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How and When to Use Secondary Sources

A funny thing about legal research methodology is that traditionally you started with secondary, not primary, sources.

What's funnier today is that while technology has completely changed legal research, starting with secondary sources is still the go-to method.

Only now it's about how and when to do it with the new tools available to researchers. Here are some pointers from cutting-edge reference attorneys.

Westlaw's Secondary Sources

Silvia Fejka, who works for Thomson Reuters (FindLaw's parent company), explains how to use Westlaw's secondary source redesign.

"With the new home page, you can target your search by selecting multiple search criteria, selecting multiple titles to search within, or jump back to previously stored favorites," she writes.

The secondary sources include Wright & Miller's Federal Practice and Procedure, Couch on Insurance, and innumerable law journals, articles, newsletters and more. The materials are designed to help users synthesize and understand the law.

A document display allows researchers to see a particular article or chapter in the context of other sections of that treatise or journal. A picture is worth many billable hours, so look here.

UCI Law Library: Secondary Sources

At the top of the Google food chain on "secondary legal resources on the internet," UCI Law Library comes up. It offers a free guide to secondary sources.

It links -- surprise -- to Google Scholar. That includes "academic papers from sensible websites," including journal and conference papers, theses and dissertation, academic books, abstracts, etc.

"Their coverage is inconsistent, however," UCI explains. "Coverage is dependent on whether Google can crawl a website to pull the information for inclusion."

Somebody said, "you get what you pay for." But in a pinch, which is almost all the time for some lawyers, free will do.

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