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Legal Research: An Overview: Searching in the Codes

Special Challenges Of Online Code Searching

Code searching presents some special challenges, particularly when keyword searching online.  These challenges include:

  • There is a great deal of variation in the language used by lawmakers.  For example, "children" are referred to in the codes using several terms, including "children," "minors," "juveniles," "infants," and "issue."

  • When working with an annotated code, searches typically include not just the language of the code sections but also the annotations.  This can result in getting a substantial number of irrelevant search results.

  • It is hard to see the full context of a code provision from looking at only one code section.

Using finding tools, such as secondary sources, popular name tables, and code indexes, can help you to hone in on relevant code sections without the need for keyword searching.

In addition, when you are reviewing a relevant code provision, it is critical that you review the table of contents for the section in which that statute appears to see if there are any other potentially on-point statutes you may have missed.  You should also browse the code sections that come before and after your statute. 

These and other techniques for overcoming these challenges are discussed below in more detail.

50 State Surveys

There may be times that you need to do research comparing the laws of several states.  For such projects, it can be very useful to see if there is a 50 state statutory survey for your topic.  Sources for state statutory surveys include:

Government agency websites, special interest organizations, books, and journal articles also all can be good sources for surveys of state laws.

For more information, see the Berkeley Law Library's Fifty State Statutory Surveys Research Guide and the Stanford Law Library's Locating 50-State Surveys Guide.

Finding Relevant Code Sections

As discussed in the Secondary Sources section of this research guide, secondary source discussions of your issue should identify relevant statutes.  Once you have a relevant statute, you can use other techniques discussed on this page, particularly browsing the code chapter and table of contents, to find other relevant statutes.

Often legislation is known by a particular name, such as the Affordable Care Act or the Patriot Act.  Codes, both in print and online, include a popular name table that cross references the popular name of an act with the relevant statutory citations.

In print, look for the popular name table at the end of the set, as either part of the index or in its own volume.

In Westlaw and Lexis, the easiest way to find the popular name table is simply to type the name of the code with the word "popular" into the main search box on the home screen.  For both Westlaw and Lexis, typing "United States Code Popular" into the main search box results in the popular name table for their edition of the federal code auto populating as an option.  Similarly, in Westlaw, typing "California Statutes Popular" into the main search box results in the popular name table for California auto populating as an option.  Lexis does not seem to include a popular name table for California statutes.

Even if you prefer to do most of your research online, you can always use a print popular name table to look up a statutory citation and then go online to look up the actual statute.

Most code publications include detailed subject indexes, identifying where in the codes various topics are addressed. It can be useful to to look up keywords in an index, rather than to start with full-text online searching, because of the great deal of variation in the language used by lawmakers and because full-text searching often yields a high percentage of irrelevant search results.

In print, the index will be at the end of the code set, typically in one or more index volumes.

In Westlaw and Lexis, the easiest way to find the index, is simply to type the name of the code with the word "index" into the main search box on the home screen. For both Westlaw and Lexis, typing "United States Code Index" into the main search box results in the index for their edition of the federal code auto populating as an option. Similarly, typing "California Statutes Index" into the main search box results in the index for their edition of the California code auto populating as an option.

Even if you prefer to do most of your research online, you can always use a print index to look up a relevant statute and then go online to explore the actual statute.

Keyword searching for statutes is comparable to keyword searching for cases.  See the discussion of keyword searching in the Caselaw Searching section of this research guide for tips for crafting keyword searches and working with search results.

One big challenge of keyword searching for statutes is that full-text searching includes the annotations, not just the statutory language.  This can result in a high percentage of irrelevant search results.

To avoid this challenge, the advanced search features within Westlaw and Lexis can be used to limit your search to the statutory language only, not the annotations.  To see the advanced search options, go to the home page for the code you are using in Westlaw or Lexis.  From there, you should see a link to advanced search.  In Westlaw, the link is marked "Advanced," and it is to the right of the search box.  In Lexis, it is marked "Advanced Search" and is just above the search box on the right.

Once you are in advanced search, you have the option to search within particular "Document Fields."  In Westlaw, use the "Statutory Text" field to limit your search to the statutory language.  In Lexis, use either the "Text" field or the "Unannotated" field.

Once you find a relevant statute, it is important to review related statutes to insure that you do not miss important information.  For example, it is common for statutes to rely on definitions of key terms established in other statutes; or a statute may create a general rule, but other statutes may identify exceptions to that general rule.  Without reading related statutes, it is easy to miss critical context.

Statutes are organized within the codes into "chapters."  After you have identified an on-point statute, review the rest of the statutes in the chapter to see the full context.  When working with print codes, you can flip to the beginning of the chapter to see the chapter table of contents that identifies all the other statutes within the chapter.  Online resources also include table of contents features, identifying and linking to the other statutes within the chapter.

In Westlaw, when you are in a statute, to see the table of contents for the full chapter, you have two options.  As seen below, you can either click directly on the link to the chapter that is towards the top of the document, or you can click on "Table of Contents" that is at the top of the document on the right.  

Similarly in Lexis, when you have a statute open, as depicted below, you can view the table of contents for the chapter by clicking on the link to the chapter that is towards the top of the document or by clicking on "Table of Contents" that is at the top,left of the document.

In Bloomberg, the chapter table of contents is also available by clicking on the link at the top of the document, as seen below.