Build a Solid Foundation

by Bret Christensen


The other day, my wife suggested that we save money by having me change the oil on our SUV.  Historically changing the oil on my SUV has cost about $80.  After her suggestion, I thought “no problem,” as I’ve been changing oil on my vehicles for decades.  So I went out to buy some oil and a filter and flopped down under the car. Two hours later, I rose up victorious. I know, I know, you’re thinking it took you two hours to change the oil?! Yeah, well, it was my first time with this vehicle; I’ll do better next time.

Do you remember the first time you had to do something?  Maybe the first time you really messed up, the second time not so much, and by the third time, it was old hat. Why is that, I wonder? I suspect it’s because we humans don’t like to look dumb – so we go slow at first to establish a foundation and build up speed.

You know what helps with the foundation thing? Having someone who has experience to show you how to do something. As far as fixing things goes, my dad was a genius.  Some things rubbed off on me like how to fix plumbing around the house, or how to tie a tie, or how to change a tire.

Do you know know to change a tire?  It can be a little daunting (and exhausting) the first time, but believe me, it gets easier each time you do it. By the time I had to change a tire in the rain (on a date, without an umbrella, and in a tux), I had done it a few times and was able to get done lickety split.

To illustrate, let me walk you through guts of changing a tire.  Before starting, it helps to have a pair of gloves on hand (to keep clean and not scuff up your hands) as well as a blanket to kneel on (because pavement is hard — and sometimes hot — on the knees).

  1. Get the spare tire, tire jack, and tools out and ready. Sometimes the spare is in the trunk, sometimes it’s under the vehicle. With a little effort you can get everything out and ready.
  2. Remove the wheel cover. Use the lug wrench (the long, metal thing that looks like an “L”) to help.
  3. Loosen the lug nuts, with the lug wrench, once they are exposed (remember, righty tighty, lefty loosey). Lug nuts are what hold the tire on to the car.  This is going to take some muscle. Without going to much into it, you should loosen the lug nuts in a star pattern (so, using an analog clock, go in a 10, 4, 2, 8, 9, 3 pattern).
  4. Jack up the car. Again, muscle. Newer jacks are easier to operate but it can still be funky. You need to crank the jack up high enough so that the tire is off the ground.
  5. Remove the tire and replace with the spare tire. Again, a little muscle. Be sure to line up the holes with the lug studs.
  6. Tighten the lug nuts firmly in the star pattern until snug (noted in #3, above) using a little more muscle.
  7. Lower the jack and put the jack and tools away (i.e. don’t leave them on the side of the road).

Pretty easy, huh?  Do it a few times and not only will this all be old hat, but you’ll have linebacker biceps. Heck, there won’t be a book in any library you can’t lift. The first time I changed a tire it took me about 45 minutes. The second time, about 30. The other day, I did it in little under 10 minutes. The more you do a thing the better you get, right?

How about how to Shepardize a case in print? Can you do it?  Yeah, yeah, I know there are a lot of Librarians in librarian-land who now (or only) use Shepard’s online via LexisNexis because they think it’s faster, or better, or whatever. The thing is, once you get away from academia there are a whole lot of practicing attorneys who prefer using the books over the online versions. In addition, I’ve found that if all you use is a computer to do your research, then when things go wonky (as they often do), you are less able to make adjustments to find what is needed. Best to establish a solid foundation of understanding so that if you need to, you can jump between print and online resources to find what you need in a flash.

So, let’s try this.  Before beginning a Shepardizing project, it is important to know the  elements of a case citation. I know, this sounds silly to a law librarian but besides helping to keep things straight when going through a Shepardizing project, you’d be amazed at how many new and seasoned practitioners don’t know the elements of a case citation. So, for reference sake, there are, basically, three elements to a case citation:  Volume, Authority, Series (if any), and page number. The “if any” means that there will be a series number only for 2nd and subsequent series. So, if the case you are using is the 1st series, there will be no series number. So, our citation for the day is 4 Cal. 4th 1. This reads Volume 4 of the California Reportsfourth seriespage 1. See how that works?

With that out of the way, there are four steps to Shepardizing a case. The first step to Shepardizing a case in print is to:


Step 1) Locate the correct authority and series, if any. Note here that I’ve pulled the Shepard’s California Citations for the Supreme Court Reports 4th series.  Why? Well, the citation above says we’re looking for California Reports (Cal.), 4th (series).

Step 2) Next, Locate the volume of the case. In this instance, we’re looking for volume 4 (i.e. the first number in the citation). In Shepard’s Citations, the volume is designated by a number in a rectangle.


In this picture, you can see Vol. 4 offset in a rectangle designating the starting point of Shepard’s analysis for this case.

Step 3) Next, we need to Find the page number.  The page we are looking for is page one (1) and it is identified by two hash marks (or m-dashes for you typographers out there) on either side of the number. Makes it look kinda like Frankenstein’s monster. Please tell me you know who Frankenstein is (It is sad how few students know this.).

Anyway, look for a number that is designated with hash marks on either side like the pictureshep3 to the right. See, it’s right under the volume designation. Of course, it helps that its the first page. When the case number is something like 498, you’re going to have to hunt around under your designated volume. Just remember that you are looking for a number with two hash marks on either side.

Some things to note on this step. First, is the page number with the hash marks, then the name of the case (in this case Rangel v. Interinsurance Exchange of the Automobile Club of Southern California), followed by the year the case was decided (1992), followed by the parallel citations in parenthesis. In this instance, there are two parallel cases referencing the California Reporter (CaR) and Pacific Reports (P).

shep4Finally, (and Step 4), Locate Judicial History and Treatment of the case.  This is identified by the little letters noted on the left column of each referenced citation. The citation “signals” appearing next to a case name indicate whether the decision has received positive, negative, cautionary, or neutral treatment in subsequent judgments. In this instance, note the d, e, #, f symbols to the left of each citation. To help you understand these little notations, Shepard’s has provided a table that can be found toward the front of the book with the headings “History of Case” and “Treatment of Case.”


In this  instance, “f” indicates that the citing opinion relies on the case you are Shepardizing as controlling or persuasive authority.  The “d” indicates that the citing case differs from the case you are Shepardizing, either involving dissimilar facts or requiring a different application of the law.  The “e” indicates that the citing opinion interprets or clarifies the case you are Shepardizing in a significant way.  Finally, the “#” indicates that the case you are Shepardizing is merely used as a reference and is dicta.

All that is left now is to pull the case(s) to see how subsequent courts dealt with your case.  See, easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

The thing is, I’ve been changing tires for years now; decades, even.  When I first tried (or when I first start anything), it seemed like it took me forever.  But by doing it a few times, I built up my confidence and am now able to change a flat tire with reckless abandon because I know the mechanics of the thing.

It’s like that in law and legal research.  The first time you start, you thrash about like a drowning person.  The more you conduct research, the better prepared you are for your next research project, and the next one, and the next, etc.  The more resources you touch, the more times you use things, the better you get and the more confidence you’ll have when things go sideways.  Soon enough, though, you’ll gain the skills and knowledge you need to be successful until you become a vintage, dyed-in-the-wool legal researcher – and isn’t that what we all aspire to be?  I know, I do.



About mrlibrarian7

I am a law Librarian. No, I don't have thick, black glasses, a bun in my hair or a pointy nose - but I do provide killer legal reference to anyone who walks, rides, crawls, or otherwise gets through the front doors.
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