Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Research Tip - Topic and Key Number Searches on Westlaw

In Lawyering Skills I, first semester, you learned how to find cases by subject using the topic and key numbers in West's digests. Once you had a topic and key number on point for your research project, you could find cases in any U.S. court or jurisdiction by choosing the appropriate digest. You identified topic and key numbers by starting in the Descriptive Word Index of a West's digest or by noting the topic and key numbers used in the headnotes of a case from a West's reporter.

Another way you could determine the topic number for a Westlaw topic and key number search is listed in the drop-down menu in the upper right corner of the Westlaw screens. Click the down arrow to the right of the "More" menu box to see a list of specialized Westlaw tools. From the list choose Key Numbers & Digest.

The Custom Digest screen that comes up is an expandable outline of the West's digest topics. Scroll down to find the topic that you want to search, then click the plus sign to the left of the topic name to expand the topical outline to the next level. For example, if you click the arrow to the left of topic 78, Civil Rights, you will see six sub-topical groupings of key numbers. Click the plus sign to the left of one of these subtopics to see a list of key numbers within that subtopic. Some of the key numbers will also have plus signs to the left, indicating even further subdivisions.

Once you identify a topic and key number you want to search, you can click on Directory in the gray bar across the top to choose a case database in which to run your search. Use the topic number and key number in Westlaw format, e.g. 78k1301 where 78 represents the topic Civil Rights and 1301 is the key number, alone or as an additional search term.

In the alternative, at any point in your exploration of the outline, you can select one or more topics, subtopics, or key numbers by clicking in the box to the far left. Once you have selected the digest entries you want to include in your search, click on the "Search selected" button at the bottom. The Custom Digest screen comes up displaying your digest selections with an option to delete individual entries. You can also choose whether to search "Most Recent Cases" or "Most Cited Cases"; whether to include ALR, law reviews, and other references in your search results; from which jurisdictions and courts to retrieve cases; whether to add search terms; and whether to restrict by date.

Once you have made your choices on the Custom Digest screen, click the Search button. The Custom Digest search retrieves case headnotes with links to the cases in full-text and to any statutes cited. If you checked the box to include "ALR, law reviews, and other references" in your search results, you will also see secondary source citations, with links to the full-text documents if they are available on Westlaw.

Previous Research Tips:

Think Small
Searching Is Not Research
Don't Get Caught Without a Search Engine

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