Skip to Main Content

Legal Research

Comprehensive guide to answer legal research questions.

Common Definitions to Know

Citator - A research resource that helps you determine if the case, statute, constitutional provision, regulation, or court rule you want to rely upon is still good law. A citator tells you what cases have cited your case or statute, etc… and if they have treated it negatively which will cast doubt on your source or if the subsequent ruling upheld your source which bolsters your argument.  You will often hear this process referred as Shepardizing because it was invented by Frank Shepard in 1873. It became such a part of the practice of law that Frank Shepard's name became a verb – to Shepardize. All courts will expect you to have used a citator or Shepardized all law that you cite. Failure to use a citator can be grounds for malpractice.

Digest - A digest is a collection of case law arranged by topic and published by West. The cases are broken down into subtopics and assigned an applicable Key Number to find easily.

Distinguished - To distinguish one case from another case is to show how they are different, not similar. This is important when a case hurts your legal argument and you want to show the Court that your case is not the same and does not apply to the argument being made.

Headnote - Headnotes are summaries of the key points of law in a case and they always appear prior the case opinion. West and LexisNexis both use headnotes and while headnotes summarize the law, they are not the law and should not be cited to as such.

Key Number - A classification system created by West/Thomson Reuters that organizes cases by corresponding legal issues and topics. The Key Number system is nationwide and the exact same in any United States jurisdiction. The Key Number system is identified by a small key preceding the legal topic.

Opinion - Concurring -- A judge who voted with the majority opinion, but writes separately because his or her reasoning is different.

Opinion - Dissenting -- A judge who writes a separate opinion where the reasoning and the holding are different from the majority.

Opinion - Majority -- One judge writes the opinion when a majority of judges agree with the holding.

Opinion - Per Curiam -- Means "By the Court" and it is an opinion by an appellate court that does not list the author of the opinion.

Parallel Citation A manner of Bluebook citation to show the same case was reported in a different reporter. An example is the landmark case, brown v. board of education of topeka, kansas, and this case can be found in 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, and 98 L. Ed. 873.  

Reported / Unreported Opinions - If a case is found in a printed legal case reporter with a citation, it is considered reported. Often there is not space to print all legal cases, so many cases are still found on Westlaw and LexisNexis, but they are considered unreported. These cases are not bad law, but it is an editorial decision to not include them. An unreported case can be easily determined by a WL or LX with a number instead of a usual citation. This is an example of an unreported case in both Lexis and Westlaw; 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 245557 and 2021 WL 6112791.

Always check with your Court (or professor!) if they will accept citations to unreported cases. Some Courts will not accept unreported cases because they believe it gives an unfair advantage to legal representation that can afford the costly legal databases where unreported cases are found.

Reporter - When the federal courts and state appellate courts write an opinion, it is published in the proper reporter so it can be found easily. The West National Reporter system organizes the cases into regional reporters based on the Court's jurisdiction. There are seven national regional reporters: Atlantic, North Eastern, North Western, Pacific, South Eastern, South Western, and Southern.

Slip Opinion - Slip opinions are the first version of the Court’s opinions issued on the day it is decided, before it has been assigned a volume and page number in the official reporter.  It is not the final form of the opinion because it is still subject to typesetting, formatting, and revisions to the text.

Star Pagination Used in cases with parallel citations when pinpoint citing to a specific reporter. For example, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 98 S. Ct. 2733 (1978), is reported in two places, the Supreme Court Reporter and United States Reports. But how will your reader know which one you cited to? Star pagination tells you what page you are citing to for each specific reporter [*283][**2755].