Using Digests in Legal Research

Have you tried searching for legal cases by randomly typing in key words in a database? Searching this way can be time consuming and is often unsuccessul. Instead, try using a West digest that provides you with specific subject headings.

Thomsen West, a publisher of legal materials developed a key number system that assigns key numbers to subject headings. In the law library we have Virginia and West Virginia Digest in print. This digest is a multivolume set and the subjects, with their assigned key number, are listed alphabetically.

Using the Virginia and West Virginia Digest allows you to search for Virginia and West Virginia state cases by subject, but what if you need to broaden your search? Using the Westlaw Database at the Headquarters Branch will help you expand your search. Log in to Westlaw on the legal research computer in the law library. After logging in, click on the Key Number heading at the top of the page. At the next screen you will see that you can either type in a subject or browse the West Key Number Digest outline. I recommend browsing the outline because it is often difficult to pick the exact terms the publisher used.

After finding your subject, either click in the box beside the subject to select it, or if there is a + beside the subject heading, click the + to expand the list and see if there is a subtopic that is more specific. After selecting your subject or subjects, at the bottom of the page you will see a button that says Search Selected. At the next screen you will be able to search either the most recent or most cited cases.

You can also choose to search either a specific state, such as Virginia or all state and federal cases, or by topic. When you need to broaden your search, select all state and federal cases. If this search returns too many cases, in the left menu you have the option to edit your search. At this point you could either search only Virginia cases or look for a more specific subject.

If you have questions, call or stop by the law library!