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Researching U.S. Federal Law: a Primer

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 December 2020


This article is designed for law librarians based outside the United States. The paper, written by Marcia Zubrow, provides basic information about the United States legal system and its sources. This background foundation to the article is important in understanding how to effectively use the two major U.S. databases, Lexis and Westlaw. The author describes the contents of the two databases within the context of the background information. Search techniques, including advance searching strategies, are described.

International Perspectives
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by British and Irish Association of Law Librarians

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1 The idea for this paper grew out of one-on-one research sessions I taught in the Faculty of Law at Cambridge University with PhD students who were doing research in some aspect of United States law for their dissertations. David Wills, the Director of the Squire Law Library at Cambridge, suggested that the readers of Legal Information Management would benefit from the information on researching U.S. law. I would like to acknowledge David Wills' suggestion for and support of this paper. In addition, I want to acknowledge and thank my colleagues, Beth Adelman, Nina Cascio, Joe Gerken and Brian Detweiler at the Charles B Sears Law Library for their encouragement, assistance and support while I wrote this paper and Anne Marie Swartz, Instructional Support Specialist at the Charles B Sears Law Library, for her technical assistance. This paper is dedicated to Ezra B W Zubrow, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, University at Buffalo. Also, I humbly dedicate this paper to the memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U.S. Supreme Court Justice and ferocious defender of equal rights for all.

2 U.S. Constitution art. I.

3 U.S. Constitution art. II.

4 U.S. Constitution art. III.

5 Steven M Barkin, Barbara A Bintliff, and Mary Whisner, Fundamentals of Legal Research (10th edn. Foundation Press 2015) 2-3.

6 Orth, John R, ‘Common Law’ in Hall, Kermit L. (edn.), Oxford Companion to American Law (OUP 2002) 125-130Google Scholar. Other brief definitions of common law are found in Black's Law Dictionary (11th edn, Thomson Reuters 2019) 345-346 (also on Westlaw) and Garner's Dictionary of Legal Usage (3rd edn. OUP 2011) 179-180. For a longer discussion, see Calvin Woodard, ‘Common Law and Common-Law Legal Systems’ in Robert J Janosik, (ed) 2 Encyclopedia of the American Judicial System (Charles Scribner's Sons 1987) 500-516.

7 Mass. v. Knowlton, 2 Mass. 530, at 534 (1807). See also George E Beers, ‘Real Property,’ pp. 48-53 and Leonard M Daggett, ‘Wills,’ pp.169-170 in Members of the Faculty of the Yale Law School. Two Centuries' Growth of American Law 1701-1901 (New York, Scribner 1901); Part One, The Beginnings: American Law in the Colonial Period by Lawrence M Friedman, A History of American Law (7th edn, OUP 2019) 1-6.

8 Kent C Olson, Aaron S Kirschenfeld and Ingrid Mattson, Principles of Legal Research (3d. edn. West Academic Publishing 2020) 11.

9 Id., 11.

10 Somewhat similar to the Noter-Up process used in some UK publications.

11 Commonly known as The Bluebook, it is compiled and published by the members of law review editors at four U.S. Law Schools: Columbia, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale. Published in print and electronically, the current edition is the 21st, published in 2020. Another citation guide is ALWD Guide to Legal Citation, 6th ed., 2017, by the Association of Legal Writing Directors and Coleen M Barger.

12 Barkan (n 5) 527-532 (The Westlaw and LexisNexis Services).

13 Many readers may know that both Lexis and Westlaw utilize different interfaces in the U.S. and the U.K. For this paper, I used the U.K. interfaces available through the Squire Law Library. The Westlaw screenshots were created using Westlaw Edge.

14 Olson (n 8) 135-146 (State Statutes); 241-248 (State Administrative Materials; 301-309 (State Courts and Territorial and Tribal Courts).

15 HeinOnline, another subscription database, has the extremely useful Law Library Journal. It is a more extensive database for law reviews and law journals and includes more journal titles as well as access to the complete journal from its first volume through its most recent one. A relatively small number of the journals require an embargo for the most recent volume(s).

16 Presently, there are two subscription legal journal indices in the United States. Index to Legal Periodicals and Books (ILPB), is published in print from 1908 to the present; online from 1980. Note, the title changed in 1994 from Index to Legal Periodicals (ILP) to its present title, ILPB. The companion database, ILP Retrospective, includes indexing for articles from 1908 to 1981. Legaltrac began publishing in 1980 in print as Current Law Index. The last print volume was published in 2016. Legaltrac, the title of the online subscription database, includes indexing from 1980 to the present.

17 Michael O Eshleman, ‘A History of the Digests’ (2018) 110 Law Libr. J. 235.

18 Barkan (n 5) 90-92 (West's Key Number Digests). See also Olson (n 8) 311-333 (Online Case Research and West Key-Number Digests.

19 An early reference by Robert Berring described Lexis building a ‘… new search system…called Search Master is meant to counter [Westlaw's] Topics and Key Numbers’. Robert C Berring, ‘Legal Information and the Search for Cognitive Authority’ (2000) Calif. L. Rev 1673, 1706.

20 Olson (n 8) 322-325 (Lexis case indexing and segments).

21 Patti Ogden, ‘Mastering the Lawless Science of Our Law: A Story of Legal Citation Indexes’ (1993) 85 Law Lib. J. 1, 27.

22 Laura Dabney, ‘Citators: Past, Present, and Future’ (2008) 27 Legal Reference Services Quarterly 165, 183.

23 Both Lexis and Westlaw include online guides on how to search their databases, eg. Westlaw has ‘Quick Tips for getting started,’ <> accessed 31 August 2020; Lexis has the ‘Guide to Using International Content’ accessed 31 August 2020.

24 Per communication David Wills, Director of the Squire Law Library, the new Westlaw Edge interface will be implemented in the near future but it was not in use while I was writing this paper. The Westlaw screenshots were created using Westlaw Edge.

25 American Jurisprudence 2d, American Law Reports, and American Law Reports Federal are published by Westlaw and are licensed to Lexis for inclusion in its database.

Both the author and the editor of the journal are grateful to be able to include screenshots from Westlaw in the above article to help illustrate ways of conducting U.S. legal research.