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Zotero for Legal Scholars

Using Zotero

Zotero is a reference manager. It can store, manage, and cite bibliographic references, such as books, articles, cases, and government documents. Zotero can also be used for collecting and organizing research information and sources, and sharing them with others.

Desktop Client

The main point of interaction with Zotero is the desktop application, which is available for Windows, MacOS, and Linux. The desktop client is the main place most users interact with their sources after saving them, and it can be used to organize and annotate sources, as well as creating bibliographies and viewing documents. Information added to the desktop version is automatically synced to the cloud at (document syncing is limited to 300MB for free accounts, citation information syncing is unlimited).

Web Version

By logging into your account at, you can access your saved and synced research from anywhere with an internet connection. Free accounts can save 300MB of documents to the cloud, and that amount can be increased by paying an annual fee. This applies only to saved documents, such as downloaded PDFs and screen-capture from websites. The citation information itself is unlimited.

Browser Plugin

Zotero’s browser plugin, called Zotero Connector, is available for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. The plugin appears as an icon at the top of the browser that looks like a Z in a new tab, and then takes the form of the detected document type once you navigate to a source, so it will look like a book when on a catalog record or Amazon book page, and an article when looking at a journal article. Clicking the link will save the source to Zotero, including citation information, as well as PDF downloads and screenshots if available.


Zotero’s citation extraction tool works with most databases legal scholars use, including MNCat, HeinOnline, LegalTrac, Google Scholar, SSRN, JSTOR, most other academic databases, Amazon, as well as online articles like news stories or blogs. Zotero can sometimes extract metadata from PDFs or Word documents posted on the web, though this depends on the document having the metadata included in the first place. The notable exception is that Zotero cannot extract document information directly from Westlaw, Lexis, or Bloomberg Law, though it can save documents in those databases as websites.


Because legal scholars and practitioners often do much of their research in proprietary legal databases like Westlaw, Lexis Advance, or Bloomberg Law, it is important to many to find workarounds to use these tools with Zotero.

Add manually

The first option is to add citation information to Zotero manually (see the next section). This can take two forms. One is to keep the desktop version of Zotero open while conducting research and create a new record from scratch whenever you come across a document (such as an opinion, court document, or journal article) that you wish to save.

The other option is to use the browser plugin to create a record, which will only include the URL to the page you’re on, and fill out the rest of the citation information. This can be useful if you want to save several documents during a research session and then go back to fill the rest of the information later, but there are two caveats. First is that it is not easy to check to see if the documents are being saved correctly, since the title of the document won’t appear. The second is that Zotero will save the document as a web page, and will style the citation as a web page unless you manually change it to the correct document type.

Download PDF and let Zotero extract citation information from file

Another option is to save the document as a PDF, which will usually include metadata Zotero can read. This is an added step, but it comes with the added benefit of creating a file that can be saved for future reference.

Look the case up in Google Scholar and save the case there

Finally, for case law and scholarly research in particular, you can take the documents you have found in Westlaw, Lexis Advance, or Bloomberg Law, pull up those citations in Google Scholar and save from there, since Google Scholar provides citation information in a format Zotero can use.

Manually Adding Items

While it is usually fastest to use the browser plugin to create records in Zotero, it is worthwhile to learn how to create them manually. This is one way to create records from Westlaw and Lexis, and it might also be the fastest way to add books.

To create a new item, click the “new item”button, shaped like a green circle with a plus sign, and select the type of item you’re adding. Getting this right is important (though you can always change it later) because it will determine what kind of information you can enter about the item, and how Zotero will format citations to that item. Next, simply fill out as much citation information as you need in the form that is now displayed to the right of your citation list. At a minimum, enter enough information to allow you to find the source again, but ideally you should add all of the information that will be included in a citation to that item in whatever citation style you will be using.

The information will be saved as you type, so there is no need to manually save the item when you’re done.


One of the most useful features of Zotero is the ability to organize sources into folders called ‘collections’. You can organize your sources however you like, but my recommendation is to have a collection for each project, and subcollections for different sections or topics within that project. It can also be helpful to keep an “archive” collection to put completed projects in once they’re complete.

To create a new collection, you can either right-click your library on the left side of the desktop version of Zotero and select “New Collection”, or you can click the “New Collection” icon above that panel. Name your new collection something that makes it easy to identify. To create subcollections, either right click the collection you want it to be organized under and select “New Subcollection”, or drag one collection into another to nest them.

As a reminder, whatever collection or subcollection you have selected on the desktop version of Zotero is the place new items will be saved when using the browser plugin.

Annotating Sources


Items can be assigned tags, which are named by the user. An item can be assigned as many tags as you like. Tags are added or removed with the tag selector at the bottom of the left pane or through the Tags tab of any item in the right-hand pane.


Rich-text notes can be attached to any item through the Notes tab in the right-hand pane, or by right-clicking the item and selecting “New Note”. They can be edited in the right-hand pane or in their own window. Notes are useful when triaging items to determine how and where they will be used, to pull out quotes, or to create descriptions that can remind you how the item is relevant to your research.

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