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Legal Research Process

What are 50 State Surveys?

50 state surveys compile citations to statutes across states on a particular subject, eliminating the need to search each state’s laws individually. Conducting a multistate survey of state laws can be time-consuming, in part because state codes do not typically use the same terminology for similar issues. These surveys often include state-by-state analysis tables to facilitate comparisons of commonalities and differences. If you can find a survey on point, then most of your work should be double checking its currency.

NB: There are also 50 state surveys of regulations available on Lexis and Westlaw.

When to Use 50 State Surveys

You may need a 50 state survey to persuade a court to your client's side by demonstrating a legal consensus on an issue. A survey can also help deepen your understanding of the law in your own jurisdiction.

How to Find 50 State Surveys

Useful sources include:

  • Bloomberg Law
    • > Practice Centers > __ > BNA State Comparison Charts: available for selected topics such as Labor & Employment law
    • > Practice Centers > __ > Practice Tools > Chart Builder (a kind of custom DIY 50 State Survey)
  • Lexis Advance > LexisNexis 50 State Surveys, Legislation & Regulations (login required) (start typing in main search box and auto-recognition will bring up database, along with link to view Table of Contents)
  • LawAtlas: The Policy Surveillance Portal: focused on public health topics
  • National Conference of State Legislators
  • National Survey of State Laws
    • Online: Westlaw > Statutes & Court Rules  > 50 State Statutory Surveys (login required)
    • Print: Reference: KF 386 N38 2008
  • Subject Compilations of State Laws: Reference: KF 1 S92
  • Uniform Law Commission (ULC): aims to bring uniformity to state laws by proposing model legislation (previously known as National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws)
  • Also, check different advocacy groups' websites. For a listing of organizations and their websites, see The Encyclopedia of Associations at PCL or online through Lexis (login required).

If you cannot find a survey, one alternative is to look at Westlaw, Statutes > Topical that shows the major titles involved state by state for a given area of law. This helps narrow it down somewhat. For more ideas, check out Harvard Law Library's Comparing State Laws and Constitutions guide.

A related topic is researching initiative and referendum laws in the mainly Western states that allow law by popular vote. For guides to the different states, see Legal Reference Services Quarterly's volume 26, issues 3-4 (2008).

Strengths & Weaknesses

General Strengths:

  • Efficiency. Save time by searching all 50 states at once.
  • Even if there is no specific need for a 50 state survey, it can be useful to look at one that is on point to better understand nuances within your own jurisdiction.

General Weaknesses:

  • There is no guarantee that a survey exists on the topic you need.
  • These surveys are just a starting point; statutory citations still need to be verified and possibly updated.

Strengths and Weaknesses by Source:

  • Lexis and Westlaw: Both have fairly extensive 50 state surveys on a wide variety of legal topics. 
    • Easiest place to double check currency of statutory citations.
    • Make sure you understand cost of accessing it under your workplace's contract. 
  • National Survey of State Laws: A one-volume set that summarizes and cites to state statutes on 45 topics in 8 broad categories. National Survey does not have the depth of coverage of Subject Compilations, but if you are dealing with a major topic like capital punishment, minimum wages, or child custody, you will probably find the answer faster in National Survey.
  • Subject Compilations of State Laws: Each annual volume is organized by topic, and lists books, law reviews, websites, and other documents that contain a 50 state survey on some topic. This source can often be helpful because of its broad coverage. However, because new volumes do not cumulate, the Subject Compilations usually requires researchers to consult several volumes to find all of the relevant listings for a single topic.
  • National Conference of State Legislators: Sometimes you can find 50 state survey information on the free web and this is one of those places. This is a good place to go to find emerging topics that have recently been addressed or are in the process of being addressed by state legislatures. NCSL contains links to 50 state surveys on a wide array of topics. However, you should check the revised date for these surveys because some may not have been updated for some time.
  • Uniform Law Commission (ULC): Limited to uniform laws, which may or may not have been adopted in a given state.