Case law refers to the law found in court decisions within a specific jurisdiction. Before you search a subscription database for relevant case law, it is generally a good idea to be familiar with that area of law. Secondary sources are a useful tool to use to gain familiarity with a legal area and to identify helpful keywords for searching in the databases. You can identify subject specific secondary sources by consulting a research guide. The following are a few subscription databases that can be used for case law research:
Keyword and Advanced Searching:
The subscription databases that can be used for case law research generally have a Google like interface with a single search box. The most basic search that can be run is a keyword search. Keywords can be entered in the search box and relevant results will be returned. To further refine a search, one can restrict by jurisdiction, content type, or practice area either before or after running the search.
Another option is to use the advanced search feature, which can result in more relevant cases being retrieved. Some of the advanced search features that can be chosen from when searching case law include term frequency, connectors, or field searching.
Key Number System:
The Key Number System is how Westlaw indexes the law. The narrowest legal concepts are assigned unique numbers, which are called Key Numbers. For each case in Westlaw, editors create short paragraphs that appear prior to the opinion on specific points of law, which are called headnotes. These paragraphs are then assigned at least one Key Number. Utilizing these Key Numbers, one can search for other related cases that cover that same point of law. Locating one good case with an on point headnote and key number will lead to other relevant cases.
ALR and Legal Encyclopedias:
American Law Reports (ALR) contain articles, called annotations, that analyze specific, unsettled legal issues in different areas of the law. Every annotation contains a survey of court decisions from various jurisdictions.
Legal encyclopedias provide broad background information on a variety of legal topics, in addition to noting citations to leading cases. For those encyclopedias published by Thomson Reuters/West, they will also include reference to Key Numbers, which can be used to locate additional case law on point.