Skip to Main Content

Prepare to Practice Series


It is almost always a good idea to start your research by consulting secondary sources. Secondary sources will save you time because they provide background information and context, useful key words, and citations to relevant primary law.

Secondary Source Selection

Before selecting a secondary source, work through the following analysis:

  • Step 1: Identify the legal issue(s) that you are researching.
  • Step 2: For each legal issue, identify what legal topic is involved (e.g.: copyright, torts, contracts).
  • Step 3: For each legal issue, identify if it a state law issue, a federal law issue, or both (and if it is a state law issue, identify which state).
  • Step 4: For each legal issue, consider how much you know (affects starting point) and how much you need to know to answer the research question (affects end point).

After completing the initial analysis, it’s time to select a secondary source. If you’re in California, the following chart provides a list of useful sources by type of research:

For more detailed information on locating secondary sources, continue to the next module.

Search Methods



If you have already determined that your legal issue is controlled by state or federal law, one of the most efficient ways to select a relevant secondary source is to start with one that is specific to that jurisdiction.

On Lexis, select Content, then Secondary Materials. From there, you can select federal or state-specific secondary sources.

Example: Lexis Secondary Materials selection


On Westlaw, to locate state-specific secondary sources, select Content types, then Secondary Sources.

Example: Westlaw Secondary Sources selection


To locate federal materials on Westlaw, select Content types, then Secondary Sources, then select a type of secondary source (e.g. texts and treatises), then utilize the jurisdiction filter on the left.

Example: Westlaw jurisdiction filter


Topic or Practice Area

If you have identified what area of law is involved, you may want to locate a secondary source that is specific to that topic (e.g. Nimmer on Copyright).

On Lexis, select Content, then Secondary Materials. From there, scroll down to the bottom of the page and select a topic under Practice Area.

Example: Lexis Topic Practice Area


On Westlaw, select Content types, then Secondary Sources, then scroll down to By Topic in the middle of the page.

Example: Westlaw by Topic



Sometimes it’s useful to locate a secondary source by publisher. If, for example, you know that “Rutter Guides” are extremely useful practice guides in California, you can search for all of the Rutter Guides, by searching by publication series in Westlaw.

To search by publisher in Lexis, select Content, then Secondary Materials. Then scroll down to Publisher.

Example: Lexis Secondary Sources by Publisher


To search by publication series in Westlaw, select Content types, then Secondary Sources, then scroll down to By Publication Series.

Example: Westlaw Secondary Sources by Publisher

Navigating Within Secondary Sources

Once you have selected a secondary source, there are two main ways to search for information within that source. Most secondary sources were originally print books (many still are!). Some of them are a single book, others are a multi-volume set. It may help to think about this context as you navigate through these sources.

Table of Contents

A Table of Contents is a list of the chapters and individual sections within a secondary source. Browse through the Table of Contents to locate a relevant chapter or section. The Table of Contents is also useful to provide further context for an area of law. One of the most common mistakes researchers make is to locate one relevant section, but fail to look around for other sections that might also be useful. Remember: secondary sources are books. Don’t just read part of a chapter!

Example: Table of Contents for Rutter Group Practice Guides


Keyword Searching

On Lexis and Westlaw, you can run keyword searches across multiple secondary sources or within a specific secondary source. After conducting your search and selecting a relevant result, always check the Table of Contents to see where your section falls within the broader chapter. Look around for other sections that might also be relevant, especially if the section you found falls in the middle of the chapter. Remember: secondary sources are books – do you typically start reading books in the middle of a chapter?

Example: Keyword searching

Video: Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are powerful research tools. They can be especially useful if you are new to an area of law and need to come up to speed on a topic quickly. They are also helpful in pointing you to primary authority. The video below covers types of secondary sources, selecting secondary sources, and locating secondary sources. 


For help selecting secondary sources, you may want to use the library's Secondary Source Guide. Secondary sources are arranged by topic, and icons indicate where you can find those sources. 

If you are starting research on an area of law that is entirely new to you, consulting a research guide on that particular topic can be a good strategy. Research guides (also called libguides) are readily available online. (For example, if you're interested in martime law, a search for "Maritime law research guide" would be a good start).