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Case Finding and Advanced Searching Strategies

Overview

There are various types of secondary sources, and each type of source differs in its depth of coverage of legal topics or issues. Generally, you should consider starting with a legal encyclopedia if you are completely new to a topic because legal encyclopedias provide broad, surface-level coverage of topics (e.g., the entry on copyright law spans approximately 100 pages in American Jurisprudence). Otherwise, you likely will begin with a treatise or practice guide. Treatises and practice guides are much more detailed and often dedicate an entire volume or set to a topic (e.g., Nimmer on Copyright consists of eleven volumes). 

Other types of secondary sources, including American Law Reports, Restatements, and law review and journal articles, are also useful for certain purposes. For instance, if you need to quickly survey how a legal concept is interpreted across many jurisdictions, an annotation from an American Law Report may be your best bet. However, these sources will generally not be the first type of secondary source with which you start your research. 

Legal Encyclopedias & Jurisprudences

A legal encyclopedia provides a quick, surface-level overview of a topic. Legal encyclopedias are useful if a topic is brand new to you. Topics are arranged in a legal encyclopedia in alphabetical order. For instance, American Jurisprudence covers over 400 topics over a set of more than a hundred volumes. There are both national legal encyclopedias (e.g., American JurisprudenceCorpus Juris Secundum) as well as state legal encyclopedias (e.g., California Jurisprudence). 

Print volumes of American Jurisprudence 2d on a shelf

Westlaw: Click on "Secondary Sources" on Westlaw's homepage to access the Secondary Sources page. Narrow the publications by selecting "Jurisprudences & Encyclopedias" under "Publication Type" in the left sidebar.  

Lexis: Click on "Secondary Materials" on Lexis's homepage, then select "Treatises, Practice Guides & Jurisprudence" under "Content Type." A direct link to the Treatises, Practice Guides & Jurisprudence page is available here

Suggested Legal Encyclopedias:

Treatises & Practice Guides

A treatise covers a topic in much more detail than a legal encyclopedia, often over the course of a multi-volume set. In print, treatises are generally in "looseleaf format," which allows them to be updated and supplemented one or more times a year. For instance, Chisum on Patents, the leading treatise on patent law, contains 53 volumes and is updated five times per year. Practice guides are also written by experts and are organized by either topic or jurisdiction. 

A senior attorney or your colleagues will likely mention certain treatises and practice guides to you. You can also ask reference librarians or check research guides for suggestions. Some law libraries maintain lists of suggested treatises, organized by topic; try Georgetown Law Library's Treatise Finders, Boston College Law Library's Major Legal Treatises by Subject, or Harvard Law Library's Legal Treatises by Subject.. Be aware, however, that these lists may also include nutshells and study aids. 

Print volumes of the treatise "Nimmer on Copyright" on the shelf

Westlaw: Click on "Secondary Sources" on Westlaw's homepage to access the Secondary Sources page. Narrow the publications by selecting "Texts & Treatises" under "Publication Type" in the left sidebar. 

Lexis: Click on "Secondary Materials" on Lexis's homepage, then select "Treatises, Practice Guides & Jurisprudence" under "Content Type." A direct link to the Treatises, Practice Guides & Jurisprudence page is available here

American Law Reports

American Law Reports contain detailed "annotations" (i.e., articles) about legal issues across or within jurisdictions. They usually contain an outline of the issue, with citations and summaries of relevant cases in each section. This type of secondary source is particularly useful in addressing legal issues for which there may be a circuit split, or when you simply need to gather cases from a variety of jurisdictions on an issue. Each annotation contains a table of cases that organizes all of the cases cited throughout the annotation by jurisdiction, and you can also filter by jurisdiction so that cases from your jurisdiction(s) are highlighted. American Law Reports are updated each week with new cases on Westlaw. 

Screenshot of an American Law Report annotation showing the summary of the issue and table of contents   Screenshot of an American Law Report annotation showing the start of the table of cases, sorted by jurisdiction

Westlaw: Click on "Secondary Sources" on Westlaw's homepage to access the Secondary Sources page. Narrow the publications by selecting "American Law Reports" under "Publication Type" in the left sidebar.  

Restatements

Restatements, prepared by the American Law Institute, restate the legal rules in subjects areas governed by common law. Restatements also often cite to cases exemplifying the restated rule. Examples include the Restatement (Second) of Contracts or Restatement (Third) of Torts. It is easy to search for relevant sections of a Restatement on Westlaw, but you can view scanned PDF versions of the hard copy volumes on HeinOnline. 

Title page of the Restatement (Second) of Contracts   Print page containing section 6 of the Restatement (Second) of Contracts and the comments on the section

Westlaw: Click on "Secondary Sources" on Westlaw's homepage to access the Secondary Sources page. Narrow the publications by selecting "Restatements & Principles of the Law" under "Publication Type" in the left sidebar. 

HeinOnline: On HeinOnline's homepage, click on American Law Institute Library, then select "Restatements & Principles of the Law." 

Law Review and Law Journal Articles

Most law journals and law reviews are student-edited, but there are a few that are faculty-edited or peer-reviewed. A law journal article is a piece of legal scholarship, frequently focusing on a specific legal issue. Because authors attempt to make arguments in law journal articles, this type of secondary source is not as objective as legal encyclopedias, treatises, or practice guides. However, they are often much more detailed because of their narrower focus, and can be excellent sources for background on an issue. You can also use their citations in your research; for example, an article critiquing a particular line of Supreme Court cases will probably cite to every case in that line along with other scholarship on the topic. 

Some law journals are general-interest publications that contain scholarship on all areas of law. Examples include the Stanford Law Review or Harvard Law Review. Other law journals are focused on a particular subject area, such as the Stanford Journal of International Law or the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender

Although the HeinOnline Law Journal Library has the most comprehensive coverage, with more than 2,400 law and law-related periodicals dating back to their date of inception in PDF, it is usually much easier to search for relevant articles using either Westlaw or Lexis. The library provides alumni with free access to the HeinOnline Law Journal Library after graduation; please email reference@law.stanford.edu for more information. 

Print issues of the Stanford Journal of International Law on the shelf   Print issues of the Stanford Journal of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties on the shelf   Print issues of the Stanford Law & Policy Review on the shelf

Westlaw: Click on "Secondary Sources" on Westlaw's homepage to access the Secondary Sources page. Narrow the publications by selecting "Law Reviews & Journals" under "Publication Type" in the left sidebar. 

Lexis: Click on "Secondary Materials" on Lexis's homepage, then select "Law Reviews & Journals" under "Content Type." A direct link to the Law Reviews & Journals page is available here

HeinOnline Law Journal Library: On HeinOnline's homepage, click on the Law Journal Library