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Northern Illinois University
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David C. Shapiro Memorial Law Library

Basic Legal Research

What are Shepard's & KeyCite?

Researcher with magnifying glassBefore you present any document to the court (or anyone else), you must be certain that the information on which you are relying is still current.

Running a Shepard's (Lexis), KeyCite (West), or BCite (Bloomberg) report will help you determine whether the cases or statutes to which you are citing are still good law. (Note: for purposes of this discussion we will focus on Shepard's and KeyCite, though BCite offers similar features.)

Shepard's, KeyCite and BCite are examples of online citators.

  • A citator allows the researcher to enter the citation to a particular case and discover all documents that cite that case to determine if its decision is still considered good law or if it has been reversed, overturned, superseded, vacated, or treated negatively to such a degree that it should not be relied upon.
  • Some citators also allow the researcher to verify that statutes, court rules, constitutional clauses or other documents are good law.

A Shepard's or KeyCite case law report will provide references to two types of case law citations:

  • History citations are cases that are directly linked to the case being Shepardized or KeyCited, e.g., a prior or subsequent decision.
  • Treatment citations are cases that have cited the case being Shepardized or KeyCited, but they are not directly connected. These decisions may follow, distinguish, or disagree with the cited decision, among other things.

A Shepard's or KeyCite report can also be used for research purposes.

  • The results list from either service will provide you with many other cases to look at in support of the issue at hand.
  • If you are doing statutory research, KeyCite and Shepard's reports will also identify new or pending legislation.
  • Note, however, that the services may not catch cases or legislation indirectly overruling a case.

Both Lexis and West allow the researcher to use the Search Within Results feature to search within the results of the Shepard's or KeyCite report and narrow your search to specific issues or factually similar information using a terms and connectors search. This feature is useful when there are hundreds or even thousands of documents in the results list.

While Shepard's and KeyCite provide similar services, there are some features and search capabilities that are unique to each. Refer to your Basic Legal Research coursepack or the vendor's documentation for more information.

Citator Symbols

Both Shepard's (Lexis) and KeyCite (West) rely on similar (though not identical) sets of symbols to indicate the status of cases. These symbols are called signals in Shepard's, flags in KeyCite and indicators in BCite.

Red symbol: indicates the case is either bad law on at least one point of law or has had a significant amount of negative treatment.

  • Lexis: a red symbol is not an automatic indication of bad law. It may be bad law, but the case may have just had significant negative treatment.
  • West: a red symbol indicates the case is bad law on at least one point of law. However, other parts of the decision may still be valid. You will want to look at the subsequent case law that overturned, reversed, or otherwise negatively treated the case to determine the status of the decision.

Yellow symbol: caution. Both Lexis and West use this symbol very liberally.

  • A single negative action in a completely unrelated jurisdiction can cause a yellow symbol to appear.
  • Actions that may trigger a yellow symbol include, but are not limited to, distinguished, criticized, explained, or questioned.
  • You will want to look at the cases that caused the yellow symbol to appear but do not be surprised if the negative action is very minor or remote to your case.

Other symbols: Shepard's and KeyCite use a variety of symbols to indicate cases that indicate positive treatment, neither positive or negative treatment (e.g., explained), are on appeal, or other statuses. Refer to each vendor's documentation for fuller explanations.

When looking at a Shepard's or KeyCite report, the only relevant symbol is the one before the case name/citation that you are Shepardizing or KeyCiting. The symbols before the other cases retrieved in the report are not relevant. Those symbols simply indicate whether the cases that relied on your decision are still good law.

Important: do not rely on the symbols as the sole source of information. It is important to identify whether the citing case had any significant effect on the decision being Shepardized or KeyCited. A decision overruling a case on an issue different from the one you are researching may still provide useful information.  You must read the cases to make your own determination of the citing case's effects on the decision at hand.

Always Update Your Research (Video)

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