It's usually most efficient to use this approach when you have located a West Topic and Key Number that relates to your legal topic OR when you've found an important case about your topic. However, you can also use this approach if you're just starting with a legal concept.
A digest is a large compilation of case law summaries, which are initially categorized into fairly broad topics, then subcategorized again into much more specific topics. Digests are NOT cumulative – they only cover specific periods of time. For example, West's California Digest covers cases decided between 1850 and 1950. West's California Digest 2d covers cases published from 1950 to present.
West's California Digest and West's California Digest 2d (KFC57 W41) cover both reported California state cases and federal cases decided within California from 1850 to present.
The West Topic and Key Number system is a classification system that West developed to organize case law. West's digest volumes are arranged in alphabetical order by broad topics, like "Constitutional Law" and "Contracts." Each topic is further broken down into smaller subtopics, each of which is assigned a key number. It helps to think of each key number as representing a very specific and discrete legal concept within a broader legal topic.
When you're using the print digests, topics are listed in bold capital letters. Key numbers are preceded by a key symbol. The topics are listed in alphabetical order on the spines of the digest volumes. When you find the volume that you need, open it and look for your topic and key number at the top corners of the volume's pages. Once you've found the right pages, make sure you've found the beginning of the key number by looking for the key symbol and your number within the volume's text, which signals the beginning of the case summaries for that particular key number.
Westlaw assigns numbers to topics online, so you will need to use a number instead of a topic name in your Westlaw search queries. Additionally, the key symbol is replaced with the letter "k." Here's an example of what a West Topic and Key Number would look like on Westlaw:
In this example, "92" is the number assigned to the topic, "Constitutional Law." The "k" stands for the key symbol. Finally the actual key number is 90(3).
NOTE: Because West is the creator of the West key number system, it is not used on Lexis.
What if I don't have a topic and key number when I begin using the digests?
You can use the descriptive word index at the end of the digest volumes to find some topics and key numbers relevant to your topic. Think of some relevant search terms, then look them up in the index to determine which topics and key numbers West has assigned to that particular concept.
What if I just know the name of an important case about my research topic?
You can look up your case in the "Table of Cases" at the end of the West digest volumes to find out which topics and key numbers are associated with your case. To find additional cases, simply review each assigned topic and key number listed under your case.
Yes. Because the online version is updated much more frequently than the print digests, we recommend checking your West Topic and Key Number online to be sure that you've found the most recent cases that have been assigned to that number.
Follow these steps to browse the West Topic and Key Number system online and find California cases assigned to particular numbers:
Can I browse the West Topic and Key Number system in print?
Yes. West's Analysis of American Law (KFC57 W41) is a soft-bound volume that is located at the end of all digest volumes. You can review a broad topic until you find the most relevant key numbers for your research problem.
Does the West Topic and Key Number system change over time?
Yes. As the law evolves, West adds and deletes topics and key numbers. If you're trying to use a West Topic and Key Number that you found in an older case for research, you may have trouble finding it, particularly if you're using the print digests. The best way to update an old topic and key number is to use Westlaw: