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LRAW Research Spring 2023

Methods for Finding Federal Cases Using Westlaw & Lexis

There are three key methods for locating relevant federal cases in print and online:

1. By citation or party name.

2. By subject using keywords or phrases.

3. By subject using the headnotes in one good case. The ability to find more cases using headnotes is a major reason lawyers pay for subscriptions to Westlaw and Lexis.

Finding Federal Case Law by Party Name

Scenario: You have been asked to find all federal cases to which a certain person was a party. When you type their name in the search bar, you retrieve an overwhelming number of results. Some cases in the search results mention the person, but the person is not a party to all the cases in the search results. How can you do this research efficiently?

Searching by Party Name in Westlaw

From the Westlaw homepage, click Federal Materials and Federal Cases.

screenshot Westlaw homepage > Federal materials > Federal Cases

Then, click on the Advanced link to the right of the search bar. Because you previously clicked Federal Cases on the homepage, now clicking the Advanced link will give you a Party Name field and other fields that can help refine a search for case law.

screenshot highlighting Advanced under Search Tips

Enter the name of the party into the Party Name field.

Party Name Jackie Lawson

If you know the names of other parties, you can enter those into the Party Name field as well. If you know other information about the cases, you can enter that information into the other available fields. For example, you can further narrow your search to a year or date range.

Click on the search icon to retrieve a list of federal cases with the parameters you set.

search bar set to First Circuit Federal Cases advanced:TI(Jackie Lawson) and search icon highlighted

Using the Party Name field means that Westlaw only retrieves cases where these names are used for parties. This provides more relevant results than simply using the search bar, because the search bar would retrieve cases where these names were mentioned in the text of a case, for example in citations to other cases.


Searching by Party Name in Lexis

To retrieve federal cases by party name in Lexis, select Federal, then All Federal Cases, or choose a circuit if you only need cases from one circuit.

homepage > Federal > All Federal Cases 

Then, use the Party Name field to search for one or more party names in that jurisdiction.

screenshot: Document Segments/Fields | Party Name | jackie lawson

Using the Party Name field means that Lexis only retrieves cases where these names are used for parties. This provides more relevant results than simply using the search bar, because the search bar would retrieve cases where these names were mentioned in the text of a case, for example in citations to other cases.

Finding Federal Case Law by Keyword Search

Westlaw Keyword Search for Federal Cases:
Help with Terms and Connectors

For help formulating a search for federal cases in Westlaw, first select Federal Materials, then Federal Cases.

homepage > Federal materials > Federal Cases

Then select the Advanced link to the right of the orange search icon.

screenshot: Advanced >

To the right is a list of connectors and expanders that can help you combine search terms. If you use the “Find documents that have” search boxes, Westlaw will insert the connectors for you.

screenshot where search bar contains: advanced: (abandon & property) & "expectation of privacy"  below that, the All of these terms field contains abandon property, and the This exact phrase field contains expectation of privacy


Lexis Keyword Search for Federal Cases:
Help with Terms and Connectors

For help formulating a search for federal cases in Lexis, select Federal, then All Federal Cases, or choose a circuit if you only need cases from one circuit. If you choose All Federal Cases, you will automatically be placed in advanced search.

homepage > Federal > All Federal Cases 

If you choose a circuit, select the Advanced Search link above the search box.

Advanced Search next to Tips above the search bar

To the right is a list of connectors that can help you combine search terms. Or, you can use the Terms search boxes and Lexis will insert the connectors for you. 

search bar contains (abandon and property) and "expectation of privacy"    below that the All of these terms field contains abandon property     Exactly this phrase contains expectation of privacy

Finding Federal Case Law by Headnote

Scenarios: Using keyword search, you have found one good case. It addresses the issue you're researching, and the facts are analogous to your client's situation. You want to find more cases like this case, for example, because
  • it's persuasive authority from another jurisdiction. You want to find more cases just like this one, but from your jurisdiction. 
  • it's from your jurisdiction, and the facts are somewhat similar, but you're wondering if there's another case where the facts are even more similar to your client's situation.
  • you hope there might be a similar case where the outcome is even more favorable to your client's position.
  • you would like to find enough relevant case law that you can identify examples of a "spectrum of behavior" on which your client's behavior falls.

Using Westlaw Headnotes, with Topics and Key Numbers: 
The "One Good Case" / "More Like This Case" Method

West assigns a broad topic and specific key number to every legal issue and sub-issue addressed in each opinion it publishes. West adds summaries of these legal issues with their assigned topics and key numbers to the beginning of the opinion. These summaries are called headnotes. Each headnote is numbered to correspond to the place in the opinion where that issue is addressed.

First, it may be helpful to ensure that Grid View is selected for the headnotes, to ensure that the numbers are visible for the key numbers.

screenshot of where to click on Grid View, at the top of the West Headnotes, before headnote 1.

 

When you find the place in an opinion where an issue is discussed, to find more cases on the same legal issue, go to the headnote. For example, you might focus on this portion of United States v. Harrison, 689 F.3d 301 (3d Cir. 2012).

in 689 F.3d 301, highlighted "Nevertheless, a person can lose his reasonable expectation of privacy in his real property if he abandons it." From the opinion, click the 12 to go to Headnote 12.

 

Headnote 12 is assigned the topic Searches and Seizures, and the key number 28. Click the key number to find more cases on abandoned, surrendered, or disclaimed items.

screenshot of Headnote 12 highlighting topic and key number

Westlaw will assume which jurisdiction you want to search for more cases. In this example, Westlaw assumes you wish to search for more 3rd Circuit cases. Select the Change link to add, change, or remove jurisdictions. Then, click Apply.

screenshot Jurisdiction: 3rd Circuit Change

You can also use the filters on the left to filter your results by jurisdiction and by date and limit your results to cases that contain specific terms.


 

Using Lexis Headnotes with Topic Trails: 
The "One Good Case" / "More Like This Case" Method

When you find a good case on a legal issue, you can use headnotes on Lexis to find additional cases on that issue.

Headnotes are not exactly the same on Lexis as they are on Westlaw, because the editors at each publisher use their own judgment about where to place a headnote and how to summarize the issue. On Lexis, each headnote is assigned topics and sub-topics.

When you find the place in an opinion where an issue is discussed, to find more cases on the same legal issue, go to the headnote.

For example, you might focus on this portion of United States v. Harrison, 689 F.3d 301 (3d Cir. 2012). Clicking HN7 will take you to headnote 7 above the opinion. (Headnotes are numbered in the order that the issues are discussed in the opinion.)

screenshot highlighting HN7 and (first sentence of the next paragraph) Nevertheless, a person can lose his reasonable expectation of privacy in his real property if he abandons it.

 

To find more cases on abandoned property, use the topic trail above headnote 7. Click the downward triangle next to the subtopic Abandoned Property within the broad topic Criminal Law & Procedure and choose Get documents.

screenshot of HN7, Criminal Law & Procedure > Search & Seizure > Warrantless Searches > Abandoned Property down arrow Get documents

 

Then you can use the filters on the left to narrow your results. For example, you can enter terms to search within your results, choose a court, and limit your search by date.