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Researching Case Law

This guide is designed to be an introduction to cases and case law research.


Legal materials can fall into two different categories:  (1) Primary and (2) Secondary.  Secondary sources are about the law.  They explain, analyze, interpret, discuss, and cite to primary sources. Primary sources are the law themselves.  Cases are a primary source. They are judicial opinions written to resolve a controversy between two or more parties. Courts have a hierarchy and the authoritative value of a case can depend on which court is writing the opinion.  Cases are published chronologically in reporters and now, in databases and on websites.

Research Process Flowchart

Remember that research is a process. If you do not know much about a legal subject, the flow chart below is a helpful process to follow. Your research strategy will change depending on what you know, the resources to which you have access, your budget, your time, and what you discover as you research. 

Research Process Flowchart

The first step in the research process is to analyze the problem and to ask questions. The second step is to consult secondary sources. The third step is to answer the question is it common law or statutory or do you have a cause of action that can be filed under both? Your secondary source research can help with that.The fourth step branches out depending on if you have a common law or statutory law issue. If it is a common law issue, you will read cases suggested by your secondary sources and find cases using headnotes and topic and key numbers. If your issue is statutory, you will consult the annotated code. You want to update the annotated code with the pocket part or supplement and the Legislative Service if you are working with print resources. The annotated code will give you case summaries for important cases that interpret the statute. After consulting the annotated code for a statutory issue, you will move on to finding cases. You will look up the full-text of the cases you found in the annotated code, look at the cases suggested by secondary sources, and look for more cases using the headnotes and topic and key numbers. If you are not able to find case law for your statutory issue and the statutory language is ambiguous, you will do legislative history research. Also, any time you have a statutory issue, you will need to find any applicable administrative regulations and update those regulations.You will want to consult administrative adjudications. Regardless of whether you have a statutory or a common law issue, you will need to make sure your cases are good law. You will Shepardize or KeyCite your cases. If this is a statutory issue, you will also need to Shepardize or KeyCite the statutes and regulations. Stop researching when you keep finding the same information over and over again.

Citation Format


Rule 10 of The Bluebook (21st ed. 2020) governs the citation of cases.

The citation should include the following:


  • Case Name - first listed parties on each side (italicized or underlined) (use T. 6)
  • Volume
  • Reporter (see T. 1)
  • Page
  • Court and jurisdiction in parenthetical (see T.1, T.7, T.10)
  • Year in parenthetical
  • Subsequent History after parenthetical (if applicable)


United States v. Prince Line, Ltd., 189 F.2d 386, 387 (2d Cir. 1951).


  • Case Name:  Note there is no abbreviation of United States per 10.2.2.  Abbreviate Ltd. Per R. 10.2.1(c), T.6. 
  • Reporter:  Abbreviate the F.2d reporter per R. 6 (single adjacent caps), R. 6.2(b)(ii) (no superscript, use 2d instead of 2nd) & T.1.
  • Court:  Abbreviate Second Circuit per R. 6, T.1, T.7.  Note that there is no superscript per R. 6.2(b)(ii).


Rule 12 of the ALWD Citation Manual (7th ed.) covers the citation of cases.


  • Case Name - first listed parties on each side (italicized or underlined) (see chart 12.1)
  • Volume
  • Reporter (see chart 12.2, local court rules - Appendix 2, )
  • Page
  • Court and jurisdiction (see Appendices 1 and 4 for court abbreviations)
  • Year
  • Subsequent History (if applicable)


United States v. Prince Line, Ltd., 189 F.2d 386, 387 (2d Cir. 1951).

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