Legal research is a process shaped essentially by what the researcher already knows and by what she needs to know. Everything else is a subsidiary decision. Below are a few scenarios which should better explain the above statements, and a few practice exercises are available on this page:

Finding cases when you know their citation.

The steps to find cases identified by their citation are the following:

1. First, make sure that you have a correct, or at least a proper citation.

Use the Bluebook, now in its 19th edition, to identify all available case law repositories. It lists abbreviations for the reporters which cover the United States Supreme Court cases, federal cases, and state cases from each state court. Some of those abbreviations are listed here, too.

All case law citations contain at least four elements:
(i) a number which indicates the volume of the case reporter, and which precedes the abbreviation of the reporter,
(ii) the abbreviation of the reporter,
(iii) the number of the page where the opinion starts and which follows the abbreviation and
(iv) a parenthetical.
Sometimes the parenthetical will contain only the year when the case what decided. Other times, as in the example of the state court decision in Lawrence v. State, 41 S.W.3d 349 (Tex. App. 2001) - see here - the parenthetical contains additional information regarding the court that issued the decision, which will help you see whether that decision is helpful from a precedential point of view. As another example of a parenthetical which contains more information than the year of the decision, think about federal appellate cases reported in the Federal Reporter 3rd Series (F.3d). F3d collects court cases from all federal courts of appeal. In order to know what court issued what case, the citation’s parenthetical will contain information identifying the court. The proper citation for United States v. Aguilar, is 295 F.3d 1018 (9th Cir. 2002).
The parenthetical identifies both the court and the year. Based on that information, the reader of Aguilar understands even before skimming the opinion, that Aguilar is a precedent in the Ninth Circuit Court system, which geographically includes the district courts located in California. A quick view of the geographical location of the circuit court is available at

2. Second, once you have a proper citation, choose the case law repository to which you have access. If your citation refers to a United Sates Supreme Court case, your task is fairly easy. As mentioned many times in this book, there are many electronic places where you could find your case. Those free-of-charge repositories have different search engines. For example, if you want to read Kelo v. New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005), you may use either print or digital reporters. Among the free-of-charge digital repositories, the best are Cornell’s, Oyez, Google Scholar and FindLaw.

3. Third, once you have settled on what repository you want to use, follow the search steps that specific repository asks: locate its search box, choose the search by citation option, and finally type your citation in the search box.

Finding cases when you know the party names.

You will never be able to find a case by party names, unless you know some more information about it, such as its jurisdiction or the year it was decided.

However, the steps are as easy as the process is unlikely to bring you case you need fast. But, if you need to find a case in such circumstances your search technique is similar to “googling” that information in the appropriate research box of the database you chose. In other words, the print repositories are not the way to go.

Finding cases on a specific topic limited by jurisdiction.

The steps to find cases on a specific topic vary with the degree of knowledge the researcher has about the topic. Both Lexis and Westlaw offer intuitive ways to start with an area of practice or a topic identified by a “key number.” More recently, both Lexis and Westlaw, like encourage a Google approach to topical research: choose your court and type the research terms into the research box. Unfortunately, the new versions of the three research platforms mentioned above encourage a “Google-type” mentality: the researcher should always expect results – often in the thousands -- whose filtering remains a hybrid process, a cooperation between the proprietary algorithm and the researcher’s existing knowledge about the research topic.

However, the legal world is quite imprecise when it comes to research results, and navigating research results will become more a result of substantive knowledge than mechanical research skills. But, do not be discouraged, the more time one spends with the research tools available to her, the more confident, and thus competent legal researcher she becomes.

Here are some research tips for starting topical legal research without incurring any cost:

(i) A court’s Web site remains a very useful place to start locating opinions. The recent opinions of the United States Supreme Court (from 2006 onward) are available digitally from the Supreme Court of the United States’ Web site.
(ii) A researcher who studies the U.S. Supreme court docket and opinions regularly has a better understanding of the US Supreme Court jurisprudence and thus knows both how to construct a research query using more targeted research terms, and what to expect when he performs a targeted search in a proprietary database. Of course, there are more sophisticated ways to improve one’s research efficiency. Again, we focus on the most reliable free-of-charge methods.

Here are some research tips when you use the proprietary databases:

(i) For over a century, topical case law research has often been done using West’s reporters’ own indexing tool, The Digest, which is currently identified as the West Key Number System. The Digest started as a paper product, which connects a specific number with a “Major Topic” and another number, the so-called Key Number, with a detailed subtopic, also known as headnote or “point of law.” For example, the Major Topic number for “Charities” is “75.” The Key Number for the headnote or point of law “charities’ beneficiaries” is 35. If you choose to locate cases using the paper digest, all you need to know is your Major Topic number and the Key Number (“k)” within your topic. Similarly, this is what you need to know if you want to perform your search on line. On Westlaw, you need to type the following sequence “75k35,” in the digest search box, or for WestlawNext in the search box. Of course, if you want to find cases on this point within a specific jurisdiction, you would need to limit your search accordingly (to federal or a specific state cases).
(ii) On Lexis, topical case law can be performed by accessing the different areas of law, and then through more specific “emerging topics.” For example, within the area of law “General Business,” there is a more specific “Emerging Issues,” tab – though its description does not specify what the Lexis editors packed under that label.
(iii) On Bloomberglaw, topical legal research becomes a Boolean or natural language search which starts by typing the research terms in the research box.