Legal Research

Finding the Law

Unless you are well acquainted with the area of law your research problem falls into, your search for the relevant law will probably begin by consulting a secondary source. Secondary sources consist of treatises,legal encyclopedias, and digests. These will lead you to primary sources which consist of constitutions, statutes and case law.

Reference Chart for Researching California Case Law

Subject Case On Subject West's or McKinney's Digest,Descriptive Word Index
Name of Case Citation West's or McKinney's Digest or Table of Cases in Advance Sheets
Unofficial Citation Official Citation Shepard's Citations or California Blue & White Book
Case On Point  Additional Cases On Point Shepard's Citations, West's or McKinney's Digest
Case Citation Present Status Shepard's Citations, Subsequent History Tables in Advance Sheets

Reference Chart for Researching California Statutes

Subject Statute on Subject Index to Codes or LARMAC
Code Section Number Citations to Cases Construing It Annotated Codes
Old Code Section  Present Code Section Annotated Codes
Bill Number Action on Bill Legislative Service Pamphlet
Name of Act or Bill Code Section Number Shepard's Acts & Cases by Popular Name


Treatises are comprehensive analysis of a selected field of law. Examples of well known treatises are Corbin on Contracts, McCormick on Evidence and Prosser on Torts

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Legal Encyclopedias

Legal Encyclopedias are multi-volume, multi-topic works which assemble dicussions of the entire body of law. Popular legal encyclopedias are American Jurisprudence, Cal.Jur.3d and Corpus Juris Secundum.

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Digests organize the entire body of law into many individual topics with summaries of points of law from individual cases. In the West Key Number System each point of law is given a number and that number is assigned to every headnote in every reported case which correlates to that same point of law. Thus, a researcher can take a key number and find other cases that discuss that same point of law. In addition to West's California Digest there is a General Digest which includes federal cases as well as cases from all 50 states. Every 10 years these cases are cumulated into a Decennial Digest and a new General Digest is begun.

Digests also contain Descriptive Word Indexes. By cross-referencing words from your factual situation a researcher can be led to the Key Number topics which are in point. For example, a researcher trying to determine whether umpires can be held liable for bad calls, can look up the term "umpires" in the Descriptive Word Index, which would tell the researcher that the relevant Key Number is found under the topic "Exhibitions and Shows."

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© 2015 by and Craig A. Smith

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