FROM A FORMER LAW LECTURER
To Help You Survive Law School
Law students are often clueless as to how they can find new case law simply because the universities hardly ever provide the right guidance on this. Although looking for new cases might appear to be complicated, it is actually quite simple. Here are four steps which will help you to quickly find the relevant case law for your exam revisions and law papers.
Step 1: Inspect your lecture slides
When attempting to find the relevant cases many law students jump straight into Westlaw or LexisNexis, typing in random phrases which they hope will give them a list of cases they can use in their law assignment. But this strategy often leads only to confusion and unnecessary reading. The best way to identify relevant cases is to start at the beginning - with your lecture slides.
The lecture slides usually list the most important cases on each topic which you will need to study for your exams to get a first. For that reason, they are a very good starting point when it comes to finding case law. Most lecture slides list around 6-10 cases, which is more than enough for you to have a decent exam law revision.
Lecture slides can help you to easily find the names of the cases which you should be studying for your exams, but they are unlikely to include explanations of what the cases were about. You can attempt to get those explanations by taking notes during lectures. But if your lecturer didn’t cover some of the cases during the lecture, it’s time to reach for your textbook and skim through it to find the facts and decisions of the cases you noted from your lecture slides.
Step 2: Look through the textbook
Apart from providing you with the facts and decisions of the cases you found in your lecture slides, scanning through your textbook is also an excellent way to find any additional cases on the topic. This is particularly useful for students working on their law assignments which require you to discuss more than the 6-10 cases from the lecture slides.
While scanning through the relevant chapter in the textbook for the first time try to find and highlight the cases which were mentioned in your lecture slides. Once you do that, read through the parts in the textbook which discuss those cases and look for any other cases which they might be mentioning.
When working on an essay of around 2,500 words, you should try to discuss at least 10-12 cases. If your lecture slides mention only 5 cases, you can use this technique to find the remaining 5-7 cases along with the explanations of their facts, decisions and points of law. Scanning through the relevant parts of the textbook chapter will also help you to find the right keywords that you can use when looking for articles on Westlaw or LexisNexis.
Note: for a video demonstration of how you can easily scan through textbooks check out the 1st Class Law Essay Writing Course.
Step 3: Look through journal articles
But before you head to Westlaw or LexisNexis, you can still try your luck with a few selected journal articles which might be discussing case law that is highly relevant to your assignment topic but was not discussed in the textbook because of space limitations.
You can find the relevant journal articles in which to look for case law suggestions in your university materials. Typically, lecturers list around 4 to 5 journal articles per topic which the students can check out if they want to expand their reading. Those might be listed in your lecture slides, the module guidebook or somewhere else on the module page of the university’s student portal.
Once you identify and download those articles, don’t feel obliged to read through them in full. A quick scan of each article should be enough to help you spot the cases which were mentioned in your lecture slides or textbook, along with a bunch of new cases. Reading through the part of a journal article discussing the new cases will help you to understand whether and how they might be relevant to your coursework.
Step 4: Find case law reports on Westlaw or LexisNexis
If you are working on a particularly recent topic (i.e. anything within the last 5 years), it might be the case that no journal articles were published on it. In such a situation, you will be forced to find the relevant case law by using Westlaw and/or LexisNexis.
If you are required to do that, you will first have to come up with a list of keywords which you can use to search for cases. Those keywords should be words typically associated with the area of law you are researching. You can take a guess at what those keywords might be by noting down phrases which often show up in the textbook chapter on the topic.
Otherwise, you can use a few existing case reports to find those keywords. In order to do that, you should find on Westlaw or LexisNexis the case reports of 3 to 4 cases mentioned in the lecture slides. At the beginning of each case report you will see a section called “Keywords” which will be listing several keywords typically used in this area of law.
Compare and contrast the keywords in all of those case reports and pick two or three which were used in all or most of the reports. Once you have those keywords, you can use them to look for new cases on Westlaw or LexisNexis which are likely to be relevant to your assignment.
Note: the 1st Class Law Essay Writing Course contains a detailed video demonstration of how to use Westlaw and LexisNexis to find the right cases and journal articles.