The database/source you select for a search is dependent on a number
of variables. A rule of thumb that is often heard is to initially select
the smallest database containing the type of documents you're looking
for, but this is dependent upon the circumstances. The following tips
may provide guidance:
- If you are doing secondary source research at the beginning of a project,
it might make sense to run a search in one of the combined secondary
source databases that combine materials from journals, treatises, and
A.L.R. rather than searching separate sources/databases for this information.
Depending on your fee arrangement with the vendor, however, note that
higher rates might be charged for searching in the larger, combined
sources (see below).
- On the other hand, if you are researching a problem that is controlled
by the law of a particular jurisdiction, it would be more reasonable
to search for case or statutory law in a database that contains only
materials from that jurisdiction, at least until you determine whether
your research will necessitate an examination of persuasive authorities.
- Both systems provide databases of materials for specialized areas
of law. Often these databases include portions of statutory or regulatory
codes, or of reporters, that are relevant to a particular specialty
area. These specialized databases can improve search efficiency, but
should be used with caution to ensure that relevant materials are not
being overlooked because they do not appear in the selected database.
- When doing statutory research, you can sometimes opt to use either
an annotated (including references to cases and other materials as well
as the statutory language) or unannotated (including the statutory language
only) version of the code. Often the annotated code is a better choice
because the terms actually used in the statute may not be those generally
used when discussing a topic. For example, a particular term may not
actually appear in the statute but the term may appear in the case annotations,
so your search will retrieve the statute you seek. In other situations,
the annotations may be so voluminous or the topic so broad that searching
the annotated version creates a large retrieval of irrelevant items.
- Probably the most difficult selection decision is among the case law
databases. Both Lexis and Westlaw provide numerous databases/sources
containing cases from various combinations of courts.
For case law, Westlaw has introduced databases composed of only the headnotes
from the cases covered (e.g. MD-HN, headnotes from cases in the MD-CS
database) on the theory that search efficiency could be increased by limiting
the text searched to the major points of law addressed in each case. Combining
this and the Topic and Key number system allows the researcher to use
a subject approach if they desire. Lexis offers the capability in some
circumstances of combining sources for searching, although so many preset
combinations are offered that this capability may not often be needed.
Make certain you are familiar with your institution or firm's billing
arrangement with Lexis or Westlaw. Unless you have a flat fee arrangement,
you may be billed at a higher rate for use of some large combined databases
(for example, on Westlaw, any database whose identifier contains the term
"ALL", such as ALLSTATES or ALLFEDS, is billed at nearly twice
the rate of regular databases. Similarly, Lexis' combined sources (e.g.
All Sources : Combined Federal & State Case Law - U.S. : Federal and
State Case law) may be expensive to search. Even if a flat fee contract
is in place, however, searching in a larger-than-necessary database/source
may slow you down considerably due to the need to sort through superfluous
documents. Also, frequent use of the larger databases/sources may be the
basis for fee increases the next time your institution negotiates its