Successful Summer Strategies: Research in the Real World
General Tips for Researching Case Law
Use Table One of The Bluebook to determine the appellate court structure
of the controlling jurisdiction. Opinions of the highest level appellate
court are mandatory authority. If the highest court has not ruled, intermediate
level appellate court cases are the best authority, but they do not bind
the higher level court.
Start with what you know. Look for cases in the annotations of a known
statute or rule; read and Shepardize or KeyCite a known case; use headnotes
to locate additional cases by digest searching (if you have West topics
and key numbers) or by using the headnotes to find similar cases while
Read the cases as you go along. Read the most recent cases first, as
they will reflect the current state of the law and also contain citations
to earlier relevant cases.
Use the headnotes and syllabi to eliminate irrelevant cases, but remember
that in order to fully understand a holding you must read the entire opinion.
Keep in mind the distinction between holding (the law applied to the
facts) and dicta (language not essential to resolution of the dispute.)
Language which can be characterized as dicta is not binding on subsequent
Use citators – Shepard’s in print or on Lexis, or KeyCite on
Westlaw – to determine the validity and precedential value of each
case you intend to rely upon or cite. Do this as soon as you locate a relevant
case. (For tips on using print versions of Shepard's, consult the TMLL Guide
to Legal Research "Citators:
Functions and Formats" or Lexis Publishing "How
Print or electronic? This will depend partly on whether you are authorized
by your employer to use Lexis or Westlaw for a given project. If you are,
a combination of print and electronic research is still usually best for ensuring
comprehensive case research. Your employer may also subscribe to lower cost
research alternatives such as VersusLaw,
FastCase, or Loislaw.
Also, note that there is a lot of free case law available on the Internet
(see the specific headings for federal and state case research under "Case
Law Research" within this guide); however, cases in this format do not
contain the editorial enhancements and research tools found on Lexis and Westlaw.