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.


  1. Conduct preliminary analysis of the issue to determine:
  • Jurisdiction (federal or state)
  • Keywords.
  • Time period (current law or law in force at some time in the past)
  1. 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).
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Use a digest to find more cases.
  • 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.
  1. Repeat steps 5 and 6 — read the most promising cases you found using the digest, take notes, and follow new leads.
  2. Update the cases.

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