Research Resource: How to Find Primary Authorities

When you’re a new paralegal or even as a paralegal student, it can be hard to find primary authorities during the research phase of a case. Yet, that’s not always easy to do in some areas of law; and even if you find some things that you think might be primary authority, how do you know for sure? Computer-assisted legal research platforms, such as LexisNexis or WestLaw, aren’t cheap. The free resources may not always be up-to-date. So, how can you find primary authorities in a way that is time and cost efficient?

Start with Secondary Authorities

It may sound like I’m crazy, but if you want to find primary authorities for a subject that you find difficult to research or if you want to make sure that you’re mindful of your research time, start with secondary authorities.

It’s easy to find secondary authorities that are fairly up-to-date online. Think about articles published by bar associations (even the ABA and their various practice pages), and law reviews. If you’re close to a law library (yes, the public can access them), go and ask the law librarian to help you find the right American Jurisprudence (Am. Jur.) or ALR book you need for your subject.

Why Are Secondary Authorities So Important?

So, we all know that when we’re looking to cite cases or law to support a specific position that we really want primary authorities. Why are secondary authorities so important? Because those law review articles, articles hosted by bar journals, American Jurisprudence volumes, and ALRs will first teach you more about what you need to know in a way that’s easier to understand than reading long sentences in a statute or case opinion. More importantly, they will cite the primary authorities upon which the writing is based. From there, you take those citations and determine if they will fit your needs. Secondary authorities give you a starting point to locate and review potential primary authorities.

Getting Started

Aside from knowing what constitutes a secondary authority, there’s one great thing you should remember about how to get started with locating primary authorities. Other than knowing the facts behind what you need, take some time to think about the underlying descriptors. For instance, if you’re researching divorce, know what it is, exactly, that you need to know. Is it about spousal support? If so, what kind? Pendente lite? Permanent? The state guidelines for determining support? List out other terms that your descriptor may be known as. Back to spousal support, sometimes it is called maintenance and sometimes it is still referred to as alimony.

Taking some time to think about what you’re actually looking for and what you need to know about it can help you (and the law librarian, if you go) find what you need as a secondary resource.

Document Your Methods

As you gain experience in legal research, finding primary authorities for what you need will become easier. This because you’ve gone through a lot of trial and error and learned how to ask the right questions. When you learn what works and when you find great resources, document your find. Just start a Word document or use OneNote to make a list of your resources and the best ways to find certain types of information. You’ll be glad that you did.

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