- Evaluate My Situation
- File a Case
- Prepare My Case
- Appeal a Decision
- Find a Form
Finding and Using Secondary Sources
Secondary sources are resources that are not the code itself or case law. There are several different types of secondary sources, including books (sometimes called "treatises"), articles, encyclopedias, and form books.
For most people, this is the best place to start your research. Look for articles or books by reputable authors who are attorneys or judges. Read the article carefully. The closer that the facts in a case mentioned in the article match your situation, the more likely the case will be helpful to you. The benefit of using an article/book to start your case research is that the author has presumably done some analysis and research on the topic. Be careful with the date of the article. You can assume that the author last did his/her research at least a month or two before the publication date. No cases since that day will be included.
No matter which secondary sources you use, keep in mind that interpretations of the law are not binding on the courts. You should only use secondary sources to help you find and understand the primary sources of law - statutes, regulations, and cases. When trying to find answers to your legal questions, you should always read the actual statutes, regulations, and cases that are discussed by these secondary sources.
The methods used to find secondary sources by subject vary depending on what type of secondary sources you are looking for. For example, if you want to find books about divorce law in Maryland, you should probably begin by searching a library catalog. On the other hand, if you want to find journal articles about divorce law in Maryland, you need to use a periodicals index, because searching the library catalog would only tell you which journals that library has, not what articles are contained in each journal. Find law libraries in Maryland.
Finding a book on the area of law you are researching can be an excellent first step in legal research. In particular, practice guides and continuing legal education texts for attorneys can be surprisingly helpful to non-lawyers representing themselves. They often contain not only explanations of the meanings of various laws, but also practical aides such as checklists (for example, lists of questions to ask witnesses, or lists of steps to be taken before you file a court complaint) and forms.
Tip: When you need the name of a book/article and you don't have the name of a specific book on your subject, the best way to search a library catalog is using the "keywords" field, rather than the subject field. When you do a keyword search, the computer looks for the words you type in in all parts of the catalog entry for each book, including not only the subject, but also the title. This increases your chances of finding a relevant book.
A good example of a keyword search for state-specific books that include forms is divorce Maryland forms. You can easily adapt this search for other subjects and jurisdictions, for example: custody Virginia forms or civil rights federal.
Using forms can be problematic for a non-lawyer. Forms are useful as guides for the proper format and content of the papers that need to be filed to start a court action. However, forms are based on someone's review of the statute and the court's procedural rules. Generic forms can only give you general guidance on what should be filed. Use them carefully. You may wish to consult an attorney after you completed an unfamiliar form. Many attorneys (although not all) will review a form for you for a minimum fee, even though you do not hire them to represent you.
A notable exception are the Domestic Relations forms prepared by the Maryland Courts for the members of the public who choose to represent themselves.
Form Booklist -If the books you find on your subject don't include adequate forms, there are two major sets of form books to look for: American Jurisprudence Legal Forms and West's Legal Forms. Each of these sets has a subject index that allows you to find sample form language by topic. Be careful when you use forms from these sets, however, because they may not satisfy the law of your state. You should always research your state's legal requirements of the type of document you are trying to write and then adapt any sample forms you find to those requirements.
One of the easiest types of law-related secondary source for lay persons to use is the legal encyclopedia. Legal encyclopedias work pretty much like regular encyclopedias such as World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica.
- General legal information - There are legal encyclopedias that discuss American law in general, including federal law and the most common types of state law; these are called "national" legal encyclopedias. The two most popular national legal encyclopedias are American Jurisprudence and Corpus Juris Secundum, and most law libraries carry one or the other, if not both. American Jurisprudence and Corpus Juris Secudum both give general overviews of the law, which are based on the legal rules applicable in a majority of U.S. states.
- Maryland specific legal information - There are also state-specific legal encyclopedias, which focus on explaining the law of a particular state. One example is the Maryland Legal Encyclopedia.
Tip: If you are researching a state law problem, such as divorce or custody law, it is best to use a state law encyclopedia, because the law of your state may be different from the "majority" rules typically discussed in the national legal encyclopedias.
- How to use a legal encylopedia - Each legal encyclopedia has many volumes, and has a subject index near the end of the set of volumes. To find encyclopedia articles by subject, look up words related to your problem in the subject index. You will be directed to a topic and section number. Find the volume of the encyclopedia that includes the topic to which you are referred, then look for the specific section number within that topic.
Books and legal encyclopedias cover a broad range of subjects, but are usually not updated more than once a year, and may be updated even less often. To find more current information, it is probably a good idea to look for journal articles. There are many different subject indexes to legal periodicals; some are in print, and others are electronic databases. Probably the most popular electronic index to legal periodicals is called LegalTrac. Many general public libraries, as well as many public law libraries, subscribe to LegalTrac, and a reference librarian can show you how to use it. Unfortunately, there may not be any journal articles about your specific legal problem.
Is this legal advice?
This site offers legal information, not legal advice. We make every effort to ensure the accuracy of the information and to clearly explain your options. However we do not provide legal advice - the application of the law to your individual circumstances. For legal advice, you should consult an attorney. The Maryland State Law Library, a court-related agency of the Maryland Judiciary, sponsors this site. In the absence of file-specific attribution or copyright, the Maryland State Law Library may hold the copyright to parts of this website. You are free to copy the information for your own use or for other non-commercial purposes with the following language “Source: Maryland's People’s Law Library – www.peoples-law.org. © Maryland State Law Library, 2010.”