Secondary sources are materials about the law that are used to explain, interpret, develop, locate, or update primary sources. That is, they are everything besides the law itself.
Though you may wish to dive directly into researching primary sources, it is usually much better to start your research with secondary sources. Secondary sources not only direct you to relevant primary material, they also explain and illuminate legal concepts that might take longer to understand than when consulting only primary sources.
Treatises are frequently comprehensive coverage of an area of law that goes in-depth. They're regularly updated with references to new primary authority. Treatises are most helpful when the law is complex, the law differs widely among states, or the area is heavily regulated, for example environmental or banking laws.
You should use a treatise when you know the area of law you want to research and you have a basic understanding of that area, but need more detailed coverage as well as citations to primary sources.
You can find relevant treatises in a number of ways:
Legal encyclopedias provide a general overview of a subject and are arranged alphabetically by subject. They often include introductory explanations with general statements of law and take a neutral tone. Legal encyclopedias contain references to primary sources.
The best time to use a legal encyclopedia is if you need a broad overview of a topic of if you don't know the area of law. You may also want to consult a legal encyclopedia if you need more information about controlling authority (Is the issue governed by statute? By common law?) or when you aren't sure whether it's a federal issue, a state issue, or a combination of the two.
There are two major national encyclopedias, American Jurisprudence 2d (AmJur) and Corpus Juris Secundum (CJS). Some states have state-specific legal encyclopedias. In Florida, Florida Jurisprudence (FlaJur) covers state issues.
Articles in law reviews and journals tend to be narrowly focused and provide detailed information about an area of law. Law review articles are typically published by academic law reviews. These articles are typically written by legal academics. Bar journals are produced by bar associations at a state or local level. Bar journal articles are written for practitioners and tend to be less detailed than law review articles but they can still provide helpful references to primary sources.
Law review articles and bar journal articles are available in Lexis, Westlaw, HeinOnline. Some sources, especially academic law reviews, are also freely available online.
Keep in mind that these articles are not updated, so you will want to consider whether the articles you find are timely.
American Law Reports contain surveys of case law across jurisdictions on discrete legal topics. These topics frequently deal with unsettled areas of law. Cases are organized by jurisdiction and court, fact patterns, and nature of the holding. ALR annotations are incredibly comprehensive but limited by the discreteness of its topics. If you find a relevant ALR annotation, it will likely be the best source for your research.
You should use ALRs if you know the controlling legal concepts and terms of art, if you need to find cases with specific fact patterns, or if you need to find cases with specific holdings.
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