Have a Question? Ask a Librarian

There are two basic types of legal material: primary and secondary. Primary legal materials are authorized statements of the law issued by a branch of government. They include statutes, cases and regulations – the law itself. Secondary legal materials provide commentary and interpretation of the law and include such materials as law review articles, legal encyclopedias, and treatises.

This section includes:

Primary Law Sources

Remembering that the Government is divided into three branches is helpful in distinguishing the source of primary legal materials.

The Legislative Branch is responsible for creating laws. Laws are organized by subjects into sets called statutes. You can find official statutes for both state (Colorado Revised Statutes) and federal levels (United States Code).

The Judicial Branch interprets the laws. Courts issue opinions in the form of case law. Cases are compiled into sets called reporters. Case reporters contain published cases from a particular court or jurisdiction or on a specific topic. Indexes for the case reporters are called digests . See the Library’s subject guide on Reporters and Digests (Federal, Regional, and Colorado) for a list of the most common titles.

The Executive Branch enforces the laws passed by the Legislative Branch. Most of the actual enforcement duties are delegated to administrative agencies who then issue regulations. Regulations are compiled by subjects into sets called codes. You can find federal regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations and Federal Register. State regulations can be found in the Code of Colorado Regulations.

Secondary Law Sources

Secondary legal sources provide commentary and interpretation of the law. Attorneys and students often use secondary sources as a starting point when they are researching an area of law that is unfamiliar to them. To locate secondary materials at the Westminster Law Library, use the Library Catalog.

Legal encyclopedias offer a concise summary of most topics of law. Arranged by subject, encyclopedias also contain abstracts of cases that interpret each area of law. There are two general legal encyclopedias:
American Jurisprudence 2d (AmJur2d) and Corpus Juris Secundum (C.J.S.). See the library’s subject guide on Legal Encyclopedias for more information.

Legal Dictionaries and Thesauri are useful for finding definitions of legal terminology or finding alternative terms to use when researching.

Treatises & Loose leafs are texts that cover a specific area of law such as pollution or the environment. Treatises contain footnote citations to related primary law, such as statutes and cases. Loose leafs bring together commentary and the relevant primary law sources such as statutes and cases. They are usually updated on a weekly or monthly basis and thus offer very current information.

Hornbooks and Nutshells are texts aimed at helping students understand an area of law.

Legal periodicals include legal newspapers, bar journals and law reviews. These publications contain articles and are a good place to start if you want very current information. To locate articles, use LegalTrac, an online index of over 800 periodicals from 1980-present. You can also try HeinOnline to find full text articles. For more detailed information, see Selected Legal Periodicals and Legal Periodical Indexes.

Form Books contain sample legal forms and sometimes include commentary. Examples include contract forms, family law forms and general litigation forms. See the Library’s libguide on Legal Forms for commonly used forms.

In Colorado, useful secondary sources include the Colorado Practice Series.

Where to Find Primary and Secondary Legal Resources

Researchers can find primary and secondary American law materials on the third floor of Westminster Law Library. Researchers can use current and older law journals/law reviews and the foreign, international, and comparative law collection on the first floor. See Collection Maps for more information.

Use the online Library Catalog to find locations and call number information for library materials or contact a librarian at the Reference Desk (303-871-6206 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)).

Other tutorial sections:

Finding Colorado Statutes
Finding Articles