Caselaw Research Checklist
Updated Oct. 25, 2007.
Prepard by Mary Whisner.
This guide identifies several approaches for locating court opinions relevant to a particular topic or legal issue. See also the Gallagher guide on Reporters & Digests for descriptions of sets containing court opinions and tools for locating cases.
- Jurisdiction (federal or state)
- Time period (current law or law in force at some time in the past)
- Consult secondary sources (law reviews, encyclopedias, ALR annotations, hornbooks, nutshells, deskbooks, etc.) to learn more about the topic. See the Gallagher guide on Secondary Sources.
- Note any references to applicable statutes.
- Note citations to relevant cases.
- Note Topics and Key Numbers (cited in West publications — e.g., CJS, hornbooks).
- Search for statutes. See the Gallagher Statutory Research Checklist).
- Read and update the sections you find.
- If you found an applicable statute, skim the annotations.
- Note references to secondary sources you may not have seen (law review articles, ALR annotations, etc.).
- Note references to Topics and Key Numbers (included in annotated codes published by West — e.g., USCA, RCWA).
- Note cases that appear relevant.
- Read the most promising cases you noted from secondary sources and statutory annotations.
- Focus on cases in your jurisdiction (mandatory precedent). Later you may need to branch out to cases in other jurisdictions (persuasive precedent).
- In your notes, include Topics and Key Numbers of relevant headnotes.
- Note the cases cited in the cases you read.
- Choose a digest that covers your jurisdiction (again, you may need to branch out later for persuasive precedent). Using the narrowest digest is most efficient — e.g., you can find Washington cases in the Pacific Digest, but it is faster to use the Washington Digest. View the Gallagher guide on Reporters & Digests for a list of digests available in the Gallagher Law Library.
- If you already know relevant Topics and Key Numbers, start with those.
- Skim the scope note and the Analysis (outline) at the start of each Topic to get a sense of what is covered.
- Skim the case headnotes and note relevant cases.
- Update, using the pocket part and interim pamphlet (if any). You can updatefurther in advance sheets of reporters.
- You can use the Descriptive Word Index to find more Topics and Key Numbers. Follow cross references. Note the search terms you have tried (even the unsuccessful ones).
- Sometimes you can browse the Topics and skim the outlines to find a good range of Key Numbers ("topical approach").
- To find cases by name, use the Table of Cases or Defendant-Plaintiff Table.
- Repeat steps 5 and 6 — read the most promising cases you found using the digest, take notes, and follow new leads.
- Update the cases.