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Workshops in the Library Research Series


About 1L Research Refresher Before the Graded Problem

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!)

Locating Secondary Sources

There are a few standard secondary sources that you should memorize and have in your mental checklist of possible sources:

  • National secondary sources: American Jurisprudence, C.J.S.
  • California secondary sources: California Jurisprudence, Witkin treatises, Rutter practice guides, CEB practice guides, and the CACI and CALCRIM jury instructions

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 Preeminent Treatise, making it easy for researchers new to a practice area to identify the most significant sources.

Video: Standard California Secondary Sources (Recorded Fall 2020)

Video: Locating Secondary Sources by Subject (Recorded Fall 2020)

Let's Practice! Locating Secondary Sources

Reading a Case: Parts of a Case

A case may include the following parts:

  • A summary, syllabus, or synopsis at the beginning of the case, summarizing the facts, procedural history, and outcome of the case.
  • Headnotes, brief notes at the beginning of the case summarizing each holding in the case.
  • The opinion, written by the court- i.e. a single judge at the trial court level or a majority of judges at the court of appeals or supreme court level.
  • Concurrences, opinions written by a judge or judges who agreed with the outcome but disagreed with the majority's reasoning.
  • Dissents, opinions written by a judge or judges who disagreed with the outcome of the case.

Different parts of the case carry different weights:

  • The only part of the case that creates binding law are the opinion's holdings.
  • Summaries and headnotes are not part of the case and should not be cited. However, they can be very useful for deciding which cases from your search results are worth reading, understanding the case, and finding similar cases, as discussed in the One Good Case Method box below.
  • Concurrences and dissents can be cited- but always remember that they state the opinions of judges who disagreed with the majority's reasoning or even the ultimate outcome. They do not create binding law and may contradict it!

Reading a Case: Finding Page Numbers

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.

The One Good Case Method

If you've found a relevant case on your topic, you can find other similar cases using two tools:

  • Headnotes, which (as mentioned earlier) are brief notes at the beginning of the case summarizing each holding in the case. Headnotes are usually found for published cases on Lexis and Westlaw but are usually not found for unpublished cases or on budget or free databases.
  • The citator, a tool that finds other sources that cite your source. Lexis, Westlaw, and most budget and free databases provide citators for cases.

Headnotes provide the following tools for finding relevant text and similar cases:

  • Click the headnote number to jump to the relevant text within the case. Read carefully for prior cases.
  • Click the terms above or to the right of the headnote to access a list of cases on the same topic (called the "digest").
  • Click the link beneath the headnote labeled “Cases that cite this headnote” on Westlaw or “Shepardize- Narrow by this Headnote” on Lexis to access a list of sources that cite your case on the headnote topic (the headnote “citator”).

To access a list of sources that cite your case on any topic (the full “citator”):

  • On Westlaw, click the “Citing References” tab.
  • On Lexis, click the "Citing Decisions" tab for cases and the "Other Citing Sources" tab for treatises, law review articles, and other sources. 

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.

Screencap showing parts of a case on Lexis, as described by text above

Screencap showing parts of a case on Westlaw, as described by text above

Is It Good Law?

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:

  • Cases with red symbols are bad law on at least one point of law and should not be cited.
  • Cases with yellow and orange symbols are OK to cite.

The complex reality in practice is that:

  • Many cases are bad law on one point of law or in one jurisdiction but still good law on all other points of law or in all other jurisdictions. Before dismissing a helpful case with a red symbol, read the negative cases that cite it.
  • Occasionally, you'll discover that a case with a yellow or orange symbol was distinguished in a way that is relevant to your facts and harmful to your argument.

Video: Working with Cases on Westlaw (Recorded Fall 2020)

Video: Working with Cases on Lexis (Recorded Fall 2021)

Video: Working with Cases on Other Databases (Recorded Fall 2020)

Let's Practice! Reading a Case and the One Good Case Method

Let's Practice! Is it Good Law?

Reading Case Citations

Case citations appear in the following format:

Knight v. Jewett, 834 P.2d 696 (Cal. 1992) (Case published in unofficial Pacific Reporter)

Knight v. Jewett, 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 Knight v. Jewett, 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., People v. Lee) 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:

  Federal California
Supreme Court

1 U.S. 1 (2020)
1 S. Ct. 1 (2020)
1 L. Ed. 1 (2020)

1 P.3d 1 (Cal. 2020)
1 Cal. 5th 1 (2020)

Court of Appeals

1 F.3d 1 (9th Cir. 2020)

1 Cal. Rptr. 3d 1 (Ct. App. 2020)
1 Cal. App. 5th 1 (2020)

Trial Court

1 F. Supp. 3d 1 (C.D. Cal. 2020)


1 Cal. Rptr. 3d 1 (App. Dep’t Super. Ct. 2020)
1 Cal. App. 5th Supp. 1 (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)

Evaluating Case Authority

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:

  • Unpublished decisions are never binding and some courts prohibit citing them even as persuasive. In particular, California courts prohibit the citation of their unpublished decisions. (Cal. Rules of Court Rule 8.1115.) The U.S. Supreme Court requires federal courts of appeal to allow citation of all unpublished decisions issued in or after 2007. (FRAP 32.1.) However, many federal courts of appeals, including the Ninth Circuit, continue to prohibit citation of their unpublished decisions before 2007. (9th Cir. Rule 36-3.)
  • Cases from higher courts in the same jurisdiction are always binding. Additionally, when applying another jurisdiction's law, courts will also generally follow decisions of that jurisdiction's supreme court and intermediate appeals court. For example:
    • Imagine that a defendant in Los Angeles Superior Court (a California state trial court) seeks to suppress evidence that was found through a search that she argues violated both the U.S. Constitution and the California Constitution.
      • When deciding whether the search violated the California Constitution, the court must follow both California Supreme Court decisions and California Court of Appeal decisions.
      • When deciding whether the search violated the U.S. Constitution, the court must follow U.S. Supreme Court decisions and will almost always follow federal Court of Appeals decisions.
    • Imagine that a plaintiff sues his employer in the Central District of California (a federal trial court) for violations of both federal and California employment law.
      • When deciding whether the employer violated federal law, the court must follow both U.S. Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decisions.
      • When deciding whether the employer violated California law, the court must follow California Supreme Court decisions and will almost always follow California Court of Appeal decisions.
  • Federal Court of Appeals decisions are only binding on lower courts within the same circuit. For example, federal trial courts in California are within the Ninth Circuit, while federal trial courts in New York are within the Second Circuit. Federal trial courts in California must follow decisions of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals but need not follow decisions of the Second Circuit, while federal trial courts in New York must follow decisions of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals but need not follow decisions of the Ninth Circuit. 
  • Federal Court of Appeals decisions are also binding on equal courts within the same circuit. Each federal Court of Appeals has between 6 and 29 judges and each case is assigned to a random panel of 3 judges. That 3 judge panel's decision binds all future panels within the same circuit. It can only be overturned if an appellant successfully requests special review by a larger panel of judges from the circuit (limited en banc), a panel composed of all of the judges in the circuit (en banc), or the U.S. Supreme Court.

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:

  1. U.S. Supreme Court decisions: 1 U.S. 1 (2020) / 1 S. Ct. 1 (2020)
  2. Decisions from the Court of Appeals for your circuit: E.g., 1 F.3d 1 (9th Cir. 2020)
  3. Decisions from federal trial courts in your circuit: E.g., 1 F. Supp. 3d 1 (C.D. Cal. 2020)
  4. Decisions from federal Courts of Appeals in other circuits: E.g., 1 F.3d 1 (2nd Cir. 2020)
  5. Decisions from federal trial courts in other circuits: E.g., 1 F. Supp. 3d 1 (S.D.N.Y. 2020)

In general, the strongest decisions to cite when in California state court (or when applying California law in federal court) are, in order:

  1. California Supreme Court decisions: 1 P.3d 1 (Cal. 2020) / 1 Cal. 5th 1 (2020)
  2. California Court of Appeal decisions: 1 Cal. Rptr. 3d 1 (Ct. App. 2020) / 1 Cal. App. 5th 1 (2020)
  3. California trial court decisions: 1 Cal. Rptr. 3d 1 (App. Dep’t Super. Ct. 2020) / 1 Cal. App. 5th Supp. 1 (2020)

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.

More Resources on Case Citation and Authority

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:

Let's Practice! Reading Case Citations and Evaluating Case Authority

Searching Case Law

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:

  • Citations to the most significant cases.
  • Citations to sources other than cases, such as statutes, regulations, and administrative decisions and guidance.
  • The context and framework that you need to understand the case law.

Use case searching primarily:

  • To find cases specific to your jurisdiction or fact pattern, after you have obtained a general background from the secondary sources.
  • When you haven't been able to find a relevant secondary source, statute, or regulation.

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.

For example:

  • assumption of risk recreation amusement entertainment haunted house
  • trademark generic descriptive holiday Halloween Christmas Easter Thanksgiving

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

exact phrase

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.
For example: doctor OR nurse OR (hospital /3 employee OR staff)

For example:

  • (assum! /s risk) AND (amusement OR entertainment OR "haunted house")
  • trademark /p (generic OR descriptive) AND (holiday OR Halloween OR Christmas OR Easter OR Thanksgiving)

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: