For a basic introduction to case law research, see our Case Law Research Guide and/or refer to our Case Law Video Tutorial.
If you have a specific statute that you are researching, start your case law research by using the annotations (Notes of Decisions or Case Notes) and citator tools (Citing References or Shepard's Report) for that statute. Then consider expanding your research using the methods below.
Absent a statute, there are four recommended methods for identifying cases:
- KeyCite (Westlaw) and Shepardize (Lexis) known cases. Both KeyCite and Shepard's are editorial citators that allow you to focus on the headnotes that are of most interest to you. Although it is easier to limit by headnotes using KeyCite than using Shepard's, it is important to use both systems if you want to be thorough.
- Search using Digests (Headnotes & Key Numbers). This can be a very productive way of finding good cases. It will require you to identify the relevant Key Number(s) for your issue (this is often easiest to do if you already have a known case that is on point for your issue). For more information, see Digest, Headnotes, and Key Numbers on our Case Law Research Guide. Westlaw also has a brief & useful overview of its Headnote and Key Number system on its website.
- Keyword Searching. Without using a carefully-designed advanced (terms & connectors) search, this is often the least effective way to find cases because it depends on matching your search terms precisely with the terms used in the court decision, which is akin to "a stab in the dark." If you absolutely have to conduct a keyword search, consider searching only the synopsis and digest (headnote) portions of the case for your terms. This often proves to be more productive than searching the entire text, because it focuses your search only on the major issues of the case as described in the headnotes.
- Secondary Sources. Almost any source (if not all sources) listed on the Secondary Sources page of this guide (see link on left menu) will include citations to relevant cases. Once you've found a case that is on-point, you can use citators and digests (above) to find others. (If you have not already used a secondary source, such as a treatise, it is strongly suggested that you begin your research there rather than immediately looking for cases directly.)
Select sources that focus to some degree on cases related to this area of law are listed below.