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Circuit Riders: Basic Legal Research

A guide for non-law librarians

Secondary Sources

Legal Dictionaries

Secondary sources help you identify and understand the law. Secondary sources are not law and are never cited as legal authority. They include legal dictionaries and encyclopedias, journal articles, books, treatises, practice aids, self-help materials, and finding tools.

It is easier and generally more effective to consult a secondary source to find key statutes, regulations, and cases that govern a particular area of law, e.g., family law, probate law, employment law, criminal law, before trying to identify, locate and analyze those same resources using finding tools for statutes, cases, and regulations.

Legal Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

As you conduct your research, you may come across an unfamiliar term or phrase.

Black's Law Dictionary

Black's Law Dictionary


Black's Law Dictionary is a useful tool for learning the meaning of unfamiliar legal terms.  Definition entries in Black's often include alternate terms that help you conduct later research for primary resources, as well as cross-references to other dictionary entries that may be relevant. However, the definitions in Black's Law Dictionary are not law and should not be cited as legal authority. Black's Law Dictionary is available in print and on Westlaw.

For example, while researching an employment law issue, you read that South Carolina is an employment at-will state. You look that phrase up in Black's law Dictionary and learn that employment at will means that if an employee does not have a contract, that employee may be terminated by her employer without cause.


Legal dictionaries and glossaries are also available on the Internet for free. Examples include Nolo’s Free Dictionary of Terms and Legal Definitions and LAW.COM.  See our page on Legal Research Terms for a glossary of legal research terms and links to other online legal dictionaries.

Image of Nolo's Free Dictionary of Terms and Legal Definitions for the term "At-Will Employment"

Image of LAW.COM's free legal dictionary for the term "At-Will Employment"

Certain legal dictionaries are available online via subscription to databases such as Westlaw and Lexis Advance. South Carolina colleges and universities and public libraries may provide access to popular legal dictionaries via subscription to public access versions of Westlaw or NexisUni.

The two legal encyclopedias most widely used by lawyers are American Jurisprudence (Am. Jur.) and Corpus Juris Secundum (C.J.S.). State-specific legal encyclopedias such as South Carolina Jurisprudence explain the law by topic as applied in that state. These legal encyclopedias are usually found in law libraries. They contain extensive footnotes to the law and secondary sources and are updated annually by pocket parts.

American Jurisprudence               Corpus Juris Secundum            South Carolina Jurisprudence

Legal encyclopedias written for non-lawyers, such as West’s Encyclopedia of American LawGale Encyclopedia of Everyday Law, and Nolo’s Encyclopedia of Everyday Law are available in public and academic libraries, as well as law libraries.                                  

Legal encyclopedias are also available on the Internet for free. For example, Wex is a popular legal dictionary and encyclopedia maintained by Cornell Law School's Legal Information institute. 

Image of Wex online legal encyclopedia; entry for "Employment-at-will Doctrine"

Certain legal encyclopedias are available online via subscription to databases such as Westlaw and Lexis Advance. South Carolina colleges and universities and public libraries may provide access to national and state legal encyclopedias via subscription to public access versions of Westlaw or NexisUni.

Books & Treatises

South Carolina Bar treatises
The easiest way to learn about a legal topic is to locate a current book on that topic— preferably one written for the layperson. Law school 
libraries carry books with varying levels of difficulty and coverage, from short paperback "nutshell" books to multi-volume treatises.

A treatise is a reference book that provides in-depth coverage of a particular legal topic, often written by the leading scholar in that area of law.

The USC Law Library’s catalog is searchable online as are those of academic and public libraries across the state. For example, if you search in the USC Law Library's online catalog for "South Carolina Employment Law," you will find Labor and Employment Law for South Carolina Lawyers, which  covers South Carolina's employment at-will doctrine and its exceptions.

Although most books on South Carolina law are published for lawyers by the SC Bar, they are often the best resource available for comprehensive coverage of a particular legal topic. The SC Bar maintains an online database on its website of the books that it publishes.  The USC Law Library's South Carolina Legal Resources guide includes books, treatises, and other legal resources specific to South Carolina.

Subscription databases like Westlaw and Lexis Advance provide online access to books on legal topics, including many published by the SC Bar. The particular books included varies by database. Public and academic law libraries also offer access to e-books to their patrons on the law and the U.S. legal system. 

Law Review & Journal Articles

South Carolina Law Review

Law schools across the country publish law reviews and legal journals that include articles written by law professors, attorneys, and law students. Law reviews, such as the South Carolina Law Review, address a wide range of topics, while journals tend to focus on specific areas of law, e.g., the Journal of Law 
and Education.

Law school libraries carry print versions of law reviews and journals from across the country. Law library catalogs provide library locations for individual print journals as well as links to available online databases like Westlaw and Lexis Advance (available to law students and faculty only).

The USC Law Library and some academic libraries in South Carolina subscribe to online databases that contain the full text of law review and journal articles. Examples are NexisUni and Hein Online. Public patrons must use the library computers to access these databases. A few public library systems in South Carolina subscribe to Westlaw for their patrons, which includes a Law Reviews & Journals database.

Although law review and journal articles may provide more in-depth analysis and commentary than a non-lawyer researcher typically needs, these articles often provide an excellent background or history of a legal topic and include footnotes to relevant statutes, regulations, and cases.

State bar journals and magazines, published by state bar associations, are not as comprehensive as law review and journal articles, but address a wide range of state and federal legal issues. Articles in bar journals are often written by attorneys and law professors. Bar journals are published in the same subscription databases as law review and journal articles. 

Some academic and public libraries in South Carolina subscribe to Gale LegalTrac, which is  is an online index to legal periodicals that allows you to search for law review and journal articles by author or keyword and to limit searches to individual journals. LegalTrac includes limited full-text articles in its database; however, you can check library catalogs and e-journals databases to locate particular articles in print or online.

Free Online Law Review & Journal Articles

Law schools across the country are beginning to support open access by making their law reviews and journals available via the Internet. Free online databases that allow you to search online journals include the ABA’s Free Full-Text Online Law Review/Journal Search and Google Scholar.

Image of ABA’s Free Full-Text Online Law Review/Journal Search

Image of Google Scholar home page

Free Online Bar Journals

Bar associations, like the SC Bar, may provide free access to their bar journals. For example, the SC bar offers access to several issues (about the last 2 - 3 years) of the SC Lawyer along with browse-able subject and author indexes on its website.

Legal News & Commentary

Thanks to the Internet, it is easier than ever to stay abreast of local and national legal news. When cases are decided, the courts post their opinions online that same day. Commentary on court decisions is also available in real-time through legal news websites and blogs or blawgs (legal blogs). When Congress passes a law or a government agency writes a new regulation or the President issues an Executive Order, you can immediately access the text of the law, regulation, or executive order along with commentary via government and legal news websites and blogs. This is true on the state level as well. 

A few examples are:

The University of Pittsburg School of Law's JURIST

The University of Pittsburg School of Law's JURIST

SCOTUSblog for commentary on the U.S. Supreme Court



The ABA Journal Blawg Directory 

ABA Journal Blawg Directory

South Carolina Lawyers Weekly is an example of a state specific legal newspaper. Public and academic libraries in South Carolina provide online access to full text articles via Gale Legal Trac. Richland Library is one example of a public library that provides its patrons with access to Legal Trac. The SC Lawyer bar journal is also a good source of legal news.

Gale Legal Trac