The main goal of legal research is to efficiently find primary, mandatory authority on your legal issue.
Secondary sources are often the best place to begin your research, because secondary sources can provide:
Compare benefits of starting with secondary sources to starting with keyword searches:
1. Citations to Primary Authorities
A keyword search may help us find cases with one click, but whether those are the most relevant cases or not depends on how we constructed our search and whether the search algorithm was built to understand such a search. Running more searches using more keywords doesn't provide a reliable doublecheck on our search results when we don't know what we don't know.
The source that leads us fastest and most reliably to what human experts agree are the leading authorities on an issue is most often a secondary source.
2. Context and Commentary on Primary Authorities
A keyword search may help us find cases with one click, but it may be time-consuming to read these cases and extract applicable rules.
Efficiency increases if we can read the rules from significant cases first, and read in plain language how courts interpret the relevant statutes and cases: this is what secondary sources provide. Then when we read the full text of the cases, we are reading with increased understanding, and can more quickly and accurately determine which cases are helpful and how to use them.
Secondary sources can also help you narrow, expand, or redirect your research as needed.
Secondary sources are a beginning, not an end point, because secondary sources have limitations.
When the law changes, a secondary source can become outdated. This includes online versions. Always check the publication date of the secondary source you are consulting. Update the primary sources it cites, to ensure they are still good law.
A secondary source may not include everything necessary for your analysis. You must not rely solely on the commentary found in a secondary source, but carefully read the primary sources it cites to determine if they are on point for your precise legal issue.
Also, remember that secondary sources are always persuasive and never binding on courts. Secondary sources are most often used for background, context, and help locating the strongest primary authorities. Secondary sources should not be cited when trying to persuade a court, if binding authority (such as a relevant case decided by a higher court) is available.
In this Secondary Sources Unit, we will look at how each of these types of secondary sources can be helpful starting points to shed light on a research question: