Research Guides

TMLL Research Guide - Chapter 2


There are two basic approaches to searching for documents on Lexis and Westlaw.  Terms and Connectors searching, which you can access from the advanced search link, combines search terms that describe your issue into a query using Boolean logic.  The Boolean search mechanisms available on both services give a sophisticated set of proximity connectors beyond the standard AND, OR, and NOT.  Conventional wisdom is that this is usually the preferred method of searching if comprehensive results are desired, that is, if your goal is to find all the cases or other sources on a topic.  Natural language searching allows you to enter your query as an ordinary sentence or phrase and is the default method for searching in Lexis Advance and WestlawNext.  Natural language searching is usually regarded as more appropriate if you are looking for a sample of relevant cases or secondary sources as part of more general preliminary research.  Some studies are showing that the two methods of searching produce comparable results.

Both Lexis and Westlaw publish manuals, some written expressly for law students, which provide extensive explanations and examples of techniques for online research.  Copies of current editions of these manuals are usually available from the vendors’ student representatives, or ask your instructor about availability.

Define your issues

Just as with general electronic searching, you must first determine the issues raised by your problem.  If you generate your Internet search on-the-fly, the only cost is your time and perhaps your connect charges.  If you generate your Lexis or Westlaw searches on-the-fly you are incurring significant charges from the vendor as well.  Identifying the legal issues involved may require some background reading and research.  It is very difficult to formulate an effective terms and connectors search if you are unclear about what your issues are. Sometimes a natural language search can help you to find some background information.

Select search terms

Once you have a reasonably clear idea what your issues are, list the key terms, including synonyms, antonyms, and related concepts that could appear in an opinion or other document discussing your issue.  For example, a medical doctor could be referred to as a doctor, physician, surgeon, or M.D.  An opinion discussing the constitutionality of a statute could use "constitutional," "unconstitutional," or both.

When you input a terms and connectors search into Lexis Advance or WestlawNext, you should: 1) spell terms correctly; 2) anticipate alternative terms; 3) write your search to pick up different word forms of your search terms.  Natural language searching, on the other hand, will automatically look for alternative forms of words you have included as part of your search.

Inclusion of a particular word or phrase within a terms and connectors search mandates that the word appear within a retrieved document unless that word is coupled with another in the search by the or connector or the rarely used and not of Lexis or but not of Westlaw.  On the other hand, words and phrases included in a natural language search do not have to appear in every document retrieved.  Rather, the documents retrieved are presented in order of statistical relevance, with those documents containing the greatest number of the least common words or phrases from the search being presented first.  However, both Lexis and Westlaw allow the researcher to make particular words and phrases mandatory in a natural language search.  Both systems recommend that this feature be used with great caution.

In terms and connectors searching on both Lexis and Westlaw, use root expanders and universal characters to include words with variant endings or spellings.  On both Lexis and Westlaw, the root expander is the exclamation mark (!) while the universal character is star (*).  Neither system allows the use of these characters in natural language searching.

In both systems, certain very common words will not be searched, including a, an, as, on, under, with. Avoid using these words in your terms and connectors searches.  In your natural language searches these words will be automatically excluded from your search.

To search for phrases using terms and connectors searching:

  • On Westlaw, place the phrase in quotes: "summary judgment" or "blood alcohol"
  • On Lexis, simply type the phrase: last clear chance

In natural language searching on both Lexis and Westlaw many, but not all, phrases will be automatically recognized and searched.  However, to insure that a phrase is recognized, you should place it within quotation marks on both systems.

The two systems treat compound (hyphenated) words and acronyms (such as E.P.A.) somewhat differently.  For detailed discussions, consult the manuals for the services.  A useful strategy is to enter alternative versions of the term (e.g., EPA or E.P.A. or "Environmental Protection Agency").

Relate your terms logically

The next step with terms and connectors searching is to use logical connectors to arrange your terms into ideas and concepts.  The basic connectors OR and AND function the same on Lexis and Westlaw as on the Internet.

There are several other connectors that allow you to search for terms occurring in some proximity - and therefore presumably in some logical relationship - to one another in the documents.

/p searches for terms appearing in the same paragraph;

+p on Westlaw requires the first entered term to appear before the second entered term;

/s  searches for terms appearing in the same sentence;

+s on Westlaw requires the first entered term to appear before the second entered term

/n searches for terms appearing within n words of each other (n may be set as any number from 1 to 255).  Example: dog /5 bit! retrieves dog or dogs within 5 words of bite, bites, biting, bitten;

and not (Lexis) and but not (Westlaw) exclude documents containing the specified terms (use and not and but not with extreme caution as it is easy to exclude relevant documents).

Order the connectors properly

Both systems process search terms and connectors in a specified order depending upon which connectors are used.  Failure to understand the order in which connectors are processed by the computer can lead to unintended results and missing important documents.  Following is the basic order of processing:

  • OR is always processed first;
  • proximity operators are processed next;
  • AND is processed next, and;
  • AND NOT or BUT NOT processed last.

Evaluate your search

Beginning online researchers often write searches that are long and complex and contain unnecessary or non-specific terms.  Usually simpler searches are better, provided they contain the terms most likely to be used in the documents dealing with the issues.  As noted above, if you are having trouble even getting started because of unfamiliarity with the topic to be researched, do some background reading, perhaps coupled with a natural language search.

When should you edit your search?  Sometimes the cases you retrieve with your first query suggest other terms that should be incorporated in your search query.  If your original search was too broad (retrieved too many citations or irrelevant citations), you can modify it by adding other terms after an "and" or a proximity connector.  If your original search was too narrow (few or no citations), you can add terms (synonyms, antonyms, concepts) after an "or" connector.

Field Searching

All documents are divided into parts called segments on Lexis, Westlaw, and Bloomberg Law.  Field searching can be used in terms and connectors searching, but not in natural language.  Available segments or fields vary depending upon the type of documents in the source or database.  From the search screen, you can identify the segments available for the documents in a particular source on Classic Lexis by clicking on the plus next to “Restrict Search Using Document Segments.”  Field searching is also available in WestlawNext, but the researcher will need to type strict: and then an abbreviation for the field (see below), and then the search terms within parentheses.  Typical segments or fields for case law include:

Name Title  
strict:TI(  )
Party Name Parties to the case
Court Court
strict:CO(  )
Court Court that decided the case
Counsel Attorney
strict:AT(  )
Attorney or Law Firm Attorneys representing parties to the case
Number Opinion
strict:DN(  )
Docket Number Docket number of the case
Cites Citation
strict:CI(  )
Citation of the case
Writtenby Judge who wrote any portion of the opinion
Syllabus Synopsis
strict:SI(  )
Summary of opinion
Opinionby Judge
strict:JU(  )
Judge Judge who wrote the majority opinion
Opinion Opinion
strict:OP(  )
Opinion of the court

These services provide a list of database or source specific fields.  To view this feature in WestlawNext, click on advanced search link next to the search button. To see this list on Lexis Advance, click on the “search types” link next to the main search box.

It takes practice to compose searches that are both effective (high recall of relevant documents) and efficient (minimal retrieval of irrelevant documents).  Law school is the best time to gain this experience.  Because terms and connectors searches are literal, they will not pick up documents with spelling errors, unanticipated variations in language, or that discuss concepts and facts analogous but not identical to your issues.

Natural language searching will sometimes overcome some of these limitations.  However, it does much less than many researchers realize in automatically searching for synonyms and related concepts.  Nonetheless, a natural language search can often be a good starting point in an area unfamiliar to the researcher, especially if followed by a well-crafted terms and connectors search.  More than that, however, most experienced researchers rely on a combination of online and manual research techniques to ensure comprehensive results.

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