Wednesday, May 30, 2012

50 State Surveys

50 state surveys compile citations to statutes and regulations of more than one state on a particular subject. In the past, compiling 50 state surveys was a very time-consuming task. Before the widespread use of online legal resources, researchers had to examine each state print resource and locate the appropriate statutory language. Complicating this laborious task was the fact that many states refer to the same legal concept with different legal terminology. For example, while some states use the term "Statute of Limitations" to refer to the law that bars claims after a specified period, other states use "Nonclaim Statute" or "Limitations Period." Although a little easier online, this issue of terminology still presented difficulties.

Thanks to competition among various online resource providers, there are now a multitude of sources that have done the tedious work for you. Many of these resources include helpful state-by-state analysis tables. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that there has been a compilation on your specific topic, but it's worthwhile to check these sources first. One additional caveat is that the fee-based sources can be cost prohibitive if you do not have an academic subscription.



The SURVEYS database contains a variety of topical surveys providing references to applicable state laws. Tables in PDF format, where provided, include summaries and legal analysis for important subtopics with related statutory provisions. You may be able to search narrower databases by subject, such as family law, depending on your subscription. 

Searching in SURVEYS, I found numerous results for same-sex marriage, including a Table of Defense of Marriage Statutes and Constitutional Provisions. 

You can image how long it would take to compile this table from scratch.

Lexis has a few sources that compile state laws, which means you may have to look in more than one source.

  • 50 State Surveys of Statutes and Regulations presents general statutory and regulatory provisions covering the designated topics. Each survey contains links to relevant codes and regulations on a particular topic.
  • Multi-Jurisdictional Surveys with Analysis are compilations of key information about important legal issues in banking, business, commercial (UCC), corporate, environmental, family, insurance, international, labor & employment, litigation practice & procedure, real estate, tax, and torts. Each survey includes the citation reference and a summary of the rule or regulation, with practice insights as available. 
  •  Legal Research Center Surveys are compilations of key information about important legal issues across all fifty states provided by Legal Research Center, Inc.  They give the researcher the ability to compare the rules and regulations across jurisdictions.

Subject Compilations of State Laws (1960-2012) helps researchers locate records for items of significance for state statutory research. If the item is available on HeinOnline, there will be a direct link.


This database contains the full text of every bill in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Congress for the current session. You can pick from a selection of available 50 state surveys.

Wex provides an outline of topics that covers the broad array of state statutes available on the internet.


Although you may be tempted to stop researching once you find a 50 state survey, remember that you MUST update the sources to be sure there were no legislative changes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Terms and Connectors Searching

Last time, I talked about the “mystery” of putting words into a search box, and the database returning documents that it thought you would want.

There is a way to override this algorithm, and in effect supply your own algorithm for finding documents. This is called "terms and connectors" searching. Describe the characteristics you are looking for in a document, and the database will return every matching document, no questions asked.


The “terms” are the words or phrases for which you are searching. These can be a mix of legal concepts and facts related to your fact pattern. Usually a database will give you a way to specify a phrase, like “dead cat bounce,” which has a much different meaning as a phrase than as three individual words.

Another way to manipulate terms is to use wildcards and root expanders. For instance, if you are looking for cases involving drunk driving, you might search for cases that mention someone being intoxicated. You would also want cases that mention intoxicating beverages. Don’t forget cases that refer to a level of intoxication. You could run different searches for each of those words, but many systems, including Westlaw and Lexis, will allow you to use a root expander and search for “intoxicat!” with the exclamation mark representing any number of letters after the phrase. Thus, it would include words like intoxicate, intoxicated, and intoxicatesque. (No, that is not a real word, but it doesn’t matter! If it were ever used in an opinion, the database would find it for you.)


George Boole, of "Boolean logic" fame
Rarely will you ever search for just one term.  Consider a fact pattern with an intoxicated bicyclist. Searching for either just “bicycl!” or “intoxicat!” is going to return many cases that aren’t really on point with what you need. How can you create a search using multiple search terms? Connectors! Databases use Boolean logic to assess your query. The most common connectors are AND, OR, and NOT. Note that while these concepts are constant across databases, the actual syntax used to make the query, like using an ampersand in place of the word AND, can vary.


If you want cases that are about intoxicated bicyclists, you probably want cases that use both terms. Connecting them with a simple AND will return only those documents with both terms appearing at least once.


“Intoxicat!” is a good way to find variants of the word “intoxicated,” but it still won’t find the word “drunk.” A case may use either word to refer to a bicyclist’s state of inebriation, so you would want to find cases with either. For this, use the OR connector, and the database will return anything with either term. This is a typical way to search for terms with common synonyms. Connecting terms with OR almost always returns more results than connecting terms with AND, and it never returns fewer results.


Occasionally, one term will be strongly associated with several other terms, like "helmet" with both "bicycle" and "football." If you find yourself getting too many cases about football helmets when you search for “helmet,” you can specify the results NOT to return cases with the word “football.” In this case, that would probably not eliminate any useful cases, but be mindful of unintended consequences when using NOT.

Proximity (within same sentence, paragraph, one word before the other, etc.)

Some databases, including Westlaw and Lexis, allow you to search for cases by the relative positioning of two terms. For instance, you can search for cases where “bicycl!” is in the same sentence as “intoxicat!” That would indicate that the document is more likely to be about an intoxicated bicyclist than one that mentions intoxication once and then a bicyclist twenty pages later.

How to do a Boolean Search

With newer systems, like WestlawNext and Lexis Advance, it can be hard to find exactly where to do a Boolean search. WestlawNext now considers it an "advanced" search. The search format is different than in traditional Westlaw too. (see below)

You can also use all of WestlawNext's "Connectors and Expanders" by starting a search in the Universal Search box (the search box at the top of every screen) with "advanced:" and then your search in parentheses.

In Lexis Advance, you can put Boolean terms directly into the search box, and the search will be treated as a terms and connectors search. Look at the search tips for the proper syntax.

The list of documents returned for any of these searches may be chronological or it may be alphabetical by something like a party name or section title. WestlawNext defaults to ranking the list by relevance using its own algorithm, but you can change that default.

Wrap up

With experience, both the natural language and "terms and connectors" methods of searching will become second nature. Law school is the best time to gain this experience, when you have such economical access to legal databases. And no matter how the syntax and algorithms behind searching changes, or varies between databases, knowing the fundamental principles behind retrieving information from legal databases will serve you well throughout your career. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Browsing the virtual library shelves

When you're doing research at home, or you just don't feel like getting up to see what else the library might have on the shelves, and yet you want to see what else might be available in the library you can always do a quick keyword search in Wildpac under "Search now." But if you have a book from the library with a call number you could also do a Call Number search to find what might be sitting on the shelves right next to where you're original work came from. To see this in action click on the "Call No." link to the right on the Wildpac page:

Just add the base of the Call Number that you can find on the spine of the book. Try searching KF4819 for a book on immigration.

 The resulting list will be all the 89 titles that start with that base call number:

 Of course some of these titles are in the D'Amour Library, but they are all available to you. Some may even have their "Table of Contents" pages available where you can get a good idea about what is really in that particular title. A similar search on KF750 will bring up 171 titles on estate planning; a search on KF4754.5 will bring up 92 titles on gay rights. Another benefit of doing this is that you get to see everything in that range, whether or not it is in the third floor collection, reserve, or even reference. And since the Law Library classifies nearly everything into the law classification area, more materials will show up in these specific areas than in most other libraries, and you don't have to leave wherever you are jsut to browse the shelves.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Researching Legal Ethics

Law students do not always learn the process of researching issues in legal ethics. This is an important skill for students to develop, as it is a complex process and requires legal resources beyond the more traditional sources, such as cases and statutes. The authority in ethical issues are the rules that govern the conduct of attorneys and judges. States adopt these rules based on model rules adopted by the ABA; the latest version of these standards is the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC) and the Code of Judicial Conduct. Additionally, state and national bar associations have systems in place to enforce their rules through disciplinary proceedings and through bar interpretations in the form of opinion letters. There are both formal and informal opinions: formal opinions are those the ABA considers pertinent to a majority of attorneys, while informal opinions are issued when the ABA feels there will not be general interest.

Familiarizing yourself with the following resources will inevitably be useful to you throughout your entire legal career.

One Hundred Years of Ethics

The ABA adopted the original Canon of Professional Ethics in 1908, which was replaced by the Model Code of Professional Responsibility in 1969. This Code was then replaced by the MRPC in 1983, adopting the current arrangement of eight subject areas subdivided into many individual rules. Following each of the MRPC's Rules is a comment that analyzes the Rule.

Current Rules and Opinions

The ABA's Center for Professional Responsibility provides free access to the MRPC. Also included at this site is a listing reporting on state adoption of the Rules and links to state ethics rules and opinions. Commentary, legislative history, and a comparison of the Rules to the Restatement of the Law Third - The Law Governing Lawyers (the American Law Institute's first endeavor to sythesize ethics law).

LII's American Legal Ethics Library also provides free access to state Rules or Codes, Ethics Opinions, and Judicial Conduct Codes and other legal ethics material.

Of course, Westlaw and LexisNexis also provide access to the text of the MRPC, although Westlaw also includes the more useful annotated version.
Bloomberg BNA's ABA/BNA Lawyers' Manual on Professional Conduct is another excellent source, providing the full text of ABA formal and informal opinions and synopses of state bar ethics opinions, along with recent developments of note.

Note that state ethics rules are traditionally enacted as part of the state's statutes or the state's court rules, and can be located in these customary legal resources. Be cognizant of rule sections where the state has adopted a modification from the Model Rules.

Disciplinary Proceedings

Violating ethics rules can land an attorney in a disciplinary proceeding. Some states digest hearing results in their state bar journal; others have no formal publication process for these decisions. Analysis of ethics violations is mainly found only in appellate court opinions. The ABA/BNA Lawyer's Manual on Profressional Conduct, occasionally reports rulings from state disciplinary hearings, in its Current Reports section.

Staying Current


It is important to keep up to date on this topic by checking state bar websites for any proposed rule changes, following legal ethics blogs, such as and Legal Ethics Forum, and monitoring law journals, such as Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics and Journal of the Legal Profession.