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Legal Studies & Paralegal: Searching Westlaw

Online research guide for Legal Studies & Paralegal majors

Getting Started Searching in Westlaw

Westlaw has a smart search engine called WestSearch.  WestSearch allows you to search in many different ways, including:

  • Natural language (e.g. can unmarried couples adopt children)
  • Keywords (e.g. adoption, first amendment, search and seizure)
  • Party name(s) (e.g. Roe v. Wade)
  • Citation (e.g. 438 U.S. 265)

Westlaw also lets you easily control the jurisdiction (location) when you're searching--you can choose All Federal, All States, specific state(s). 

In between the search box and the search button is the link to change the jurisdiction--the default is All Federal--just click on that and the box to make your selection(s) appears.

In addition to choosing a specific state, you can also 'Include Related Federal' cases by clicking on the box in the lower-left. This will show you if any cases that started at the state level then went further to the federal level.

Westlaw Search Results

When looking at the initial search results in Westlaw, it gives you a large amount of information.  The default view is to start with an Overview of the search results across the various types of content.  On the upper-left, there is listing of the content types and how many results were found in each.  The results in the Overview are what the database search determined are the most relevant results in each content area.

In the example shown below, the search was for the words "first amendment" in Pennsylvania and related federal content.  The first 2 Cases are both in Pennsylvania courts involving First Amendment claims, and the next section, Statutes, displays the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  As you can see in the listing in the upper-left (highlighted in red), there are thousands of cases--you would just need to click on Cases in that section to see only the cases.

After you click on a Case, you will see something similar to the following on your screen:

Items included in the case display include:

  • Names of the parties (in all caps) and other identifying information
  • Synopsis of the case
  • West Headnotes (discussed on the Headnotes and Key Numbers page), which list the main points/topics of law identified in the case
  • Related Topics (upper right, but below the search box)
  • KeyCite information (discussed on the KeyCite page), indicated by the colored flag (red in this instance)

After you scroll down past the West Headnotes, you will find the text of the published case opinion.  Do not mistake the Headnotes for the case itself.

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