Prepare for the research portion of your Fall semester LRW Graded Memo in this hour long research refresher. Need to boost confidence in your research skills before your first graded memo assignment is handed out? Refresh your skills in using secondary sources and locating on-point cases in this recap of the research methods already covered in your LRW class. (Note: the graded memo assignment is under wraps, so no graded memo secrets will be spilled!)
There are a few standard secondary sources that you should memorize and have in your mental checklist of possible sources:
Over time, you'll develop a checklist of standard sources within your own practice area.
Until then, you can find secondary sources by browsing the major California legal databases. Remember, each database has its own copyrighted secondary sources, so check all three!
Alternately, use a research guide: a webpage created by librarians explaining how to research a topic and recommending relevant sources. Research guides will point you to secondary sources on both Lexis and Westlaw and will also point you to sources available on other databases or in print.
The UCLA law librarians maintain a guide to secondary sources available to UCLA law students:
Georgetown Law Library also maintains a useful guide to national secondary sources. The preeminent sources are marked with a , making it easy for researchers new to a practice area to identify the most significant sources.
A case may include the following parts:
Different parts of the case carry different weights:
You've found a quote you like in the opinion, concurrence, or dissent. How can you find the right page number?
Online, the start of each page is generally indicated by a starred and/or bracketed page number, such as [*321]. When a case has been published in multiple reporters, page numbers for different reporters are distinguished by different number of stars. For example, if a case is published in the California Reports at 3 Cal.4th 296 and the Pacific Reporter at 834 P.2d 696, *321 may indicate the start of page 321 in the California Reports and **712 may indicate the start of page 712 in the Pacific Reporter.
If this sounds too confusing, Lexis, Westlaw, and some other databases offer copy with citation tools. To use these tools, highlight the text that you would like to cite and select the copy with citation option to obtain a citation to the case. This citation will not be perfect and you should always check it against the Bluebook! However, it will reliably include the correct page numbers.
If you've found a relevant case on your topic, you can find other similar cases using two tools:
Headnotes provide the following tools for finding relevant text and similar cases:
To access a list of sources that cite your case on any topic (the full “citator”):
Taken together, these three methods (reading the case for prior cases, using the citator for later cases, and using the digest for cases on the same topic) are called the one good case method and can allow you to go from one good case to many good cases.
In addition to allowing you to find cases that cite your case, citators (such as Citing References/KeyCite and Shepardize) assign symbols to cases, flagging any negative treatment by later cases.
The simple rule often used in law school is:
The complex reality in practice is that:
Case citations appear in the following format:
, 834 P.2d 696 (Cal. 1992) (Case published in unofficial Pacific Reporter)
, 3 Cal. 4th 296 (1992) (Same case published in official California Reports)
The central portion of the citation identifies the specific case reporter, volume, and page number where the case is published in print and is also used to retrieve the case online. For example, to access , you can type either 3 Cal. 4th 296 or 834 P.2d 696 into the main search box of Lexis, Westlaw, and most other legal databases and then hit enter. Although almost all attorneys now access cases online, cases continue to be cited to the reporter because it is unique to each case. The reporter citation allows you to distinguish between different cases with the same name (e.g., ) and different decisions within the same litigation.
Additionally, the reporter citation allows you to identify what court decided the case. For example, the official Cal. reporter only publishes California Supreme Court Cases and the official Cal. App. reporter only publishes California Courts of Appeal cases.
Any missing details are filled in by the date parenthetical. For example, the unofficial P. reporter publishes cases from state supreme courts and courts of appeals throughout the Pacific region, so P.3d (Cal. 2020) is used to identify a California Supreme Court case. Similarly, the unofficial Cal. Rptr. publishes cases from both the California Supreme Court and the California Court of Appeal, so Cal. Rptr. 3d (Ct. App. 2020) is used to identify a California Court of Appeal case.
Many students are confused by the fact that federal trial courts are named after the state where they are located. It's important to remember that cases published in F. reporters are federal cases. F. Supp. 3d (C.D. Cal. 2020) is a decision by a federal court within California, not a California state court. Likewise, F. Supp. 3d (S.D.N.Y. 2020) is a decision by a federal court within New York, not a New York state court.
What about other states? Westlaw publishes a comprehensive set of regional reporters that cover all of the states: A. (Atlantic), N.E. (North Eastern), N.W. (North Western), S.E. (South Eastern), So. (South), S.W. (South Western), and P. (Pacific). Some states also have competing official reporters. For full details, see the table for the state at the end of your Bluebook. As a general guideline, the state abbreviation (e.g., Mass., N.Y.) in a reporter citation or date parenthetical indicates the state's highest court, while the state abbreviation plus app. indicates the state's intermediate appeals court (e.g., Tex. App. or N.Y. App. Div.).
Finally, it's important to know that most cases are not published! Judges select a small handful of their most important and novel cases for publication. However, most decisions are routine applications of laws to facts and do not establish important new legal precedent. These cases remain unpublished and are cited using a docket number assigned to the case by the court (e.g. CV 07-2611 or 07-cv-2611) or using an identifier assigned by a database (e.g. 2007 WL 4766060 or 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 96106). To make things extra confusing, Westlaw has created a special reporter called the Federal Appendix (Fed. App’x or Fed. Appx.), specifically for cases that the courts have chosen not to publish. Even though these cases are literally, physically published, they are considered unpublished.
Although all of this is difficult to absorb at first, with time and practice, you'll learn to glance at a citation and instantly tell what court decided the case. Until then, here's a cheat sheet:
1 U.S. 1 (2020)
1 P.3d 1 (Cal. 2020)
|Court of Appeals||
1 F.3d 1 (9th Cir. 2020)
1 Cal. Rptr. 3d 1 (Ct. App. 2020)
1 F. Supp. 3d 1 (C.D. Cal. 2020)
1 Cal. Rptr. 3d 1 (App. Dep’t Super. Ct. 2020)
|Unpublished||2007 WL 4766060
2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 96106.
1 Fed. App’x 1 (9th Cir. 2020) or 1 Fed. Appx. 1 (9th Cir. 2020)
It's important to be able to recognize what court decided a case because, generally, only published decisions from higher courts in your jurisdiction are binding.
Here are the basic rules to remember:
You can view a map of federal circuits here:
Many first year students get hung up on learning the nitty-gritty details of authority. The reality is that most practicing attorneys do not memorize the nitty-gritty details but instead work from a general sense of what cases are strongest to cite.
In general, the strongest decisions to cite when in federal court (or when applying federal law in state court) are, in order:
In general, the strongest decisions to cite when in California state court (or when applying California law in federal court) are, in order:
It is OK to cite cases from trial courts, cases from other jurisdictions, and (if the court rules allow it) unpublished decisions! However, generally, you should have a specific reason for doing so, such as because it is one of the only cases to have considered a legal issue or because it is especially factually similar to your case.
The following visuals and cheat sheets may make it easier to understand case authority:
The following handout provides more details on case citation and publication:
Many students also find the following short articles helpful for understanding case authority:
Finally, if you truly need to know all of the nitty-gritty details, remember that you can research them in a secondary source, just like you would any other issue. The following secondary sources provide more information about case authority than most lawyers will ever need to know:
Don't Dive Right Into Searching!
Many students’ first and only research strategy is searching for cases in the main Lexis or Westlaw search box. However, this is rarely the fastest or most effective way to learn about the law.
Start with a secondary source, which will provide you with:
Use case searching primarily:
Start By Brainstorming Relevant Terms
Brainstorm relevant legal terms and any legally relevant facts. Secondary sources will help you learn the relevant legal terminology and identify which facts are legally relevant.
The following book chapters provide useful overviews of how to generate relevant search terms:
(Optional) Add Connectors
Terms and connectors searching (also called Boolean searching) uses special words that tell the database exactly how to search.
Here's a cheat sheet to common terms and connectors:
|Connector||Returns Results With|
term1 OR term2
|Either or both of the terms|
term1 AND term2
|Both of the terms|
term1 /3 term2
|Both of the terms within 3 words of each other|
|term1 /s term2||
Both of the terms within the same sentence
|term1 /p term2||
Both of the terms within the same paragraph
The exact phrase within the quotes, with no variations
Any variation on the term (e.g. infringes, infringed, infringing)
Use parentheses to group terms and connectors that should be read together.
Many students (and attorneys!) mistakenly believe that being good at legal research means building long complex search strings with many terms and connectors. In reality, however, adding irrelevant facts and legal issues to your search and mis-using connectors can cause you to miss relevant results or be flooded with irrelevant results. The most important part of searching is accurately brainstorming the relevant legal terms and legally relevant facts.
It's worth learning Boolean connectors for the greater control they provide. However, if you’re struggling with connectors, a natural language search with well-chosen terms will provide better results than a search with poorly chosen terms and mis-used connectors.
If you'd like to learn more about using connectors effectively, see our workshop on Advanced Searching Techniques: