Skip to Main Content

Northern Illinois University
College of Law
David C. Shapiro Memorial Law Library

Basic Legal Research

Overview of Online Research

There are currently three main online legal research systems. Each system provides access to primary and secondary legal materials as well as materials such as newspapers and business reports not directly related to law.

  • LexisNexis (also called Lexis or Lexis Advance) is owned by Reed Elsevier, Inc., and is a part of the corporate family that publishes LexisNexis print products as well as print products under several other publisher names, including Matthew Bender.
  • Westlaw is owned by Thomson Reuters and is part of the corporate family that produces West print products.
  • Bloomberg Law is owned by Bloomberg and is part of the corporate family that produces BloombergBNA and Bloomberg Books in print.

There are several important points to remember when using any of these services.

  • Not everything is online. While a significant amount of legal materials can be found through the online services, not everything is available online, and each of the services contains different materials. There will still be times when you need to use materials in print.
  • Searching a legal research system is very different from an Internet search. You will need to familiarize yourself with what is available in each system and to develop specific research skills to locate relevant materials effectively. It takes time and practice to learn to craft a search that is neither too broad nor too narrow.
  • Legal research systems are not resources in and of themselves, just a means of accessing resources.
    • You do not cite to Westlaw, Lexis or Bloomberg, but to the specific resource you found on Westlaw, Lexis or Bloomberg.
    • For example, if asked where you found a particular Illinois statute, it would be incorrect to say "I found it on Westlaw." The correct response would be "I found it in the Illinois Compiled Statutes using Westlaw."
  • Online research is not always faster. Because of the breadth and depth of the information in these services, you may need to spend a lot of time going through results to identify the most appropriate materials. The correct/best/most useful information may not always appear on the first or even second results screen.

General Process for Developing a Search

  1. Use your fact pattern analysis to define the issue(s) you need to research.
  2. Identify the appropriate source(s)/database(s) for the information you need to find.
  3. Determine your search method for the source -- do you need to use a terms & connectors search? A citation search? To browse/search within a particular topic?
  4. Construct a search query.

Step 1 is described in more detail on the Fact Pattern Analysis page. Steps 2 through 4 are described in more detail below.

Indentifying Appropriate Sources for Your Search

From your fact pattern analysis (and consultation with secondary sources) you should have a better sense of what kind of information you are looking for. 

Be clear on the type of the information you are seeking before delving into specific sources. Selecting an inappropriate source will result in wasted time and money. For example, if you have a common law (case law) issue, then searching an annotated code database will not locate information relevant to your issue.

Ask yourself the following questions to help determine which source(s) will meet your needs.

1. What location/jurisdiction is relevant to your issue?

  • State:
    • Which state/states
  • Federal:
    • District (trial court)
    • Circuit (appellate court)
    • Supreme Court
  • Specialty Court (e.g., bankruptcy, tax, military)
  • Other

2. What type of information do you need?

  • Case law
  • Statutes
  • Administrative regulations or decisions
  • Explanatory/background information (secondary sources)
  • Other

Finding Sources in Lexis and Westlaw

Be aware that the major legal research services default to allowing the researcher to enter a search that is run across all content in the service.

  • The researcher is then expected to narrow the results by document type, jurisdiction and other factors. This can be confusing to the beginning researcher. 
  • For example, if you have a common law issue and run a default search, you may see results from statutes and regulations that contain your search terms. However, these sources are irrelevant to your case law issue and should not be used as authority.

Instead of running a default search, attempt to identify specific databases within the service that are most likely to contain the information you need. Each database handles this slightly differently, but in general you will be able to browse by or within categories of databases (cases, statutes, court rules, etc.) or search for a specific database if you already know what you need (e.g., Illinois Compiled Statutes).

Once you have selected a potential database to search, always check its dates of coverage. This is especially important if you are looking for very new material or older material. Lexis and Westlaw include "scope notes" that will at least identify the starting date for the database in question.

Determining Your Search Method

The major legal research services offer several approaches to finding information in their databases. For details on how each service handles these types of searches, refer to your Basic Legal Research coursebook and Blackboard site.

Topic-based searches: methods include browsing topics or subjects created by the legal research service and the ability to run searches within a specific topic. Individual databases, such as statute databases and secondary sources, may offer indexes that can be searched or browsed by topic to identify relevant information within that specific database.

Terms and connectors searching: This type of searching will be the course's focus this semester. It allows the researcher to create a search containing terms relevant to the topic at hand, and connecting these terms via Boolean logic. When used knowledgeably, it allows the researcher to create sophisticated and targeted searches to identify the most relevant documents.

Field-specific searches: Every document in Lexis and Westlaw has been broken up into smaller, searchable components. On Lexis, these are called "segments." On Westlaw, they are called "fields." Examples of these searchable components include party names and judge or attorney names. Segment/field searching allows you to develop more narrowly tailored searches in various ways.

  • You can use segment/field searching in the "Search Within Results" feature available in both services.
  • You can connect a segment/field search to the rest of a terms-and-connectors search by using the AND operator.
  • You can build a terms-and-connectors search within a segment/field search.

Caution: Lexis and Westlaw also offer natural language searching, which is a Google-like feature that attempts to create a terms and connectors search from whatever is typed in the search box. Natural language searching will usually deliver very imprecise results and should generally be avoided.

© 2024 Board of Trustees of Northern Illinois University. All rights reserved.