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General Legal Research: Primary Sources

Information on basic primary and secondary legal sources.

Guide Contents

Search Tips!

To formulate successful search queries and to find relevant results, use terms & connectors, wild cards, proximity searches, and field restrictors

Here are some examples:

Terms & Connectors
AND, OR, AND NOT

Wild Cards
!, *, ?

Proximity Searches
/s, /5, /p

Field Restrictors
JU(), Court

Not sure which search techniques are recognized by the database you are using?  Look for the Help icon or link to find out.

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are "the law."  They are authoritative and binding on courts.  Specific primary sources include:

Although all primary sources are considered "authoritative," not all have the same forcefulness or weight; for example, court rulings in one jurisdiction are only persuasive in another and when there is a discrepancy between a statute and a regulation, the statutory authority comes out on top.

Researching Primary Resources

In general, it is better to tackle primary resources only after you have a good handle on the subject matter.  You can obtain this background information from secondary sources.

There are several ways to search primary resources:

Keyword Searches

You can use keyword searches in Westlaw, Lexis and other commercial databases.  Some free resources (such as ones from government websites) also allow keyword searching, although the search capabilities may not be as good as commercial databases.

Remember to use terms & connectors, proximity searches, and other pre-search limits such as date restrictions, to narrow your results.  Combining your keyword search with a table of contents browse will usually get you results better tailored to your specific research questions.

Table of Contents Browse

Browsing the table of contents in either a print or electronic resource can give you a good idea of the structure of the statutory and regulatory code and can help narrow down which title, chapter, etc. you should focus a keyword search. 

Searching an Index

To locate a relevant statutory or regulatory section using an index, look up keywords in the alphabetized index.  For the most part, print statutory and regulatory texts will include a general index.  Many commercial databases also include electronic indexes.