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Navigating Law Books and Reports

published January 18, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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Collected reports of cases are periodically published under the direct authority of the courts that issue them. They are known as the "official" reports. Copies of official reports are also commercially published and distributed.

Besides appearing in book form, the reports are also available through computer services. By punching a few keys, a busy lawyer can quickly pull a case; directly incorporate some of the text into a document then in preparation; have a personal law library available whenever needed; and eliminate expensive shelving and storage space. Even though things have become easier as everything is now available through computers, it is still necessary to know how to look up cases the old-fashioned way.

Navigating Law Books and Reports

Every case in the reports has a title which shows the name of the parties, which court issued the opinion, the year of issuance, and where the case can be found. This information is translated into cryptographic numbers and letters called a citation.

Here's how it works:

“In 1924, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided the case of Hanson v. Johnson. Its opinion is reported in Volume 161 of the official Minnesota State Supreme Court Reports beginning at page 229. It is also reported in Volume 201 of West's Northwestern Reports at page 322.” The full, formal citation is Hanson v. Johnson, 161 Minn. 229, 201 N.W.322 (1924).

Often you will see a citation like 14 Cal 3d 62, or 38 F2d 641. The 3d means that in California there are three series of State Supreme Court reports, each of the first two series having a large number of volumes. Similarly, F2d refers to Federal Reporter, Second Series.

There is a unique citation for every case, and if a case is reported somewhere, it is possible to locate it. Law schools have reports for the entire United States. Most also have the old English cases, which are still valuable for tracing the historical development of legal principles. The bigger the library, the more it has available. Through the library exchange system it is possible to get a copy of almost any case that is reported.

In your study of cases, you may come across a situation where the particular jurisdiction in which the case arose has a practice of reversing the names of the parties on appeal. If you are not aware of this possibility, you may be confused when you try to put the facts together with the holding. In the trial court, the name of the plaintiff (the person who started the suit) appears first. In some appellate courts, the same case name is retained: in others, the appellant's name is first. The latter situation existed in the Hanson case, cited above. Fortunately, the text of the opinion made it easy to determine who the plaintiff was.

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Something else that may cause confusion is the New York practice of referring to the county level trial court as the Supreme Court and its judges as "justices." The highest court in New York is known as the Court of Appeals. It is staffed by justices. In most other states the highest court is called the Supreme Court and is also staffed by justices.

In the old English reports, the name of the set of reports is usually taken from the name of the person who edited the series. Sometimes it is taken from the name of the court. Many of the cases show the plaintiff as Rex v. —, or Regina v. —. This does not mean that Rex and Regina were unusually litigious persons. "Rex" means "King"; "Regina" means "Queen". In the United States, the title State v. — or People v. — is used when the state government brings a lawsuit and United States v. — when the federal government does.

By the way, here is a bit of one-upmanship to put into your portfolio. From 1790 through 1874, the first 90 volumes of the collected opinions of the United States Supreme Court were not numbered consecutively. Instead, like the old English reports, they were named after the reporter of decisions who issued them and given small clusters of numbers as they were published.

You should, early on, become aware of a book on how to do legal research: how to find out what the law is in some particular area. It will contain a good discussion of the various reports and statutes, sample pages that illustrate the materials referred to in the text, and detailed descriptions of all the methods used to look up the law. You will probably find it in the reference section of the law library. Should you decide to buy one from the several available, check to be sure that, if your school gives a legal research course, it is the book that will be used in that class. But scan some of the others anyway. You may find one that is easier for you to follow.

Along with the reports, you will be exposed to a number of different types of law books. You should become familiar with them as early as possible in your studies.

When the reporter of decisions edits a volume of the reports for publication, the legal points involved are summarized at the beginning of each case in short sentences called headnotes. Each headnote is given a consecutive number, which is then inserted into the running text so a reader can quickly turn to that part of the case which may be of special interest. Here are examples of typical headnotes:

The Constitution of the United States is a solemn compact between the States, to be enforced by State legislation, or by judicial action; and State officers whose duty it is to adjudicate or execute the laws are governed by it; and being a part of the supreme law of the land, it is a part of the law of each State.

A wife may impress a homestead on premises held in joint tenancy by herself and her husband, as well as upon his separate property; and once the wife impresses premises with a valid homestead, the husband is without power to destroy it except in the manner provided by statute.

Digests contain headnotes arranged by subject. Each headnote has the citation to the case it came from. Within the legal subtopic under which the case appears, the headnote frequently contains some factual information to illustrate the context that engendered this particular bit of law.

West Publishing Company writes its own headnotes. Each of these, besides being numbered to a specific part of the text, also has a special number called a Key Number. Each Key Number refers to a particular subsection of some branch of the law. All headnotes having the same Key Number are grouped together, so it is possible to quickly find similar cases from the same jurisdiction, or any broader area which is covered by the digest. Since all West publications use the same system, you can use the Key Number to find what other jurisdictions have done with the same problem. At the back of the digest, there is a table of all cases referred to in the compiled headnotes. Also, this table will direct you to the places in the digest where these cases can be found.

When you are using a digest, remember that it contains only the cases for the period of time and the jurisdiction or geographic area that it covers. In other words, if you are in the New York Digest, you will not find any Ohio case listed or described.

If you have a citation for an American case, there is a valuable series known as Shepard's Citations which you can use to find cases in point. These books contain tables of numbers. Get the volume of Shepard's for the state or area you are interested in, turn to the volume number of the report in which your case appears and then run down the column until you reach the proper page reference. There you will find a citation to every place where your case is mentioned. Different symbols are printed next to each of the new citations telling whether points in the original case were overruled, agreed with, distinguished, or modified.

Textbooks give an analysis of the law in one subject, such as contracts, torts, corporations, or criminal procedure. Some are in one volume, others are in sets. Frequently the same author writes a one-volume textbook to complement the casebook you are using in class. Generally, each case mentioned in the textbook is summarized in a sentence which gives the pertinent holding in the case. The citation is given in a footnote.

There is a useful series of textbooks known as "hornbooks" which have lead paragraphs or sentences in boldface type emphasizing some principle of law, followed by a discussion citing the relevant cases in point.

Legal encyclopedias are multi-volume sets containing discussions of practically every phase of every law subject. Some cover all states, others only one.

In the old days all law books were published with tan leather bindings. Today, they come in all colors. One of the legends floating around concerns a highly respected lawyer who worked for a firm for fifty years. Every day he would arrive, unlock his desk, look carefully at a little piece of paper, mutter to himself, and then carefully lock the drawer again before commencing his work. One day he died. All the young lawyers rushed over to his desk, broke the lock, and read the piece of paper to find the secret of success the old man had kept hidden for so many years. It said: "West is blue, Deerings is red."

Along with the general group of textbooks is a series called Restatements of the Law. These are written by a national assembly of law professors, who watch changes occurring in existing legal principles and then write a suggested interpretation which they hope will be adopted across the country. One of the best things about the Restatements for law students is that they contain a number of factual situations written in simple language to illustrate the point the authors wish to make. A word of caution, however: “do not read the technical explanations too early into your schooling. You will find them totally confusing because of your limited experience. Just look at the boldface type and the short examples.

The law is divided generally into two parts: constitutions, statutes, ordinances, regulations, on the one hand; and what the judges say these mean—their interpretations—on the other. Judge-made law, found in the opinions in the reports, is sometimes referred to as "modern common law."

The laws and ordinances enacted by Congress, state legislatures, county boards of supervisors, city councils, district commissions, and so on, along with the administrative regulations of operating departments of these branches of government, are set forth in books known as statutes, codes, ordinances and regulations. Annotated volumes have citations to pertinent cases.

Law reviews are periodicals put out by the different law schools. They usually contain one or more long articles by experienced lawyers and professors on various legal subjects, along with notes written by students covering recent developments in the law. The students with top grades act as an editorial board and under faculty guidance, publish the law review. If you are asked to write for the law review, do it. The experience is terrific and the prestige may help you get a good job after graduation. Law review articles contain excellent background information about areas of the law you may be concerned with and will also give you ideas on new trends and concepts. Ideas in law review articles are often adopted later as the basis of court decisions.

Law review articles and notes are thoroughly researched and give a fairly good list of important cases related to the main issues discussed. Generally, there is a citation to every statement made. Whenever you have a spare moment, read those articles that apply to the courses you are working on. The best way to find law review material which relates to a subject in which you are interested is to look it up in the Index to Legal Periodicals or one of the several computer services.

You may have occasion, while going through some form of internship, to draw up pleading and practice documents or various types of legal agreements. There are various collections of form books available for models. While you are browsing through your school library, thumb through a few of these volumes so you know what is available. Always remember, if you do use them, that they are only samples. Do not get trapped into following them slavishly, word for word.

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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published January 18, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 4 votes, average: 3.7 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.