Skip to Main Content

Legal Research for Undergraduates

This guide provides information on legal research for UCLA undergraduates and non-law graduate students, faculty, and staff.

Researching Cases for Undergraduates

Most courts put their published cases online for free but it’s usually not easy to search across multiple courts or see whether a case has been overruled by later cases, so most attorneys access cases on the paid Lexis or Westlaw databases. 

Undergraduates do not have access to these databases, so your best bets are:

All of the databases allow you to:

  • Run keyword searches to find relevant cases on your topic.
  • Retrieve cases by entering the citation. For example, on Google Scholar and Nexis Uni, you can enter either 4 Cal. 5th 903 or 416 P.3d 1 to retrieve Dynamex Operations West v. Superior Court, 4 Cal. 5th 903, 416 P.3d 1 (2018). 

Nexis Uni is usually best for researching cases because:

  • It allows more precise searching using terms and connectors (Boolean) searching.
  • It provides tools called headnotes and a citator that allow you to locate related cases and identify any possible problems with a case.

Headnotes and Citators for Cases on Nexis Uni

What are headnotes and citators?

  • Headnotes are brief notes at the beginning of a case that summarize each holding in the case and link you the relevant text of the case and similar cases.
  • A citator is a tool that allows you to find sources that cite your case and warns you of any negative treatment of your case. Nexis Uni's citator is called Shepard's and using it is called Shepardizing.

Using headnotes

At the top of each case on Nexis Uni, you will find a section labeled LexisNexis Headnotes, that provides short notes that summarize each holding in the case. The headnotes are not part of the case and you should never quote or cite them. However, headnotes are useful tools for finding relevant parts of the case and finding similar cases.

Look for a headnote on a topic relevant to your research and then:

  • Click the headnote number to jump directly to the section of the case on this topic. Then, cite or quote the text of the case, rather than the headnote. Read the text carefully for citations to previous cases, and to other relevant sources such as statutes, regulations, and agency guidance documents.
  • Click any of the terms above a headnote to retrieve a list of other cases on the same topic. Topics are listed from broadest on the left (e.g. Labor & Employment Law) to narrowest on the right (e.g. Independent Contractors). Start with the narrowest topic, then, if you don't find what you need there, move to the left, topic by topic. 
  • Click the Shepardize- Narrow by this Headnote link to view a list of cases that cite your case on this topic.

Using the citator

You can also click Shepardize this document in the right sidebar to find a list of cases that cite your case on any topic.

  • If a case has been cited many times, you'll likely want to use Shepardize- Narrow by this headnote to find only cases that are relevant to your research.
  • If a case has only been cited by a few cases, it will usually be more direct to click Shepardize this document and view the full list of all citing case.
  • Shepardize this document also allows you to view a list of law review articles and treatise sections that cite your case. Just click Other Citing Sources.

Shepardize also warns you if there is a problem with your case by placing a red or yellow symbol to the left of the case name and in the right hand Shepard's sidebar.

  • In the right hand Shepard's sidebar you can click the Reason for Shepard's Signal link to view the most negative case and click any yellow or red symbols to view additional negative citing cases.
  • Red symbols indicate that the case is "bad law" on at least one issue- i.e. it has been overruled or overturned by a later case. It may still be good law on other issues but you should always read the most negative citing case carefully to see what it has to say about your case.
  • Watch out for red symbols assigned because a case is unpublished- these will be indicated by warnings such as Not Citable; Ordered Not Published (See Cal. Rules of Court). As the warning suggests, unpublished California state court cases are not citable in California state court, even as persuasive. 
  • Yellow symbols indicate that there has been some mild criticism of the case or that other cases have distinguished their fact pattern from the case. It's helpful to read the criticizing or distinguishing cases to make sure that they are not relevant to your fact pattern, but the case is still good law.

Finding Page Numbers for Cases on Nexis Uni

  • If possible, you should always provide a pinpoint page number that points your reader to the exact page in the case that supports your argument.
  • Online, the start of each page is generally indicated by a starred and/or bracketed page number, such as [*965].
    • 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 4 Cal. 5th 903 and the Pacific Reporter at 416 P.3d 1, *965 may indicate the start of page 965 in the California Reports and **41 may indicate the start of page 41 in the Pacific Reporter.
  • If this sounds too confusing, Nexis Uni offers a copy with citation tool:
    • Highlight the text that you would like to cite and select Copy (Quick) to obtain a citation to the case. Select > and then the Standard format for a citation that roughly approximates the format of the Bluebook (the most commonly used legal citation manual).
    • This citation will not be perfect and you should always check it against the Bluebook, Indigo Book, or Cornell's Basic Legal Citation Guide! However, it will reliably include the correct page numbers.