California Legal Research

Use this as a guide to researching California law using any of these three tools: Legal encyclopedias/treatises, Annotated codes, or Case Digests.

The Legal Encyclopedia/Treatise Approach

Use this approach when you're starting your search with just a legal concept or a few legal terms, but no citations. 


What is a legal encyclopedia?

A legal encyclopedia provides researchers with a fairly broad overview of a legal subject. Legal encyclopedias are very similar to the general encyclopedias that you encountered when you were younger, such as Encyclopedia Brittanica. They are arranged alphabetically by legal topic, and each legal topic is discussed in a section that includes citations to related legal materials on your topic. 

California's legal encyclopedia is called California Jurisprudence, 3d (abbreviated "Cal Jur 3d"), and it's published by the West Group. There are over 70 volumes in the set, and it's arranged alphabetically by legal topic. To help you find relevant sections, Cal Jur 3d has a subject index, a table of cases, and a table of statutes. The volumes are updated with both supplemental paperback volumes (usually shelved to the immediate right of the volume that they supplement) and pocket parts (located inside the back of each volume). You can find Cal Jur 3d in Mabie's California Collection on the library's first floor (Call Number = KFC80 C29).

How do I use California Jurisprudence 3d?

  • First, brainstorm some useful search terms for your topic. For example, if you know that you need to find cases and statutes about the creation of easements in California, you probably want to start your search with the term "easement."  
  • Find the subject index (called the "General Index") and look for your topic. The General Index is a multi-volume paperback set, which you can find at the end of Cal Jur 3d's bound volumes. Entries are in bold, capital letters. If you're unable to find an entry for your term, try to look up synonyms for that term. Sometimes, the index will help you by directing you to a different entry with a "See" reference. For example, if you try to look up the term "Civil Procedure Rules," you'll find this reference in the index:

Civil procedure rules, See index heading FEDERAL RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE

This entry directs you to look up "Federal Rules of Civil Procedure" instead of "Civil Procedure Rules" to find relevant articles.

When you find a promising entry, you'll see citations to Cal Jur 3d articles and sections underneath the entry as well as topic subdivisions. 

  • Locate your article and section in Cal Jur 3d. Sometimes, the article titles are abbreviated in the subject index, so you might need to check the Table of Abbreviations at the front of each index volume to decipher an abbreviation. Once you've identified the article title, look on the spine of the Cal Jur 3d volumes and find the volume that will contain your article. Turn to the article and find the section number referenced in the subject index, and be sure to check the pocket part or paperback supplement for your volume to determine if your section has been updated recently!   You'll find the following information in the section's text:
    • References to relevant case law;
    • References to California statutes and regulations;
    • West Topic and Key Number references (discussed in more detail below under "The Digest Approach");
    • Other references to practice guides, American Law Reports (ALR) annotations, and other sources.

What if I want to find useful Cal. Jur. 3d articles online?

Westlaw's California Jurisprudence database (CAJUR) contains the full text of Cal Jur 3d. You can review the table of contents for every Cal Jur 3d article, by clicking on the "Table of Contents" link at the top right of the CAJUR search screen. If you need help, just ask a librarian.

What is a treatise?

Treatises are books that analyze and explain particular areas of the law. Treatises can consist of a single volume, but some treatises have multiple volumes. They're useful as a starting point for legal research because they contain an in-depth explanation of a legal topic as well as numerous citations to case law, statutes, law review articles, and other relevant sources. Generally, treatises contain more detailed discussions of legal topics than legal encyclopedias. 

Witkin Treatises

For more information on Witkin Treatises check out the research guide, How to Use Witkin Treatises.

Bernard Witkin's original one-volume treatise on California law has grown into a 32-volume set, consisting of these four titles:

  • Summary of California Law (10th edition): Arranged by major legal topics, such as torts, real property, constitutional law, corporations, and trusts. (Call Number = KFC80 W5)
  • California Procedure (4th edition): Arranged to reflect the progress of a civil lawsuit, the first volumes discuss jurisdiction and other preliminary pre-trial matters, and later volumes discuss topics such as trials, judgments, and appeals. You'll also find information about the practice of law, including topics such as attorney ethics, discipline, and the attorney-client relationship. (Call Number = KFC995 W53)
  • California Evidence (4th edition): Covers both civil and criminal evidence topics, including discovery, hearsay, burden of proof, and scientific evidence. (Call Number = KFC1030 W5)
  • California Criminal Law (3d edition): Covers substantive crimes, defenses, and criminal procedure topics, such as arrests and pretrial proceedings. (Call Number = KFC1100 W57)

You can find all four Witkin sets in Mabie's California Collection on the library's first floor. You won't find all four sets on the same shelf, so be sure to check the call number for each set or ask a librarian for assistance in locating the set you need.

How do I use Witkin treatises?

Find the subject index and look for your terms. There is a combined subject index that covers all of the contents of the four titles listed above. This combined index is a paperback volume found at the end of Witkin's Summary of California Law. 

When you find a promising entry, you'll see references to the volume, Witkin title, chapter, and section number that you need. For example, an entry might appear like this:

3 Criminal Law, Punishment, §445

To find this item, you would look for Volume 3 of Witkin's Criminal Law, then find Section 445 in the chapter called "Punishment" within that volume. As with Cal Jur 3d, be sure to check the paperback supplement or pocket part for your volume to find out if your section has been updated since that volume was published!

What if I want to use Witkin's sets online?

All of the Witkin's sets are available on Westlaw:
WITSUM: Summary of California Law
WITCRIM: California Criminal Law
WITEVID: California Evidence
WITPROC: California Procedure

WITKIN: All four sets in one database.

They are also available on LexisNexis in the following files:
WITSUM: Summary of California Law
WITCRM: California Criminal Law
WITEVD: California Evidence
WITPRO: California Procedure

WITKIN: All four sets in one file

What are some other secondary resources that I might use to research my topic?

You can also use California Forms of Pleading and Practice (Call Number = KFC1010.A65C3).

This 56-volume set, published by Matthew Bender & Co., is both a treatise and a practice guide. It functions as a treatise because it provides thorough discussions of all California civil practice areas, including torts, business and commercial matters, real estate, public administrative law, and family law. Additionally, the set serves as a practice guide by providing forms and sample documents that attorneys can use to prepare documents for their clients. 

How do I use California Forms of Pleading and Practice?

You'll find the two-volume subject index at the end of the set. Locate your topic search terms in the index, noting "see" references and heading subdivisions. When you find a relevant heading, note that it will list either chapter and page or chapter and section references. Chapters contain a synopsis, a scope note, legal background information, a research guide, and forms. You'll see citations to legal authority on that topic in the legal background and the research guide sections.

You can also find California Forms of Pleading and Practice on LexisNexis. The name of the LexisNexis file is CAFPAP.

Subject Guide