S.A.), lists the Federal Register pages where C.F.R. sections have been updated. To find updates for months not covered in the L.S.A. turn to the “Readers Aids” at the end of the most recent issue of the Federal Register for each month not covered in the L.S.A. The “Readers Aids” gives a cumulative list of Federal Register page numbers, for that month, in which parts of the C.F.R. were changed. (The L.S.A. and “Readers Aids” each include a table of page numbers that tell which Federal Register pages were published on a certain day.)


Citators help us update our legal research, by giving us the subsequent history, treatment, and parallel sources of cases or other research materials. They provide lists of cases and other sources that cite particular cases or statutes. This is especially useful in finding out if a case has been upheld or overturned. The book version is called “Shepard’s citations.” It lists all references to cases, code sections, or other materials.

There are Shepard’s citators for United States Supreme Court cases, other federal cases, and federal statutes. There are Shepard’s citators for each state and for each of the regional reporters. The Shepard’s state citators cover citations to statutes as well as cases. These citations are from the courts of that state as well as from all federal courts. The Shepard’s citators for regional and federal cases cover citations to cases, only, but they are from all federal and state courts.

There are also Shepard’s citators for topical areas, such as citators for American Law Reports, legal periodicals, popular names of statutes and cases, and restatements. The restatement Shepards, like restatement appendix volumes, for example, provides references to cases that cite individual restatement sections.

The book citators are not cumulative, so it is necessary to look in each volume that contains references to a certain case or statute. The appropriate volumes to look in can be determined by looking at the “What Your Library Should Contain” notice on the beginning of the most recent paperbound supplement.

Cases are looked up by volume and page number. Code sections are looked up by the section number.

 An electronic version of Shepard's is available through LexisNexis, while Westlaw has a competing version called KeyCite.

Computerized Sources

All of the legal research materials, which have been discussed in this research manual, can be found in very up-to-date computerized sources. Computerized sources include fee-based search engines such as,,, and Each of these contains a table of contents that can lead to databases that can be searched by keyword. Many of these include citator services (e.g. Shepard’s (LexisNexis), Keycite (Westlaw), and Globalcite (Loislaw)). Computerized sources also include the legal periodical index, Infotrac (the online version of Current Law Index), which can be searched by keyword, subject, etc. Computerized sources also include free sources on the Internet.

The following is a list of some free Internet law sources. (law library patron access to extensive legal information) (access “LexisNexis Academic” by going to the “Harold B. Lee Library Databases A-Z”; you may need to supply your Route Y user name and ID) (government documents such as the Code of Federal Regulations) (Utah attorney general opinions) (access to many law materials, including cases, codes, and some forms) (Utah code and other legislative materials) (Utah Administrative Code) (federal legislative materials) (Utah government materials, including agency information) (Utah cases, court rules, and forms) (federal administrative decisions; this website also includes links to cases and codes)

(Last Revised 3/4/2013)


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