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Using Secondary Legal Resources to Locate Primary Sources

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The following is a guest post by Shameema Rahman, Legal Reference Specialist in our Public Services Division.  Shameema is no stranger to In Custodia Legis. Her previous posts include: World Digital Library and the Qatar Foundation; Classes Offered by the Law Library of Congress; and Researching an Unfamiliar Country’s Law.

This spring several of the staff in the Law Library Reading Room began to update the quick guides to legal research, which can be found on our website.  I had created the Guide to Secondary Legal Resources in 2006 and I thought now would be a good time to direct our readers to this and other guides as well as to provide some brief information about various secondary legal resources.

Legal resources are divided into two broad categories: primary and secondary sources.  Primary legal resources are statements of the law from a court in the form of an opinion or a law passed by Congress or a state legislature.  Secondary legal resources provide an analysis or commentary on primary law.  These resources also help users locate and understand the primary law sources.  Secondary legal sources may also influence legal decisions but they do not have a controlling or binding authority like the primary sources of law.

There are a variety of secondary sources available to researchers of U.S. law.  These include: legal dictionaries and encyclopedias; annotated law reports; legal periodicals; legal treatises and nutshells; Restatements; loose-leaf services; and legal directories.  The Law Library of Congress has an extensive collection of legal treatises and other commentaries that can be located through the Library of Congress’s online catalog.

Legal dictionaries and legal encyclopedias are two of the most basic secondary legal sources.  Legal dictionaries provide definitions of words in their legal sense or use including foreign and Latin legal phrases.  A legal dictionary may also give examples of use in a legal context.  The leading legal dictionary in the U.S. is Black’s Law DictionaryWords & Phrases, which is a multivolume publication, also provides legal definitions of terms as well as multiple entries showing how a word or phrase has been defined or used by the courts.  Legal encyclopedias provide general commentary on federal and state laws and are very useful when beginning research in unfamiliar areas of the law.   The two major national legal encyclopedias are the American Jurisprudence 2d (Am Jur) and Corpus Juris Secundum (CJS).  But various states also have legal encyclopedias such as  The West’s Maryland Law Encyclopedia, and Michie’s Jurisprudence of Virginia and West Virginia.

Other secondary legal resources include annotated law reports with essays that analyze and discuss particular points of law and provide citations to other primary and secondary legal resources.  The American Law Reports (ALR) series is the most comprehensive set of annotated law reports: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and Federal (ALR Federal).   Legal treatises  are single or multivolume publications which provide a highly organized, detailed exposition of a specific area of law such as contracts, torts or criminal law.  Nutshells also provide an overview of a specific legal topic but they are more concise in their treatment of the topic than a treatise.  The Civil Procedure in a Nutshell  for example is a very helpful publication for a quick glance on a specific area of interest.

Additional secondary legal resources include legal periodicals which are useful in helping locate up-to-the-minute information on developing areas of the law, often in highly specialized areas.   There are a variety of legal periodicals including law school journals, bar association periodicals, legal newspapers and newsletters.  Other secondary resources include Restatements and loose-leaf services.  The Restatements organize and codify common law: each section begins with a restatement of the law which is followed by hypothetical examples.  The Restatements are written by members of the American Law Institute many of whom are important members of the bar.  Loose-leaf services by contrast are commercial publications which collate regulations and statutes in areas of the law which are changing quickly such tax, banking, securities or employment law.  Loose-leaf publications are published in binders and new pages can be easily inserted while out of date information is removed.

Legal directories are used to locate legal and government information.  For example the United States Government Manual is a directory of federal agencies.  Entries include a short description of responsibilities of the agency, contacts, and references to legislation which established the agency.  Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory is one of the most popular legal directories; it provides a listing of attorneys and law firms by state and country.  Some directories include information about lawyers practicing in a specific area of law and/or in specific jurisdictions.  They are called specialty directories; case in point, Directory of Corporate Counsel Pro Bono Programs.

So many resources, so little time!  What legal resources have you used?

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