Research Tips:

I'd like to add to my Academic Legal Writing book a list of research tips, chiefly focused on things many law students don't know about, but should know about. They could be very specific things (the Lexis ATLEAST and NOT W/ connectors, Westlaw SY,DI() searching, the various 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s full-text searchable databases of books and newspapers) or broader research concepts that people miss. Any suggestions that you'd like to pass along?

i would point out drafts up on SSRN.
6.6.2007 6:03pm
JR Walker (mail):
I'm working for a civil court judge this summer who prefers searching with books rather than Westlaw and Lexis. Being of the internet generation, I naturally assume that internet searching is easier, faster, etc. I have been surprised to find that often the books are the best way to go. This is especially true with state law digests and encyclopedias. I now start with the books to get a foundation and it has made my internet searching more efficient and productive. Obviously, everyone doesn't have printed sources readily at hand but if you do, it's wise to use them. This will be especially true when you're in the real world and someone has write a check everytime you hit the search button on Westlaw.
6.6.2007 6:54pm
Since students have all-you-can-eat total Westlaw acccess, the brief service is quite good. No matter how obscure the topic, it's likely some lawyer somewhere has submitted an appellate brief on that topic. These can be a great place to start for a student who knows next to nothing on a topic.
6.6.2007 7:14pm
Ron Mexico:
The flipside of the brief recommendation is that a lot of briefs misconstrue the law or are just plain wrong. Most of the time, you can tell the difference. But sometimes, briefs that appear to be well-written and very persuasive are just plain wrong. I don't know that students will be able to tell the difference very easily in some cases. But all in all, it's a helpful suggestion.
6.6.2007 7:19pm
MikeC&F (mail):
HeinOnline always seemed to be underused:
6.6.2007 7:27pm
Good point Ron, although I agree it's usually easy to pick out a crappy brief.

And your posting name (Ron Mexico), brought a smile to me on an otherwise routine work day. Great choice of nom de internet.

For those who don't follow football, a woman filed a civil lawsuit against Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick alleging she had contracted herpes from him. Among the allegations in the complaint, she claimed Mr. Vick used the alias "Ron Mexico" when obtaining medical treatment. A huge number of fans began ordering reproduction jerseys from the NFL with Vick's number and the name "Ron Mexico" on the back - a practice the NFL took a dim view of and squashed in a matter of days.
6.6.2007 7:28pm
Ron Mexico:
Oh no, Carolina! Now you're onto me---hide the dogs, hide the dogs! ;)
6.6.2007 7:31pm
AnonymousLibraryStudent (mail):
I suggest that you ask one of UCLA's law librarians that question. Law librarians have both a JD and an MLS, for a total of 5 years of education on how to search for legal information. Most of them will have had an entire course on all of the nifty things you can do in LEXIS and Westlaw. Plus, university law librarians have a good bit of experience in teaching law students how to perform these searches, so they have a pretty solid idea of what law students ought to know about searching and don't.

And just being asked will make the librarian's day.

An Anonymous MLS Student (who, lacking a JD or any desire to be a law librarian, will refrain from offering advice herself)
6.6.2007 8:10pm
Mark Field (mail):

I'm working for a civil court judge this summer who prefers searching with books rather than Westlaw and Lexis. Being of the internet generation, I naturally assume that internet searching is easier, faster, etc. I have been surprised to find that often the books are the best way to go. This is especially true with state law digests and encyclopedias.

I can't emphasize strongly enough how much I agree that starting with books like digests, etc. is the best approach. I find it impossible to read those online even when they're available.
6.6.2007 8:35pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
AnonymousLibraryStudent: Thanks for the advice, but don't worry -- I already have.
6.6.2007 8:42pm
Mark Seecof (mail):
When working on a topic with (or connected to something with) a long history it can be helpful to poke around in the library card catalog. Titles and summaries of related books, names of concerned authors, eras when interest was high and reasons therefore (inferred from publication dates and subject coding)... all of these can help you find sources or recognize potential research avenues. I realize that card catalogs hardly exist anymore, but the principle is still valid, and you can start online with the University of California system's catalog MELVYL.

Trawl references in law-review articles or court opinions... Don't take an author's (not even a judge's) summary of a potentially-interesting reference at face value. Look up source documents--you often find stuff that either didn't interest the last commenter, or which s/he (we will charitably assume) did not fully comprehend.

You can only search The Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature online if you pay (or your institution does). Many libraries still hold paper copies, though...

Look for "human interest" nuggets related to your research topic. If the topic involves a few people, look for their histories. If many, identify some (preferably famous) representatives and get their histories. If the topic has some kind of "legal players" (lawyers, judges, politicians) involved in pivotal cases or something, check out their histories. Relating your topic to some personal story, or at least throwing in a good anecdote, may make the difference between a memorable article and a merely competent one. Also, such research may lead you to understand the motivations behind some rule or ruling, which may help you criticize it--or may lead you to relate your topic to some other one in an interesting way.

When your topic involves foreign countries (or US dealings with foreign countries), don't neglect the US State Department's Area Handbook series. The books often contain useful pointers.

There are US-DoD area handbooks too, useful whenever a topic impinges on military affairs (foreign or domestic).

If your topic has any "law and economics" flavor, I recommend contemplating/researching any "old" common-law rules for the subjects of your research. Very often you can analyze the economic rationales behind the common-law rules--and the economic rationales (rent-seeking, most commonly--sometimes, and more interestingly, a change in technological or social circumstances) for changing them!

For legal topics with roots or a lot of action before 1920 or so, quickly survey English sources. American and English law--and sometimes more importantly, public perceptions of law based on famous cases--went back and forth a fair amount up to that time (and to some extent after it). You may be able to spice up your article with an interesting history of trans-atlantic legal influences. For example, no one can understand Miranda v. Arizona properly if they haven't heard of the Judges Rules.
6.6.2007 8:56pm
Thief (mail) (www):
-PACER for legal filings in ongoing cases
-HeinOnline (As MikeC&F noted) for law review articles
-EBSCO and ProQuest for non-law review articles
-Factiva for news articles (It beats LexisNexis and Westlaw hands-down)
(all of these are at any "good" law library, or so sayeth our librarians)

Plus Zotero (a Firefox extension) for web research.

I'm not a JD student (yet), but I do scut work for law professors. It's a living. Plus, you learn certain things.
6.6.2007 8:59pm
Andrew Okun:
Pacer's a lot of fun.

To find out about notable new filings, have a look at For new filings in the entertainment and intellectual property area, look at Both cover a lot of weird little cases that don't get in the news otherwise.

For law students, I'm guessing the cost of Lexis or West is not an issue, as it is provided free so that the students are addicted by the time they go into practice. If that's not the case, VersusLaw allows full-text searching of all state and federal appellate opinions and a lot of opinions down to trial court level.
6.6.2007 9:10pm
Hanah Volokh (mail) (www):
The Founder's Constitution is a great place to start historical research on any clause of the Constitution.

Additionally, just talk about your paper a lot with other students. A lot of people don't do this because they think nobody will be interested. But it's great because you never know who will have a great example or avenue for research off the top of their head.
6.6.2007 9:21pm
ptleahy (mail):
Several tips :

1. If you are writing about a federal case where you may have to locate the U.S. District court opinion, chances are there is not an opinion published in a print reporter. In addition, it may not be on Westlaw or Lexis. Check to see if the District Court uses CM/ECF, electronic case filing. If so, you may be able to access all the filings for that District Court case. You'll need to establish an account. Talk to your reference librarian at your law library.

2. If you want state trial level materials, it is probably not in electronic form like the federal CM/ECF. Unfortunately, you are going to have to contact the trial court and have them send you the documents.

3. Unlike Westlaw or Lexis, HeinOnline has full runs of legal periodicals. In other words, a 1979 article from the Iowa Law Review or UCLA Law Review will be found in full-text on HeinOnline and it won't be on Westlaw or Lexis. HeinOnline also has historic CFR's and I believe they are working on adding the full run of the Federal Register.

4. If your law library doesn't have what you are looking for, ask one of the reference librarians. They may be able to get it through ILL (interlibrary loan). If you want to check and see if other libraries have the thing you are looking for, check World Cat (it is a big library catalog in the sky that has thousands of academic library catalogs - OCLC).

5. Not everything is online and not everyting is on Westlaw or Lexis. However, your library may subscribe to some other databases like BNA-ALL, CCH Tax Research Network, RIA Checkpoint, HeinOnline, CIS Congressional Universe, Matthew Bender Authority, etc...

6. On Westlaw, when you retrieve a case you have the option of getting it in pdf. Westlaw has these pdf version because they print the West Reporters. Look for the link.

7. If you are printing off a statute from Westlaw or Lexis like 42 U.S.C. 1983, you can limit your printing to an unannotated version of the statute; otherwise, you are going to get a print out of several hundred pages because of the annotations.

8. Use the TOA or Table of Authorities feature on Lexis and Westlaw for cases. What this does is list all the cases found in the opinion you are viewing.

9. SY,DI is a great field restriction search on Westlaw. Although Lexis doesn't have the same exact search as SY,DI, it has something close. Lexis calls field searching, segment searching. It is a more efficient way to search. Date restriction searching is also good.

10. Think about what database you are going to search in on Westlaw or Lexis. If you want Illinois state cases, search in the smaller database (on Westlaw IL-CS) rather than a larger database like ALLCASES or ALLSTATES on Westlaw. In the real world, smaller databases cost less to search in.

11. Use terms &connectors (boolean) searching rather than natural language searching. Boolean searching, if done correctly, retrieves better results. Natural language searching is useful in situations where you are clueless and you need something to lay a foundation.

12. Utilize the West topic &key number system for headnotes in cases. In print, you can use the West Digests and on Westlaw you can use the Custom Digest feature. Headnotes with topic &key numbers are confusing to look at on Westlaw because Westlaw provides too much information and too many links. Westlaw also does something terribly confusing in that they assign a numeric code to the topic as well as including the key number. For example in print the topic &key number may be Dead Bodies (key symbol) 3, on Westlaw it will be look like 16k3 which is translated as 16 is the topic Dead Bodies, k is the key and 3 is the actual key number.

13. If you have to compile a federal legislative history, check with the reference librarians because they can check something like Nancy Johnson's Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories to determine if someone has already compiled a federal legislative history. Bottom line with federal legislative histories, don't reinvent the wheel, see if someone has already done it.

14. If you have to compile a state legislative hitory, check with your reference librarian. They probably have instructions on how to do this for your state. If you want to compile a legislative history for a statute in another state, this is harder. Check the web site of an academic law library in that particular state because they will probably have instructions on how to do this. State legislative history documents (bills, reports, hearings, etc..) are generally not online. It is different in each state.

15. If you want to see historical (old) statutory codes, check your library because they probably keep them. For example, if you want to know what your state's recreational use statute looked like in 1983, check and see if your library kept the old volume(s).

16. Shepard's and KeyCite are not just verification tools (telling you that your case is still good law or it is now bad law), it also leads you to cases, statutes and secondary sources that have cited your case. Understand the difference between history and treatment when using citators on cases. History is how your case has bounced around the appellate process (your case may have prior history and it may have subsequent history). Treatment is how courts in subsequent and different cases have treated the law in your case.

Sorry, but I am doing a presentation on a similar subject.
6.6.2007 9:38pm
Jacob (mail):
If one is relatively unexposed to a subject area or a group of sources, one should check the availability of research guides. These are especially important starting places when using an unfamiliar special library.

In Lexis and Westlaw, one should search the Index to Legal Periodicals. Someone already went through and decided if your search terms are actually relevant to the article. Only do a full text search of law reviews and journals afterwards to make sure nothing was missed.

If one's particular library happens to not provide access to something like Hein Online or Factiva, ask one's librarian if the institution is part of a consortium that gives its users access to other nearby libraries with such access.
6.6.2007 10:12pm
Brian Frye (mail) (www):
The American Memory collection at the Library of Congress is a very valuable database. Time magazine offers free searches of its archive that are very helpful. The Harpers archive is available through many libraries. I have also found the Liberty Library of Constitutional Classics very useful on occasion.
6.6.2007 10:22pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
I second the following:

-HeinOnline (As MikeC&F and Thief noted) for law review articles
-EBSCO and ProQuest (I can actually access these (and other databases) using my county library account online and through their website)

The only problem with PACER is the 8 cents a page ($2.40 max no matter the length for one document) can get quite expensive, especially when downloading things that turn out to be not very useful.

I also add:

- Look at your local federal district website for their opinions. I have used many of them to get ideas for motions. It sure helps, for example, to use a previous decision by a certain judge to outline your brief or motion, especially when you have good facts to match. Or, it can tell you what not to do. Many of those simple and unpublished opinions are quite helpful if you have a lot of motion practice as I do as a civil litigator.

- Try A top-notch brief bank
6.7.2007 1:25am
cfoster (mail):
My suggestion is think of that before I ordered it last month.
6.7.2007 3:54am
Closet Libertarian (www):
The Library of Congress.

For any student, you can use this in conjunction with Amazon and Addall to see if a book on topic exists. These did turn up some books that the library catalog did not. I ended up buying a few books on Addall for less than $10 because it was just more convinient than checking them out.

For studenst in the DC area, there are some books that are not eligilbe for interlibrary loan. Using the LOC is not that hard but it does take some time. Go around 10 or 11 and request a reader card, fill out the book requests, go have lunch and then your books will be waiting for you when you return. Copying is a bit expensive so allow some time to focus the photocopying (also be sure to copy the title/copyright page for cite checking).
6.7.2007 11:09am
Thaddeus Pope (mail):
Two things I did not see in the previous comments that I suggest to seminar students and students writing law review notes:

1. Directly contact experts. Once you identify a "player" in a given field, look at their website to see if they have posted other or more recent materials. After reviewing that material, email them to ask if they (or anyone else) have anything else coming out.

2. Much scholarship is presented orally at conferences and symposia long before it even gets to SSRN (much less Westlaw). The proceedings of many are available as a downloadable MP3. Others can be purchased. Same for CLE from various vendors.
6.7.2007 2:22pm