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Researching for a MLS Capstone/Seminar Paper or Project

A guide to help you get started on your big paper/project

"Big Box" v. Advanced Search

Many commercial databases, including Westlaw, Lexis, and Bloomberg, have a main "big box" type search box and a link to take you to advanced search features.  Both search options are useful and can get you to relevant search results.  The techniques discussed below for building searches and working with search results should work in both the big box and in most advanced search functions.

Big box searching is helpful when you are looking for a particular source or citation or for conducting quick searches to get a lay of the land on what might be available.  When starting your research, try searching a few key words or a key phrase.  The first set of search results are likely to include key materials discussing your topic.  For example, if you wanted to know about the tort intentional infliction of emotional distress under California law, you could go to Westlaw, select California as your jurisdiction, and simply type intentional infliction of emotional distress into the main search box:

If you were to read the overview results and perhaps the first few cases and secondary sources identified, you would probably get a pretty good idea of how that tort is treated pursuant to California law.

Advanced Search pages will generally have a form that makes clear the kind of terms and connectors searching described more below, and make it easy to filter by date.

Moreover, databases breakdown legal documents into sub-parts or "fields."   Advanced search functions shows you what fields are available for the type(s) of document you are searching and allows you to search specifically within those fields.  This can be very helpful when full-text searching is getting you a lot of irrelevant search results.  For example, cases typically include the following fields: party name, summary, headnote, jurisdiction, and date.

Regardless of whether you search using the big box or advanced search features, after you have begun to review your search results, evaluate how relevant your results seem and adjust your search strategy as necessary.  Legal research is more art than science, and it typically takes a number of approaches for any researcher to feel that they have honed in on just what they need.

Search Builder Techniques: Terms and Connectors

There are two methods of searching on Lexis, Westlaw, and Bloomberg Law:  Natural Language searching and Terms & Connectors searching.  With Natural Language, you merely enter your search terms (without connectors) and the systems will retrieve documents based on each system's search algorithms.  Terms & Connectors searching allows you to use connectors between your terms to set certain criteria for the search results, thereby giving you more control over what documents are retrieved by the systems.  For example, you can specify that certain terms or concepts are required to appear in each document at least one time, that only one of several terms need to appear in each document (useful for synonyms), and that certain terms or concepts need to appear within a certain distance of each other in each document.  Terms & Connectors searching is also required for "field" or "segment" searches, in which you can specify that certain terms must appear in certain sub-parts of each document (e.g., party name, summary, headnote, date, etc.).

You can enter both Natural Language and Terms & Connectors search statements from the main Lexis, Westlaw, and Bloomberg Law research homepages.  Both Lexis and Westlaw also provide an Advanced Search page that provides templates to help you construct your Terms & Connectors searches, and Bloomberg Law provides templates for searching as well when you select a specific content category.  Select the tabs at the top of this box to learn about the basic connectors and symbols that you will need to use to construct effective Terms & Connectors searches.  A list of all available connectors can be found on Lexis and Westlaw by consulting the Advanced Search pages and on Bloomberg Law by clicking on the question mark next to the main search box.

"And," "or," and "not" are often referred to as "Boolean connectors," named after George Boole, a mathematician whose theories serve as the underpinning for digital logic.

And.  Use "and" between your search terms to indicate that all terms must appear in your search results.  For example, the search - banana and slip and fall - will retrieve materials containing each of these terms.

Or.  Use "or" between your search terms to indicate that any one of the listed terms appear in your results.  This is very helpful when your issue may include synonyms for the same concept.  For example, the search - minor or juvenile or child or children or infant - will retrieve materials that have any one of these terms.

Not.  Use "not" to disqualify words from your search.  "Not" is a rarely used connector, but it can be helpful under certain circumstance.  For example, if you were searching for a particular anti-corruption statute, you may want to run the search - RICO not "Puerto Rico."

Proximity connectors allow you to designate how closely your search terms must appear within a document.  Common proximity connectors include:

  • /p - Terms must appear in the same paragraph. 

  • /s - Terms must appear in the same sentence.

  • /n (such as /3) -- Terms must appear within the specified number of words to each other.

For example, if you wanted to retrieve cases involving slip and fall accidents on bananas in grocery stores, you might craft the following search - (slip /s fall) /p banana /p (grocery /s store).

! is commonly used as a root expander. Words sometimes use the same "root" but have multiple endings.  For example, "treat," "treatment," and "treating" all share the same root - treat.  To search for all words that share the same root use "!" as a root expander.  For example, to search for medical malpractice claims against treating physicians, you may want to search for - malpractice /p treat! /p (doctor or physician).

Using quotation marks (" "), allows you to search for a particular phrase. To search for a specific phrase, put the phrase in quotation marks. For example, if you were interested in searching for mentions of the television show "Orange is the new Black," simply run the search "Orange is the New Black."

Parentheses - (  ) - are used to group words or phrases.  Parentheses are useful when searching for synonyms and when wanting to insure that certain concepts remain together.  For example, if your issue involves the legitimacy of a police search for a gun in the trunk of a car, you could run the search - (police! or officer) /p search /p trunk /p (auto! or car) /p (gun or pistol or firearm or rifle).

Search Builder Techniques: Segment Searching

Segment searching is another technique available in many databases, including Google, legal and scholarly databases.  In legal databases you may also see these called "fields."

You can generally access these with a search that looks something like this:

  • Google:
    • Wegovy 
    • Would pull up results on this drug only from the FDA website on this drug 
  • Westlaw, news:
    • HLD("affirmative action")
    • Would find news articles that use the term "affirmative action" in the headline or first paragraph of a news story.

As an example, if you were looking for secondary sources on affirmative action, and you wanted a focused search, you could look for the term in the title of the works.  Most scholarly and legal databases allow you to search titles, though they will call this segment different things:

  • Westlaw: TI(“affirmative action”)​

  • Lexis: Title(“affirmative action”)

What fields are available differ so much by database, and even by type of documents within a database that a full discussion is too complicated here.  But check out what fields are available as you search.  There are summaries of some of these fields for Google herethe major legal databases here and for news searching here.

Working With Search Results

Regardless of which search method and search page you use, you need to carefully review and evaluate your results and adjust your search strategy as necessary.  Legal research is more art than science, and it typically takes a number of approaches for any researcher to feel that they have honed in on just what they need. Filtering your results can often be an effective way of obtaining a more manageable and relevant set of search results. Select the tabs at the top of this box to learn about effective ways of viewing and filtering your search results.

When you are viewing search results, you will see a feature just above your results labeled "sort by."  This feature allows you to see results sorted in a number of ways, including by relevance, date, and (in Westlaw and Bloomberg) by most cited.  Be mindful of how your results are sorted, as the default can vary from database-to-database and, even within the same database, based on the type of documents you are viewing.  

It is not uncommon to get more search results than is practical to review.  When this happens, you may want to consider sorting (1) by relevance, (2) by date (newest first), and (3) by most cited (if available).  For each sort, review the first fifty or so results.  This will allow you to hone in on the most relevant, the most current, and the most prominent results.

When you are viewing search results, to the left of your results, you will see options for filtering your results.  Using the available filters will allow you to narrow your search results.

Common filters are date and jurisdiction.  In addition, each different type of document will have its own unique filters.

Under the broad categories of filters, there usually are subcategories for you to choose from.  Sometimes, you will need to expand a menu or click on a link to see more options within the category/subcategory.  For example, in Westlaw, some of the secondary filters look like:

If you were to see these filters, you could click on the "+" sign next to the jurisdiction options to see all the available jurisdictions, and you would need to click on the blue link for "Publication Types" to see all the available publication types, as only a sampling of the available types are displayed.  

Explore the options available within the filters to see various ways to refine and narrow your search results.

Westlaw and Lexis both usually give you the option to "search within results."  This option typically appears at the left, along with the filters.  Searching within your results can be useful.  For example, sometimes you want to work with a broad search designed to see all that might be out there on a topic, but you would also like to see if any search results are unique to a particular context or fact pattern.  The search within results feature, like any other filter, can let you see a subset of search results without the need to adjust your original search.

Westlaw will often identify "Related Documents" to your search.  These related materials, if identified, will be displayed on the right hand side of your search results.  It can be helpful to do a quick review of these related documents to limit the risk that you are overlooking important information.

Another unique feature of Westlaw is it's "Overview" search results.  When running general searches in Westlaw that are not limited to a particular document type, Westlaw will group certain results under the heading "Overview."  These overview results are those deemed by Westlaw to provide the best context for your search terms and include a sampling from each document type represented in the full search results.  Reviewing these overview results can be helpful to get a sense of what may be out there on your topic and to decide what document type may be most useful for your research.  After you review the overview results, select from the document types listed at the left to continue your research.