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Secondary Sources: Basic Legal Research Strategy

Step One: Preliminary Analysis

  • Secondary sources are materials about the law (as opposed to primary sources, material that is the law).
  • Secondary sources help familiarize you with a particular area of the law.
  • Secondary sources will lead you to primary sources and save time.
  • Someone else has already done the work ‑ why reinvent the wheel? Ask an expert.

Step Two: Formulate Issue Statement(s) (questions for which you are seeking legal answers)

  • Identify the facts (who, what, where, when and why)
  • Identify the legal concepts (legal theory, relief sought, procedural posture)
  • Identify research terms (use legal dictionaries and legal thesauri)
  • Frame the question(s)
  • Be prepared to change your issue statement(s) as more is learned.

Step Three: Check for Statutory Authority (Primary Source)

  • Identify any controlling statutes (never assume the absence of relevant legislation!)
  • Identify any court opinions (case law) that may construe relevant statutes
  • Remember that secondary sources may help you identify controlling statutes

Step Four: Check for Case Law (Primary Source)

  • A lower court in your jurisdiction is bound to follow the rule of law decided by a higher court in the same jurisdiction in a similar case. Only decisions from the same jurisdiction are binding on a lower court, or mandatory authority.

  • Decisions from courts in other jurisdictions are not binding and need not be followed. A decision which is not binding in a jurisdiction is called persuasive authority.

  • Remember that secondary sources may lead you to relevant cases.

Step Five: Update Research

  • Verify that what you have found is still good law.
  • Identify new developments.

A Few Good Research Tips

  • Research separable questions separately (if you have more than one issue, research them individually)
  • Double check your work in all sources to be sure that you have not missed anything
  • Keep a good record of your research. List what you found and where you found it.