Research Guides

TMLL Research Guide - Chapter 2


LEXIS AND WESTLAW BASICS


Lexis and Westlaw are established components of legal research.  It is no longer cutting-edge to be proficient in using these databases; it is mandatory.  The good news is that both Lexis and Westlaw provide extensive, highly structured law-focused databases, and offer sophisticated research mechanisms.

Some advantages to searching Lexis or Westlaw rather than the Internet:

  • Focused, reliable content.  Information on Lexis and Westlaw is focused on primary law and secondary materials that are helpful to the attorney.  If you run a search on “habeas corpus” you won’t be inundated with retrieved items (hits) that are postings from inmates requesting assistance, or advertisements from attorneys who specialize in habeas corpus matters.
  • Search engines that index the entire database.  Unlike the Internet, where even the best search engines index far less than all of its contents, every document in these commercial databases is indexed.
  • Search mechanisms that remain consistent.  With Westlaw you will always need to put a phrase in quotes, and in Lexis a string of words will always be treated as a phrase.  While there are differences between the two vendors, only two systems need to be remembered, not the multitude of search mechanisms available on the Internet.
  • Highly structured format.  Both these vendors provide organization to the document collection as a whole (sources or databases) and detailed organization within each document (segments or fields). 

To take best advantage of these features it is essential to become familiar both with the organization schemes used by each vendor and with their respective search mechanisms.  Before searching by topic or issue on Westlaw or Lexis, you must identify and select the subset of the documents in the system most likely to contain the sources you want.  Selection of the appropriate pool of documents in which to run your search or searches can greatly enhance your research efficiency.

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