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Locating Legal Information in Primary and Secondary Resources: #6: Secondary Sources

How to use specific legal resources.

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Secondary Sources

Howard W. Hunter Law Library 

Legal Research Guide #6

 Secondary Sources


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 Some legal research materials come in a “looseleaf” format and are updated by replacing outdated pages with new pages.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 PhrasesBlack’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.  Off-campus access restricted to law students and faculty.  All others can access Legaltrac on Law Library computers.)

 The Index to Legal Periodicals goes back to 1908. We can search it by author and subject.  (An online version of this index is called Index to Legal Periodicals and Books.  Off-campus access restricted to law students and faculty.  All others can access ILP on Law Library computers.)

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 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 (e.g., hornbooks and class texts) 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.

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).


(Last Revised 3/7/2013)


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