Research Guides

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 researching electronically.
  • 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 courts.
  • 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 to Shepardize.")
  • 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.
  • For further information on print and electronic case research techniques, including use of citators, consult the TMLL Guide to Legal Research, "Case Law Research"; "Researching a State Law Problem"; “Maryland Case Law”; and "Researching a Federal Law Problem.”

For a review of database selection and composing Lexis and Westlaw searches, consult the TMLL Guide to Legal Research “Electronic Search Techniques.”


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