The West Digest System

One of the most often asked questions this time of year is about digests and how to use them. The digest system is designed by West Publishing. West organizes the law into over 400 subjects and assigns those subjects “topic numbers.” Within those topics are subtopics which West has assigned key numbers. It is organized like an outline, with points and sub-points. It is no more complicated than that other than how many key numbers the editors manage to include! The idea is that once you have a topic number and a key number you can access another west digest and find cases regarding the same legal subject. 

To use the digest in print, start with the “Descriptive Word Index” volumes located at the tail end of the volumes. Remember to think of keywords and synonyms. Note any topics and key numbers and then look them up in the main volumes. The main volumes are arranged alphabetically by subject and the subject alphabetical ranges (not all subjects) are on the spine of each volume. Also, remember to check the pocket parts for any updates.

The digest is also available on Westlaw. Select the “KEY NUMBERS” link on the top of any page to go directly to the key number search page.  You have 3 options. First, you can enter keywords to search for related topics and key numbers. Second, you can browse the entire outline of topics and key numbers by clicking on the “West Key Number Digest Outline”. Clicking on a key number results in a list of headnotes including KeyCite indicators with links to cases. Third, you can launch a key search. You can also easily change jurisdictions searched by using the pop-up menu on the page.Thomson-West has more information about its key number system at

You can also listen to or read a transcript of CALI”s LibTour on West’s Digests.