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MSL Introduction to Legal Research: Secondary Sources

Legal research assistance for MSL students writing seminar papers.

Purpose of Secondary Sources

Secondary sources and finding tools are the most likely place to start your research. Their role is:

  • Identify/refine search terms
  • Obtain an overview of your subject
  • Locate primary and persuasive authorities
  • Refocus your research.

Types of Secondary Sources

  Description
ALRs American Law Reports (ALR) contains in-depth essays on selected common law issues. Provides thorough case law overview. Notes where outcome is fact-sensitive or there is a jurisdiction split. Rarely cited.
Law Review Articles In-depth scholarly articles on developing law. Author provides a thorough review of law to date and recommendation regarding what the law should be. Extensive footnotes make them a gold mine of resources.
Legal Dictionaries Defines legal terms and jargon and cite to a source, usually a judicial opinion. Words & Phrases is a dictionary type field available on WL advanced search. Links to where term is defined by jurisdiction's courts or statutes.
Legal Encyclopedias Corpus Juris Secundum (CJS) and American Jurisprudence 2d (AmJur) provide an introductory level discussion of every topic of law and identifies the seminal primary authority. A good starting point to provide context.
Restatements For the topics covered, provides highly credible, succinct statement of well-settled common law. Links to cases where court has cited to the Restatements.
Treatises Legal summary, tools, advice and direction for real problems. Some are more encyclopedia-like: Proof of Facts (guide to pretrial practice), Causes of Action (assists in preparation of pleadings), Trials (guide through all phases of litigation). Others focus on one topic, often in a technical and highly regulated area, and are very credible. If your professional work is one of these areas, it may be wise to purchase access.

Searching for Secondary Sources in Westlaw

By Source

Using the search box at the top of the screen, enter the name of the secondary source. A dropdown will appear that says Looking for this? and there will be resources listed below it. Click on the one that matches the resource you want to use and you will be taken directly to its table of contents/search page. If you don't see the resource you are looking for, keeping typing until it appears.

Think carefully about search options and limits; depending on the particular secondary source, you may have a table of contents, index, and Advanced Search fields available to you. Using these thoughtfully will keep your results list from overwhelming you.

By Keyword

If you don't have a specific secondary source in mind, click on Secondary Sources then browse through the search options. Click on the box to the left of those that seem most promising then enter your keywords into the search box at the top of the screen.

Look through your results for relevant options. If you read one and it is not what you wanted, click on Return to List to get back to the results list. Though each secondary source has a different format, using the results filters and tools like table of contents will help you make sense out of the results.


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