Secondary Sources Defined

What are secondary sources?

Secondary sources are materials that discuss, explain, analyze, and critique the law. They are resources about the law, and not the law itself. Frequently used secondary sources include legal encyclopedias, legal dictionaries, Restatements of the Law, subject treatises, and articles in legal periodicals.

Secondary sources help the researcher understand the parameters of the research topic and learn the basics about the topic. Researchers who know little about the area of law they are researching should first use a secondary source to gain familiarity with the jargon, issues, key cases and statutes, and history. Below are listed some resources for finding secondary sources available for free online. However, most treatises, legal dictionaries, and legal encyclopedias are only available in print or through online subscriptions. To access these resources you can contact a local law library for help.

Be careful how you use the information you find in secondary sources!

Many secondary sources are recognized as broad, general resources. They are a great starting place to get fundamental information, but your research should not stop with a secondary source. Use secondary sources for your background education and as springboard to the primary law (cases and other materials).

Secondary sources you can access online:

  • Wex is a free online legal dictionary and legal encyclopedia. You can use it to find definitions of legal terminology or longer discussions of legal topics.
  • Nolo's legal encyclopedia features thousands of articles and how-to guides on common legal issues. There is much more content here than what is listed on the landing page. Select from the topics in the right-hand box labeled "More about this topic" or select the magnifying glass at the top to search the website. To limit your search to the free encyclopedia, use the drop-down menu next to the search bar to select "articles".
  • Search for law review articles on Google Scholar. These are scholarly legal publications on narrow areas of law, often expressing the thinking of an expert with regard to very specific problems. In the U.S., most law reviews are published by law schools and recent issues are typically open access (meaning you can read them for free online). See below for more advice on using Google Scholar for articles.

Tips for Using Google Scholar

Google Scholar searches through academic papers from all subjects. To narrow your search to law journals only, follow these instructions to filter for journal titles with the word "Law":

  1. On the Google Scholar home page, make sure "Articles" is selected under the search bar. Select the three horizontal lines in the top left corner to open up the options menu.Screen capture from Google Scholar
  2. Select Advanced Search. In the pop-up box, use the field labeled "Return articles published in".Screen capture from Google Scholar
  3. Enter one of the following search strings into this field. Note the use of quotation marks. (Journal titles are often abbreviated. L Rev is the abbreviation for Law Review, and L J stands for Law Journal):
    • Law
    • "L Rev"
    • "L J"
    • Unfortunately there is no way to effectively combine these in one search, so you will have to perform three separate searches.
  4. Use one or more of the top fields to enter your search terms. Select the magnifying glass or hit ENTER to search.
  5. If you find an article you are unable to access because it is behind a paywall, try looking for the article on the journal's website. This occasionally works if Google Scholar missed an open-access version of an article.