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Legal Research

Fundamentals of Legal Research  "Dude, suckin' at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something."

Jake the Dog, Adventure Time "His Hero" Episode 25 (first aired September 20, 2010). Image

Using finding tools to find the law

Finding tools are sometimes called finding aids or access points. It's all the same. Finding tools help you find the law!

Here are some examples:

**HINT: Westlaw's online index is usually located on the right on the screen.

  • Indexes**
  • The digest or key number system (Westlaw)
  • Table of contents
  • Shepard's , BCite, and Key Cite can also be used as a source for more secondary or primary materials
  • Case notes (also called annotations, notes of decision, or headnotes)
  • Library catalog
  • Popular name tables

How does taxonomy help organize the law? West taxonomist explains.

Importance of finding tools

[The student] may be ignorant of the fact that, vast as is the literature which fills our law libraries, [law] is more minutely indexed than any other literature of like proportions. The needs of the practitioner have been met by the enterprise of the indexer, the compiler, and the publisher; but the student struggling to master the contents of the few books may pass by the guide posts to the many. He must return to them sooner or later in order to reach the right road, and this he does either at the expense of himself, his employer, or his clients.

Frederick C. Hicks, law librarian at Columbia University, from The Teaching of Legal Bibliography, 11 L. Libr. J. 1 (1918) (emphasis added).

TRANSLATION:  Students are bad at research because they refuse to use finding aids (things that help you find the law) such as indexes, tables of contents, and West Key Numbers.

Yet another study shows that "digital natives" suck at searching (link) (Lisa Gold: Research Maven, blog post August 23, 2011)

Finding tools help you find the law!

What is a subject index?

An index is a list of subjects and associated pointers (page numbers for books, links for online sources) used to locate information in a source. Indexes are designed to help the reader find information quickly and easily.

WHY use an index?

For a super-helpful and funny example of a book with no index, click here.


For legal research, indexes are especially useful because legal concepts (e.g., "a person under 18") are often expressed using different terms (child, minor, infant). This can make it difficult to locate relevant documents with a keyword search. (And even if you locate some relevant documents you are unlikely to locate ALL relevant documents which is a frequent goal of legal research.)

Best practice: start your research with an index


death penalty, capital punishment, execution

murder, homicide, unlawful killing

restraining order, order of protection, injunction

What is a table of contents?

A table of contents usually is a list of the parts of a source organized in the order in which the parts appear. The depth of detail in tables of contents depends on the length of the source.


Jan Mark wrote a book about rats and organized the book into chapters on various topics.  If you want to read about sewers, you flip to page 12.