Reference from Coast to Coast - The Power of Headnotes

Sue Taylor , Reference Librarian
Katten Muchin & Zavis, Los Angeles, CA


The Power of Headnotes

Welcome to Reference From Coast to Coast: Sources and Strategies, a new monthly column written by the KMZ librarians. Headquartered in Chicago, Katten Muchin & Zavis has reference librarians in Washington DC, Chicago and Los Angeles. There are eight professional librarians who are assisted by a great support staff. The KMZ librarians field questions and participate in research in a myriad of subject areas. This column will highlight some of our favorite reference sources and research techniques in the hope that sharing information  will help you in your day to day jobs. We welcome all of your comments and questions, and would particularly like feedback on sources and strategies that YOU use for research on our column topics. 

Please send comments to the author, or reference@llrx.com

I love headnotes. Without them, my research would take twice as long and result in far fewer relevant cases. Having the ability to search full-text opinions online is great, but, without headnotes, important cases would be missed and I would have to scan too many out-of-context cases.

West has done a fabulous job with its topic and key number system, but this system is not the only one that indexes and digests cases. In my library alone, I have several headnote or indexing systems, ranging from the very small California State Bar Court Reporter to the very large and detailed BNA system.

For federal procedural research, the Federal Rules Service Digest is
invaluable. The breakdown of each rule is meticulously detailed and quickly locates cases on point. Research for a case where a discovery sanction was proper in a particular situation started with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 - Failure to make Discovery: Sanctions. The Federal Rules Service Digest, Rule 37b.28, - "discretion of court" - provided the focus needed to find relevant cases. If I already have a relevant case, I will often find that case in the Federal Rules Service and check which rule numbers have been assigned. I will then return to the digest to locate additional and more current cases.

In California, state cases appear both in the Official Reports and in the West Reporters. Although now both owned and published by West, there are still two different digests for California cases. The McKinney California Digest of Official Reports includes topics that do not even appear as a West topic, i.e., "Agency."  McKinney offers broader treatment on some select topics. For example, with an online and hard copy West digest search, I found no case involving a a distinct power of an arbitrator. However, the broader "Arbitration" topic in McKinney - "18 Arbitrators," while not finding a case with the particular power for which I was searching, did reveal a case involving the broad scope of an arbitrator's power.

However, I do use West headnotes on almost a daily basis. They are even more powerful than other hard copy systems because they are online. My most common search is one restricting search terms to the synopsis and digest fields, also know as "sy,di."  I like the flexibility of being able to combine a headnote, topic or key number with search terms of my own choosing. This ability to create my own set of headnotes can only happen online. For example, when looking for cases that deal with notice to cure a breach of contract I searched "topic(contract)" and then added to the same paragraph, or headnote, various versions and combinations of the words "notice" and "cure."  

Lexis, an online publisher of cases, has recently entered the headnote field with its new Search Advisor - a finding tool for legal materials based on a classification system. These online headnotes should assist users in locating on-point legal authority. But with no hard copy counterpart and limited coverage, it is too soon to evaluate this system.

In sum, just as you should not limit your research to only hard copy or only online, you should not limit yourself to only one digest or headnote system. Finding the perfect case can be difficult, but, with the range of resources available to legal researchers, it doesn't have to be impossible. 

Send any comments and suggestions to reference@llrx.com