Digests provide access to case law in the following ways, by subject using the Descriptive Word Index, by case name, by Key Numbers, by Words and Phrases or by browsing. The most commonly used digests are the West's digests, which are a part of the West National Reporter System.
Use the factual situation to determine specific terms that best describe the legal situation you are researching. Next, look the terms up in the Descriptive Word Index located at the end of each digest set. Once you find your term you will see the topic and key number assigned to your search term.
Next, look up the topic and Key Number in the bound volumes of the digest. Look at the spine of the multi-volume set for your topic and key number. Remember that your topic may fall alphabetically between the topics listed on the spine. After you select the correct volume find your key number in the text.
If you already have one case that is on point look the case up in "Table of Cases" located at the end of each multi-volume set. Next to the case name you will find a list of the topics and key numbers from the head-notes assigned to that case.
West's publishers created a hierarchical subject index of the law found in West's Analysis of American Law. The index is divided into 450 topics. Within those topics are subtopics and each of the subtopics has been assigned a Key Number. Then, as cases are sent to the reporter's, West editors review the cases and write head-notes for each major point of law. The headnotes are assigned one of these Key Numbers and then reprinted in the digest according to their Key Number.
To learn more review Westlaw's Topic and Key Number Quick Reference Guide.
The WORDS AND PHRASES section lists alphabetically words or phrases that have been judicially defined in the cases indexed by the Digest, and sets out the headnotes, titles, and citations of the cases in which such definitions appear. (Taken from West's Pacific Digest Beginning 585 P.2d IV)
Go to the topic at the beginning of each volume and browse subjects index included. Browse the topics until you locate the topic you want. For example, if you know your issue is a habeas corpus issue, you can select the volume on habeas corpus and browse the index until you identify the specific terms you need.
Resources such as A.L.R., Am Jur 2d, C.J.S., and West annotated statutes all provide references to relevant topic and Key Numbers. You can take these key numbers to the digest and find related cases.
1. Check the years of coverage of the bound digest volumes. Earlier digest series are supplemented by later digest series. Current digests are supplemented by pocket parts and pamphlets.
2. When you are using a current series of a digest be sure to check your topic(s) and key number(s) in the pocket part as well as the bound volume. If there is no pocket part, look instead for a free-standing pamphlet that updates that particular volume.
3. Look for supplementary pamphlets at the end of the digest set that update the annual pocket parts for the entire digest set. If you find some, check the appropriate topic(s) and key number(s).
4. Check the "Closing with Cases Reported in" section at the front of the most recent pocket part or pamphlet used so far. Find the West case reporter that likely to have cases on your digest topic
5. Go to the case reporter that you identified in step 4. Look in the digest sections in the back of all bound volumes and the front of all advance sheets beginning with the volume number listed in the "Closing with Cases Reported in" section of the digest to see if any recent cases have appeared under your topic(s) and key number(s).
6. Don’t forget to Shepardize or Keycite your cases.