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.
There are several important points to remember when using any of these services.
Step 1 is described in more detail on the Fact Pattern Analysis page. Steps 2 through 4 are described in more detail below.
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?
2. What type of information do you need?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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