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Legal Research Guide for Public Patrons: Begin Research with Secondary Sources

The purpose of this LibGuide is to provide legal resources for individuals without any formal legal training.

Before You Begin

Legal resources can be very difficult to navigate for people with no formal legal training. When approaching any task involving the law, it is important to familiarize yourself with the resources in that area before getting too deep into research. This page provides an overview of useful secondary materials to begin your research, as well as tips for how to use these resources to your advantage. Many of the resources listed must be purchased individually or with a subscription. However, you can reach out to your local law library to ask about these resources.

Useful Secondary Sources

Law Dictionaries

Law dictionaries can help explain legal terminology and concepts. For example, if you come across the phrase "caveat emptor," but have no understanding of Latin, a law dictionary is a great resource. The leading dictionary in the legal field is Black's Law Dictionary, which is available for purchase here. There are also free online dictionaries, like "The Law Dictionary."

The United States federal court system also maintains a free Glossary of Legal Terms. This resource has less coverage than Black's Law Dictionary, but is a great resource for understanding more basic legal terminology. The American Bar Association has a similar glossary here.

Legal Encyclopedias

Legal Encyclopedias are a useful resource for nonlawyers because these resources are intuitive. People often have experience with various types of encyclopedias that they used while in school. Legal encyclopedias provide short (often only a few paragraphs) explanations of legal concepts. In addition, these resources provide citations to primary and secondary sources that the researcher can use going forward.

  • Corpus Juris Secundum: Corpus Juris Secundum, commonly abbreviated as C.J.S., is a national legal encyclopedia. It covers both federal and state topics. This legal encyclopedia is published by West and additional information can be found here. It is also available on Westlaw with a subscription.
  • American Jurisprudence 2d: American Jurisprudence 2d, commonly abbreviated as Am. Jur. 2d, is another national legal encyclopedia. This encyclopedia tends to have more selective entries, resulting in specialized coverage of legal topics. It is published by West and additional information can be found here. It is also available on Westlaw and Lexis with a subscription.

In addition to the above national legal encyclopedias, each state also has varying legal encyclopedias. It is important to reach out to the local law library to determine what legal encyclopedias are often used in your jurisdiction.


Treatises are similar to legal encyclopedias in that they explain the law. However, treatises provide more in-depth discussion of the law. Like legal encyclopedias, treatises also provide citations to primary and secondary sources. The following are a couple examples of popular legal treatises:

  • Murray, T., Corbin, A. L., Perillo, J. M., & Murray Jr., J. E. Corbin on Contracts. This treatise is published by LexisNexis and available on Lexis with a subscription. It is one of the leading treatises on contract law in the United States. More information can be found here.
  • Restatement of the Law, Second: Torts. This treatise is available on Westlaw, Lexis, and HeinOnline with a subscription. The Restatement of Torts compiles the common law of torts and helps readers interpret and apply those laws. Restatements are an excellent source for users to find general legal principles where rules are written in a clear and concise manner. More information can be found here.

Georgetown Law School maintains a LibGuide named "Treatise Finder." This LibGuide lists out many different areas of the law and recommends treatises for each subject. LibGuides are a great place to find information about popular legal sources to use when conducting legal research. Georgetown's Treatise Finders can be accessed for free here.

Practice Guides

Practice guides are designed for practicing lawyers, but can be utilized by nonlawyers in some instances. Practice guides often include resources like checklists, which can be useful for ensuring court documents contain all the necessary parts.

There are countless practice guides because there are so many jurisdictions (state, federal, foreign and international) and many different areas of law. Examples of practice guides can be found here. Because these resources are geared towards lawyers, it is best to turn to self-help guides and other legal resources instead.

Self-Help Guides

Self-help guides are similar to practice guides, but aimed at nonlawyers. This is a better resource for nonlawyers to utilize.

Various self-help guides can be found on Justia. Popular topics for self-represented litigants include car accidents, workers' compensation, employment law, family law, and more. Self-help guides can help people get oriented to a specific area of the law while also providing steps the user will take throughout the process. This is not a substitute for legal representation, but can be a great resource for pro se litigants who cannot afford an attorney.

More information about self-help guides can be located on the "Self-Help Resources" tab of this LibGuide.

Tip: Understanding Legal Citations

As you are locating primary and secondary sources, it is important to be able to recognize citations to understand what the source actually is. The most important citations you will come across are statutes, regulations, and cases. Below are examples of these citation formats.

Statutes and Regulations

Title, Source, Section → 42 U.S.C. § 1983


Volume, Reporter, Page Number → 347 U.S. 483

The leading citation manual for the legal field is the Bluebook. You can buy a print version here, or create an account to purchase the online version here. However, you can also use other LibGuides to learn more about legal citations. The Washington Law Library guide is a great place to start if you are interested in understanding acronyms and abbreviations.

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