Legal Research

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California Legal Research

How to Effectively Perform Legal Research in California

This guide provides an overview into researching the law in California as well as providing references to materials commonly used in California by legal reserchers, including students and practicing California attorneys.

Secondary sources

State Encyclopedia

The California Jurisprudence (cited as Cal. Jur. 3d), published by Bancroft-Whitney, summarizes California law on a wide range of topics, and cites to key primary sources. It includes West key numbers, an index and various useful tables. It is updated regularly. Each article has a scope note, discusses federal aspects on the subject matter, as well as internal and external cross-references, to other West publications.

This encyclopedia is also available online through Westlaw. For more information on how to cite California Jurisprudence, please see the following:

  • California Style Manual citation format: See Chapter 3, § 3.3.
  • Bluebook citation format: See Rule 15.8 of the 18th edition.


  • Summary of California Law  (published by Witkin Legal Institute). This is useful if you are beginning research on a topic in California law in which you have little or no legal previous experience. Updated regularly, it includes tables and an Index. For information regarding accessing this treatise online through Westlaw and Lexis, click here.
  • There are various subject-specific, California-related treatises also available on Lexis and Westlaw. Students are advised to consult the database scope descriptions for currentness, as it varies from database to database. On Westlaw, they can be found by following this path from the main directory page: All Databases > U.S. State Materials >Other U.S. States > California > Forms, Treatises, CLEs and Other Practice Material. They can be found in the following databases on Lexis: Witkin California Procedure and Witkin California Evidence.

The Summary of California Law is a multiple volume treatise, with each volume pertaining to at least one main area of law, such as Torts, or Constitutional Law. Supplemented by Table of Cases, Table of Code Citations, Table of Constitutions, Table of Rules, Table of Eighth and Ninth Edition Sections, and Index, all of which are located in Volume 13.


If you need to do case law research in print, you’ll generally need to use a digest to identify cases on particular legal issues.

West’s California Digest 2d: This digest covers decisions of California state courts and federal courts located within California as well as federal court decisions as they relate to California law. The 2d series covers cases decided since 1950; for prior decisions, consult the original California Digest. Information is arranged according to West’s key number system.
To create a custom digest in Westlaw that would return federal and state cases including a relevant topic and key number (if there are any cases), follow these steps below:

From the main directory page, click on “site map” located at the center and top of your screen.
Under “Search Westlaw” click on the link to “Key Number Digest: Custom Digest.”
Drill down through the 400 topics and related subcategories. You can either click in the boxes located to the left of the topics, or search by using a specific topic and key number that you already know by entering that information in the search field located to the bottom right of your screen. An example of the format to use is: 8k3 (where the numeral “8” equals the Topic: “Accord and Satisfaction”, and the numeral “3” equals key number: “persons between whom made.”)
If necessary, change your default state jurisdiction to search State and Federal decisions from California. (Choose California through the drop-down menu.)
Note that Westlaw’s Custom Digest defaults to include “ALRs, law reviews, and other references” in your search. For information on when you should consult such types of secondary sources, click here.
Note that you can add search terms to your custom digest, but that it is not necessary to do so to execute your search.


1. Daily Journal Corporation’s Directory of Attorneys: California Lawyers: Prepared in cooperation with the State Bar of California, this directory of attorneys is entirely updated and republished every 6 months.
Directory information is provided for the State Bar and County Bar Associations, as well as the federal and state courts in California.
2. California Courts and Judges: Biographies of hundreds of justices, judges, commissioners and referees, both for California State Courts and federal courts, as well as the United States Supreme Court are provided.

Online Directories

Many directories are now also available online. Below is a list of directories that include California Lawyers, and are searchable by lawyer’s name, with corresponding links. Note that lawyers and law firms pay a fee to be included in some of these directories.

State Bar of California Members
West’s Legal Directory (accessible through FindLaw)
Martindale Hubbell Lawyer Locator
California Lawyer Directory
California Roster (also known as the Directory of Public Officials, it provides information on the public officials in legislative, judicial and executive positions at the federal, state, county, town and city levels.) It is currently maintained by the Secretary of State for California.

Primary sources

Statutes and Legislative History

California’s legislature is separated into two houses: the State Assembly and the Senate. Bills dating as far back as 1993 can be searched online through the Senate’s portal or through the Assembly’s portal. For information on how to cite California statutes, constitution, and constitutional amendments, click here.

The laws of California are categorized into 29 separate subject areas called codes, e.g. “Labor Code” and “Education Code”. The Statutes of California can be found online at the official state web site, with coverage of statutes back to 1993. While the Constitution is searchable only by keyword, statutes are searchable by chapter, year, and keyword. Codes are searchable by keyword only. On the official web site, the California Law Database is updated on January 1st of each year, with all of the new laws that have become effective as of January 1 of that calendar year. Further updates are provided when bills are passed, and upon their effective dates during the Legislative Session. The official web site, due to its update schedule, is more current than Lexis or Westlaw, but Lexis and Westlaw allow for more complex searching.

For information on identifying very recent statutes and pending legislation, click here.

In order to compile a legislative history for a California state law, you may need to consult various resources, in print, online and in microfiche format. Both Lexis and Westlaw offer bill-tracking services as well as legislative history databases for state laws. For more information on legislative history for California state law, click here.

Regulations and Administrative Code

1. The California Code of Regulations is California’s administrative code and is available in print and online. Information is arranged by subject matter into 29 titles. The Office of Administrative Law produces a weekly update with notices of proposed regulatory actions and of new final regulations. Its website makes the administrative code searchable by title and section, as well as by keyword, which can be further narrowed by specific title. A list of titles is also available.

These regulations can also be found online through Westlaw and Lexis.

For more information on state agencies, click here. For more information on Titles not included on the official web site for the California Code of Regulations, see the California Code of Regulations (CCR) website. For more information on the California Regulatory Notice Register, visite the site (

You must update California regulations to be sure you are aware of the most current regulations in force – click here for instructions on updating and information on accessing the regulations update resources.

For a more in-depth reference on researching California Administrative Law, click here (regulations) or here (administrative decisions).

In order to cite regulations in California, please see the following:

Bluebook citation format for California regulations: See T:1: United States Jurisdictions, California, page 201 of the 18th edition.
California Style Manual citation format for California regulations: See chapter 5, § 5:10.

Court Structure and Rules

1. Structure

The California courts follow the same model of court structure as the federal court system with a trial court level and two appellate court levels. The lowest level is known as the “Trial Court”. The first appellate court level courts are called “Courts of Appeal” and the highest court in California is called the “Supreme Court”. California is split into 6 state appellate districts. For more detail on the court structure within California, click here.

a. Online and Print Resources

Court rules are easily found online and in print. In addition to the official web site, they can be found on Westlaw and Lexis (click here for details). Be sure to check the Amendments page of the official web site for up-to-date changes to your particular court’s rules. In print, the rules of court in California along with Ninth Circuit Court Rules are also in Deering’s California Desktop Code Series.

For more information on how to cite Court Rules in California, see the California Style Manual, Chapter 5, § 5:11.

Case Law

1. Online Publication of State Court Decisions, Briefs, Petitions, Pleadings and Motions

The State of California publishes its slip opinions for the most recent 120-day period online. Opinions are available in HTML, Word or PDF file formats. It should be noted that some of these decisions may be superceded within the 120-day period, and thus can’t be cited as authority before California courts. (When a case appears in the advance sheets, but not in the official bound reports, this is known as depublication). Consult the California Citation Guide, and its Table of Depublished Cases before citing to a slip opinion in the California courts. For more information and details on the issue of depublication in California, and how it may affect the cases you are citing to, click here. Further publication of court cases (and briefs) can also be found in the following Westlaw and Lexis databases.

Briefs in California state court cases can be found online throug hWestlaw and Lexis in the following databases:


California Supreme Court Briefs (from 1988)
California Supreme Court Petitions (from 1990, however coverage is selective)
California Court of Appeal Briefs (from 1996)
California Court of Appeal Petitions (from 1997)
California Briefs and Petitions Multibase (from 1986, coverage is selective.) Note that this is a group file, so higher billing charges may apply.
Lexis: (note that for all mentioned below, coverage is from 2000, and selective)

California State Briefs and Motions
California State Pleadings
California State Complex Litigation Motions and Briefs
California State Complex Litigation Pleadings
California State Insurance Briefs and Motions
California State Labor and Employment Briefs and Motions

2. Print Reports of State Court Decisions

Official California reports are titled California Reports and California Appellate Reports. The latter reporter includes selected Appellate Division cases heard in the Superior Court. An unofficial reporter of California decisions is West’s California Reporter. Included in this unofficial reporter are decisions made by the California Supreme Court and Court of Appeals (formerly called the District Court of Appeal).

3. Federal Courts Opinions and Briefs

California falls within the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals. Print copies of Ninth Circuit opinions appear in the Federal Reporter series (F., F2d., and F.3d). In addition to being available on Westlaw and Lexis, online access to opinions of the Ninth Circuit are available at the following free web sites:

The Ninth Circuit’s web site. Opinions are searchable by date and number. Note that unpublished opinions do not appear on the web site. (1995 – current). F.2d pagination is not available here, so consult print or commercial sources for pinpoint citing.

Findlaw. Cases are searchable by Date, Docket Number, Party Name, and Full-Text. (1996 – current). F.2d pagination is not available here, so consult print or commercial sources for pinpoint citing.

Briefs for the federal appellate courts within California can be found online through Westlaw and Lexis. On Westlaw, use the U.S. Court of Appeals Briefs for the Ninth Circuit database. Coverage is from 1973, with some pdfs available. On Lexis, 9th circuit briefs are contained within group files, such as All Federal Briefs and Motions, Combined. For more information on finding court records and briefs, click here. A list of U.S. States Courts Briefs is available here. And there is some information about U.S. States Courts Records here.

The federal trial courts in California include four different districts: North, South, East and Central. Print copies of the published opinions of these courts appear in the Federal Supplement series (F. Supp. and F. Supp. 2d). Each of the district courts in California have their own web sites, which can be accessed by clicking on the applicable links at the Ninth Circuit’s Court Links page, but availability of court opinions on the various web pages varies.

For more information on citing Ninth Circuit and other federal court decisions in California, please see the California Style Manual, Chapter 1, §§ 1:32-1:34. Note that citation to an electronic database is permissible by both the California Style Manual and the Bluebook, when a case has not yet been published in the Federal Reporter or the Federal Supplement.

Citation to California Cases and Determining if Your Case is Still Good Law

Citing primary and secondary authority within California does not strictly adhere to the Bluebook. Thus, it is necessary to review the sources cited below when submitting documents to both federal and state courts in California.

a. California Style Manual (4th ed., West 2000).

Provides citation rules for citing case authority, statutes, rules, constitutions and related materials, legislative history and governmental materials, treatises and other forms of secondary authority, as well as guidance on style mechanics for practicing attorneys and law clerks in California.
While this tool is much easier to use in print, it is also available online through Westlaw’s CASTYLE database.

b. Using the California Style Manual and the Bluebook: A Practitioner’s Guide: (S. Henrich-Wells, West 2000)

The California Rules of Court (Rule 313(e)) allow use of either the Bluebook or the California Style Manual. However, the general practice is to use the California Style Manual in state courts, as that is what the judges use. Those practicing in the federal courts may use the Bluebook unless specifically told to use one citation style rather than another.

Provides general rules, with subsequent citations in formats as dictated by the California Style Manual and then the Bluebook, to show the preference for the California Style Manual.

Tables illustrate the variances in citation format between the two citing authorities.

c. California Citation Guide and Table of Depublished Cases (West 2004).

Information regarding whether a case has been overruled, disapproved or disagreed with by the Supreme Court of California or the Appeals Court, as well as information on which point is the point of disagreement by the particular court.

Contains all overruled, disapproved, reported cases, with citations to the dates, names and Official Reports cites to both those cases, and those overruling or disapproving case decisions.

d. Using Shepards and Keycite on Lexis and Westlaw

For information on how to properly Shepardize a case, visit the Lexis website. For information on how to use keycite on Westlaw, visit this vendor website. Provides reference to any occurrence of a California case being referred to by any other California state or federal court, in any case included within the National Reporter System, including the US Supreme Court, several legal texts, legal periodicals, and annotations.

Legal Newspapers and Magazines

1. Cal Law: California’s Legal News Source, accessible online as a regional link page, and San Diego Law Source, accessible online. A subscription is needed for full access online to Cal Law.

2. Court News: Prepared by the Administrative Offices of the Courts, Office of Governmental Affairs.

3. California Lawyer: Published by the Daily Journal Corporation, it covers news inside and outside of California as California lawyers create it. Produced monthly, it covers developments in technology and corporate counsel, as well as case commentaries and coverage of the latest legal news. An index to articles published in present and past issues is available online at the Daily Journal’s web page through a pull-down menu (be sure to click on the link below the picture of the California Lawyer Magazine). It is available in print and online, but a subscription is needed to have full access to all articles.

4. Legal News on Lexis and Westlaw for California. To see the numerous legal newspapers available online through Lexis, follow this path, starting at the Legal tab: Legal> Legal News > Legal News by Jurisdiction > California > Legal News. To see the numerous legal newspapers online through Westlaw, use the following path from the main directory page: All Databases > U.S. State Materials > Other U.S. States > California > News, Newspapers & Periodicals.
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Other Sources

1. State Bar Association and CLE: Information regarding the California State Bar and corresponding membership requirements for continuing legal education can be found online. The official publication of the State Bar of California is the California Bar Journal.

2. Professional Conduct Rules

For information on the rules of professional conduct and guidelines on legal ethics in California, click here. Additionally, one may want to consult the Rutter Group’s Practice Guide on Professional Responsibility, which can be found on Westlaw through the TGR-CAPROFR database, which has been updated as of 2006.

3. Form Books and Jury Instructions

Your firm or legal association may already have a database of forms to use. In the event that a form does not readily exist within your organization on a particular subject, the California Judicial Council publishes mandatory and optional forms, made available in print and online.

California has adopted plain language jury instructions for use for both civil trials and criminal trials within its courts. While they are not mandatory, they are clearly preferred. For detailed information regarding these jury instructions, click here.

4. West’s California Judicial Council Forms

According to Government Code section 68511, certain forms are required in California and some are “approved.” Use of “approved” forms is not mandatory, but the form that you use must be acceptable to all courts in appropriate cases. Thus, an “adopted” form is a mandatory form, and an “approved” form is acceptable for optional use.

The Judicial Council of California provides fillable forms online at its Self-Help Center. In case you need local county court forms, a link is provided to each of the local county clerk’s offices’ web sites, as well as contact information.

A print compilation of these forms is West’s California Judicial Council Forms, a two-volume set. These forms are also available online through Westlaw at the CAJCF database, although the update schedule for the online database lags behind the print updates. To access the forms online on Westlaw, click here. West’s Annotated California Codes also provide reference notes in italics to necessary forms.

For more specific information regarding to the use of forms in California, please see the research guide prepared by UC Hastings, click here.

Research Handbooks

For more in-depth information about legal research in California, consult the following:

1. Hanft, J., Legal Research in California, 5th ed. (2004). Some national and federal materials are provided, although general focus is on California materials.
2. Martin, D., Henke’s California Law Guide, 8th ed. (2006).

3. The Internet Guide for California Lawyers. The most current edition held by the law library of this guide is from 2001 (3rd edition).

4. Dershem, L., California Legal Research Handbook, 1997. This source is prepared in loose-leaf format, so that it can be updated as the field of legal research rapidly evolves with the advance of technology. Designed specifically for California practitioners, it discusses in great detail California primary and secondary sources, as well as federal primary and secondary sources, focusing on print resources that are easily accessible.