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Basic Legal Research

Creating Your Terms & Connectors Search Query - Terms

Keep in mind the following tips and techniques when crafting your query. Again, each database handles the specifics of how to do a task differently, but they all contain variations on the following:

Eliminate "stop words" from your search terms:

  • These are commonly-used words (such as of, in, on, the, if).
  • Your database may not search these terms at all (even if included in a phrase) and including them may even cause your search to fail.

Allow for word variations:

  • Use synonyms.
    • There are often multiple ways to describe the same concept or object.
    • Search engines are "stupid" in that they will generally only look for exactly what you tell them to look for. For example, if you are looking for information related to cars but fail to include the term "automobiles" in your search you will only retrieve documents that have the word "cars" in them even though documents containing the word "automobiles" are relevant to your topic. 
    • To get around this shortcoming when creating your search, you need to account for all the ways in which your concept or object could possibly be described by someone.
       
  • Specify any relevant word variations. In addition to thinking of multiple terms, you need to think of all the possible ways the terms describing your concept or object may vary, including variations such as plurals, possessives, compound/hyphenated words, variations in spelling, or acronyms.
    • Plurals: Understand how your database searches single, plural and possessive forms of a word. Account for the spelling of irregular plurals (child/children, man/men, woman/women) through the use of truncation, wildcard characters, or by connecting like terms with OR.
    • Hyphenated terms: Accommodate for variations where a hyphen may be used, not used, or replaced by a space, such as e-mail/email or cost-benefit/cost benefit.
    • Acronyms: May be entered with or without periods so include both variations. Always also include the spelled out version of the abbreviation. Example: NLRB could also appear as N.L.R.B. or National Labor Relations Board.
    • Truncation: locates variations of a term without having to spell out all possible variations. There are two main forms of truncation:
      • Root expanders: picks up variations, without limitations on the number of letters, at (usually) the end of a word. For example, a search on "medic" followed by the database's truncation symbol will also search medics, medical, medicine, medicinal, etc.
      • Universal characters: used to substitute for one or more letters in the middle or at the end of a word. Unlike a root expander, a universal character specifies the exact number of letters to be replaced or the maximum number of letters that can be replaced. Useful for irregular plurals (bus/buses), verb tenses (grew/grow), and spelling variations (theater/theatre).

Creating Your Terms & Connectors Search Query - Connectors

After identifying relevant terms and modifying them to accommodate variations, you now need to place the terms in a logical relationship to one another. The lists below explain connectors in use in most databases. Note that there are advanced connectors in each database that are not listed below that may be useful in specialized situations. Consult the database's documentation for more details.

  • Phrase searching:
    • Use quotation marks to surround phrases. Be cautious when using phrase searching, because it can eliminate documents that do not contain the exact phrase but are still relevant. For example, a search on the phrase "procedural due process" would not find a document containing the sentence "the due process violation was procedural in nature." Good uses of phrase searching include:
      • Latin or other foreign phrases that are always said the same way, e.g., "habeas corpus."
      • Spelled out versions of acronyms, e.g., "environmental protection agency" for the abbreviation E.P.A.
  • The OR connector:
    • Will retrieve documents containing, one, any, or all of the terms connected by it. Use of OR by itself may produce an unmanageably high number of results. Good uses of OR include:
      • Connecting similar or alternate terms (that are then connected to the rest of the search by another connector)
      • Combining two entirely different searches - this is a cost effective way of searching more than one concept at a time
  • The /N [numerical] connector:
    • This tells the database that you want the words on either side of the connector to be up to N words of each other, where N is a number between 1 and 255.
    • The number does not count stop words, so you may need to increase the value of N somewhat, e.g., if you want your words to be within 3 words of each other, you may need to use /5 to account for usage such as "and the" "of the" and the like between your two search terms.
  • The /S [sentence] connector:
    • The /S does not refer to a literal sentence, but is considered a grammatical connector. Lexis and Westlaw assign an approximate number of words (around 20-25) to a "sentence" and use this number to process the search.
    • The /S connector does not take the beginning or ending of actual sentences into account so your results may actually appear in more than one sentence. In effect, /S is like using the numerical connector /20 or /25.
  • The /P [paragraph] connector:
    • Like /S, /P is considered a grammatical connector, and like /S, it has no relationship to a literal paragraph. Lexis and Westlaw assign an approximate number of words (around 150) to a "paragraph" and use this number to process the search.
    • The /P connector does not take the beginning or ending of actual paragraphs into account so your results may actually appear in more than one paragraph. In effect, /P is like using the numerical connector /150.
  • The AND connector:
    • The AND connector will return documents containing terms or groups of terms connected by it, regardless of where the terms appear in the document. This can lead to a large number of irrelevant results if not used carefully but when used appropriately it can be a powerful way to limit your results to relevant documents.
  • The NOT connector:
    • This connector may be implemented in some online services as "AND NOT" or "BUT NOT." The concept is the same: to eliminate all documents that contain the term(s) following the NOT connector.
    • For example, "dogs BUT NOT cats" will eliminate any documents containing the word "cats." However, it will also eliminate any documents that discuss both dogs and cats, which may be relevant to what you are looking for. For this reason be judicious in using this connector.
    • If used, the NOT connector should go at the end of the search to avoid eliminating other parts of the search. See the Order of Processing discussion for more details about how the placement of a NOT connector can affect the results of a search.

Order of Processing: How Westlaw & Lexis 'Read' Your Search

The "order of processing" is part of the logic Westlaw and Lexis apply when running your search. You know how you want your search to be interpreted by the system but you must structure your search so the search system can carry out your intent.

The examples in this section demonstrate how connector use and search structure can greatly effect your search results. When preparing a search it is a good idea to think through the order of processing to ensure your search will be processed the way you intend. Otherwise you risk wasting time and money on a search that does not give you the results you are seeking.

In a terms and connectors search (see boxes above), Westlaw and Lexis will process your connectors in the following order:

  1. Phrases or words in quotation marks
  2. OR
  3. /N [numeric connector]
  4. /S [sentence; grammatical connector]
  5. /P [paragraph; grammatical connector]
  6. AND or &
  7. The various "NOT" connectors: BUT NOT or AND NOT or %
  • If every connector in the search is identical (e.g., all /P or all /5) the search will be read from left to right. Otherwise the search will be read based on the type of connector.
  • If all connectors are numerical but the number differs (e.g., /5, /10, /25, etc.) the connectors will be processed from lowest number to highest number.
  • If connectors in a search are all grammatical (e.g., /P, /S) the /S (sentence) connectors will be processed before the /P (paragraph).
  • If the connectors in a search are a combination of numerical and grammatical, then numerical connectors are processed first (lowest to highest) followed by grammatical connectors in the order /S before /P.
  • If a search contains parentheses, the contents of parentheses are processed first. If the search contains multiple sets of parentheses, the parentheses are processed from left to right. The order of processing is completed within each set of parentheses before moving on to the next set of parentheses or to any connectors outside the parentheses.

Connectors are processed in sets. The system looks at the term (or the set, if a search has already been run) that is before the connector and the term or set after the connector. It then finds documents meeting those criteria to create a (new) set.

Order of Processing Example: Numeric Connectors

If all connectors are numerical but the number differs (e.g., /5, /10, /25, etc.) the connectors will be processed from lowest number to highest number.

Sample Search 1: stray /30 cat /5 adopt!

cat /5 adopt!  = Set 1

stray /30 [Set 1] = Set 2

  • The system first searches for documents containing the word "cat" or "cats" (assuming the system automatically applies plurals) and any words with the "adopt" stem (adopt, adopting, adopted, etc.) that are within 5 words of each other. It creates a set of documents (Set 1) that meet those criteria.
  • The system then looks at the documents in Set 1 and identifies any documents that contain the word "stray" appearing within 30 words of the criteria for Set 1.

Changing the connectors, even when using the same terms, can result in a different set of documents. 

Sample Search 2: stray /5 cat /30 adopt!

stray / 5 cat = Set 1

[Set 1] /30 adopt! = Set 2

The results in Sample Search 1 emphasize adopted cats (because the words are in closer proximity) with less emphasis on the concept of "stray." The results in Sample Search 2 emphasize stray cats (again, because these words are searched for with closer proximity) with less emphasis on the concept of adoption.

Order of Processing Example: Grammatical Connectors

If all the connectors in a search are grammatical (/S or /P) the /S (sentence) connectors will be processed before the /P connectors.

Sample Search 3: liab! /P employ! /S scope

employ! /s scope = Set 1

liab! /P [Set 1] = Set 2

 

Order of Processing Example: Both Numeric & Grammatical Connectors

If the connectors in a search are a combination of numerical and grammatical, then numerical connectors are processed first (lowest to highest) followed by grammatical connectors in the order /S before /P.

Sample Search 4: assault /50 deadly /S weapon /P broken /2 bottle or knife

bottle or knife = Set 1

broken /2 [Set 1] = Set 2

assault /50 deadly = Set 3

[Set 3] /S weapon = Set 4

[Set 4] /P [Set 2] = Set 5 (final result)

Changing the Order of Processing with Parentheses

There are times you will want to change the default order of processing to achieve your research goals. You can use parentheses to force the system to group certain terms and connectors together. Both Lexis and Westlaw will look at what is enclosed in parentheses and process that portion of the search first before processing the rest of the search string.

If a search contains parentheses, the contents of parentheses are processed first. If the search contains multiple sets of parentheses, the parentheses are processed from left to right. The order of processing is completed within each set of parentheses before moving on to the next set of parentheses or to any connectors outside the parentheses.

Sample Search 5: assault /50 deadly /15 weapon /150 broken /2 bottle or knife

bottle or knife = Set 1

broken /2 [Set 1] = Set 2

deadly /15 weapon = Set 3

assault /50 [Set 3] = Set 4

[Set 4] /150 [Set 2] = Set 5 (end result)

The above search will retrieve documents dealing with assault with a deadly weapon where the weapon involved is a broken knife or a broken bottle. More likely the desired result was documents dealing with assault with a deadly weapon where the weapon involved is a knife or a broken bottle.

Sample Search 6: assault /50 (deadly /15 weapon) /150 (broken /2 bottle) or knife

deadly /15 weapon = Set 1

broken /2 bottle = Set 2

[Set 2] or knife = Set 3

assault /50 [Set 1] = Set 4

[Set 4] /P [Set 3] = Set 5 (final result)

This search will find documents involving the use of a broken bottle or of a knife.

Using "Search Within Results" to Improve Search Accuracy

The Search Within Results feature allows you to run a search within an already determined set of documents. It is available in most databases in both Westlaw and Lexis and requires the use of Terms and Connectors searching.

Your initial search may have resulted in a very large set of documents related to your research goal. Rather than attempting to read through potentially thousands of documents, Search Within Results lets you create a new search containing additional terms, connectors, and/or fields or segments and run it against your document set. This is the point in the online research process where looking for similar factual situations can be helpful. You can also search for documents within the set that only meet a single criterion.

Sample Search 7: Using the All Federal Cases database, you have run the following search:

product or strict /3 liab! /P vehicle or car or auto! or truck

This search returned a substantial number of documents. Using Search Within Results, you can limit your results further to only those cases where General Motors is a named party. (The exact syntax for entering GM as the named party varies by database).

Once you have your GM search results, you could then search within that set of results for additional criteria (for example, cases involving brakes).

When using Search Within Results you can always cancel or exit out of the more specific search. This allows you to go back to view documents from the original result list or to go back to the original result list so you can create a new Search Within Results search.

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