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Secondary Sources: Overview

Defining Primary & Secondary Authority

Primary Authority:
Primary authority is written content about the law that comes from the legislature, a court, or another body with official capacity to issue or clarify the law for that jurisdiction. Primary authority is binding on people and entities within the jurisdiction.

Examples: statutes, regulations and court opinions

Secondary Authority:
Statements about the law made by an unofficial commentator who does not have any authority to create law in the particular jurisdiction. Secondary authority is not binding or mandatory, but it may be persuasive.

Examples: law review and journal articles, treatises, legal encyclopedias

How Secondary Sources Can Assist You

Secondary sources are legal research materials written to clarify, analyze, and evaluate the law on a particular topic. Legal researchers are generally encouraged to begin with a secondary source when researching an unfamiliar area of law. This approach will help the researcher with identify the legal terms of art, issues, key cases and statutes, and history related to the legal topic. Secondary sources also direct the researcher to primary and other secondary sources on point. These resources may be cited as persuasive authority when primary authority for the jurisdiction is not available.

Our Catalog

The Law Library catalog is an excellent place to begin looking for resources.  To locate an available secondary source on a particular topic you can use relevant search terms in the catalog's keyword search. Once a relevant title is located, click on the link to the title. A short bibliographic record will display along with a Table of Contents if available.  Looking at the Table of Contents for a title can be very helpful, especially when your search terms do not appear in the title of the item.

Read more about searching the catalog from the Searching the Catalog LibGuide. There are also video tutorials available about using the catalog.

What's in the Catalog?

Searching the Catalog

Patron Account

Citing to Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are a great place to begin building a fundamental understanding of a legal topic the researcher is unfamiliar with, but researchers should only cite to select secondary sources when appropriate. A researcher should not cite to a legal encyclopedia as persuasive or binding authority in a legal memo or brief. They should use the legal encyclopedia to provide background education and as a tool for mining citations to cases and other legal materials.

They should also not cite to a hornbook or other law student "study aid" in their legal memo or brief. These background materials are written for students and would not be strong persuasive authority.

Researchers may cite to treatises where appropriate, if the author of the work has a significant enough level of prestige in that area of law. Example: Chemerinsky on Constitutional Law. Remember, this citation is still only persuasive authority.

Restatements are often cited as persuasive authority and recognized by the courts.

Law review articles can also be cited as persuasive authority, usually when the writing and analysis are of a high quality and the author has a strong reputation as an expert in the field.

Common Secondary Sources

  • Legal Dictionaries

  • Words & Phrases Series

  • Legal encyclopedias

  • American Law Reports

  • Legal Periodicals such as Law Reviews

  • Legal treatises, Hornbooks and  Nutshells

  • Restatements and model laws

  • Loose leaf services

  • Legal Directories

CALI Lesson

The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI®) has several online tutorials covering legal research and writing basics. You may be interested in viewing:

Introduction to Secondary Resources

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