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Free and Low-Cost Legal Research: U.S. Secondary and Primary Sources: Secondary Sources

Information on where to find free or low-cost information on U.S. secondary and primary legal sources

Overview

What are Legal Secondary Sources?

Secondary sources "offer analysis, commentary, or a restatement of primary law and are used to help locate and explain primary sources of law;" they are sources that discuss the law. Finding freely-available legal secondary sources online is more difficult than locating legal primary sources, largely because most secondary sources are proprietary and/or protected by copyright. There are some useful secondary sources available for free (and the number is growing).

Legal secondary sources are often the best place to start when conducting legal research, because they will provide overviews and explanations of the law, plus they are often full of citations to relevant statutes, cases, and regulations.

How do I find Free/Low-Cost Legal Secondary Sources?

The table below collects several of the most useful legal secondary sources. As with many free/low-cost sources, the best place to start is often Google: you can search for: "research guide" [enter subject here] site:edu. This will limit your search to just academic research guides, ensuring the source is reliable.

Many research guides provide links to both paid and free sources; you can also try searching for: "research guide" free or low cost legal research. This will bring up research guides, such as this one, that focus specifically on free or low-cost resources. If you are researching a specific state's law, add the state's name to your search string (e.g., search: "research guide" California free legal research).

Useful Secondary Sources

General Legal Secondary Sources

This table provides an alphabetical list of the most useful places to locate secondary sources. All of the sources listed in this table are freely-available.

If you're not sure where to begin, check out How to Research a Legal Problem: A Guide for Non-Lawyers, which provides a step-by-step walk-through for researching a legal issue.

Additionally, much information is available through blogs, law firm websites, and other sources, so it can also be helpful to start with a general Google search. Use Advanced Google & Google Proximity searches to construct more precise searches that will bring back better results.

 

Source Notes & Description
ABA Journal  Access back to 2004 to the legal magazine from the American Bar Association. Includes news, analysis, and stories of interest to the legal community.
American Memory Collected by the Library of Congress, this database contains full-text documents from the founding in its Century of Lawmaking database; American women resources; and the African American Odyssey. It also contains several primary sources.
Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation (aka Constitution Annotated) Prepared in part by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, this in-depth source aims "to provide an objective, comprehensive, authoritative, and accessible treatment" of the U.S. Constitution. It also includes analysis of cases decided by the Supreme Court of the United States and is regularly updated as new cases are decided.
Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) DOAJ searches over 15,000 freely-accessible journals (including some law journals). It also contains many foreign-language journals, so is also an excellent source for foreign materials.
FindLaw Informational articles about various legal topics, broken down further into specific subtopics. Access either by topic or by state.
Google Scholar  Google's foray into legal search, covering scholarly materials posted to the internet. A great place to start when you don't know where to start; utilizes Google's search engine but limited to scholarly content. Also see above this table, which provides links and tips for advanced Google searching.
Guide to Law Online The Law Library of Congress' invaluable, annotated, collection of online sources of information, including resources for federal and state law; international and foreign law; and indigenous law, plus a handy index for finding what you need.
HathiTrust Digital collections from libraries around the world, HathiTrust offers access to many historical materials; it also includes a research center that allows users to do text-based analysis of the entire HathiTrust corpus.
JSTOR's Open Access Content JSTOR is a great source for scholarly articles, but most of its content is behind a paywall. JSTOR has been working to add books and journals to its open access site, and it now includes thousands of ebooks and millions of articles that anyone can access. Works best if you click into either the ebooks section or the journals section before searching.
Justia In addition to primary sources, Justia provides legal guides on several topics, blogs, 50-state surveys, and legal news. Another good place to go to get an introduction or keywords for a specific legal topic.
Law.com's Legal Dictionary Law.com has made its legal dictionary available to the public (unlike most of Law.com's material, which are limited or behind a paywall), and it's a good place to look up legal terms and definitions.
Law Technology Today's Law Review/Journal Search Searches over 300 law reviews and journals, plus working papers, Congressional Research Services reports, and other repositories for academic articles. Uses Google's search engine.
Legal Information Institute (LII) While LII is primarily used to locate primary sources, it also has a collection of overviews of various legal topics (business, immigration, landlord/tenant) and short overviews of other subjects (consumer protection, legislation, real estate law). It also is home to the Wex legal dictionary and encyclopedia, an excellent resource when Black's isn't an option.
LLRX Law and Technology Resources for Legal Professionals (LLRX) is an online journal that provides resources for legal research, including topical guides and articles. Search; or navigate to the Archives > Subjects to browse for information related to your topic.
NOLO's Legal Topics NOLO provides free articles on many legal topics, and is a great place to start if you're unfamiliar with a specific area of law and need a general overview to give you search terms and information. It focuses on legal topics most likely to be of benefit to the public, such as bankruptcy; divorce and family law; and wills, trusts, and probate.
SSRN (Social Science Research Network) SSRN collects draft abstracts and papers and is an excellent source for the latest scholarship across a wide variety of fields (including law). Browse to the Legal Scholarship Network (nested under the Social Sciences) to narrow your search to just legal works.
SCALL's (Southern California Association of Law Libraries) Locating the Law, 6th A guide on how to find the law, with resources for locating California and federal cases, statutes, regulations, and other online resources.

Other Free & Low-Cost Legal Research Guides

Many other libraries and groups have also collected information about how to find free and low-cost legal research sources. Some useful ones are: