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In the day and age of Google and other search engines, it can be tempting to just throw keywords into a search bar and hope that the behind-the-scenes algorithm is smart enough to know what you need. When it comes to online legal research systems, however, this is generally not the best or most efficient approach. Luckily there are ways that you can construct your search phrase that will retrieve results that more closely fit with what you need.
The real benefit to efficient searching, though, comes in the form of time saved - your time, to be specific. Legal research can be frustrating and staring at a page of 10,000+ results to your search can feel overwhelming. Using the research strategies discussed in the following sections can help you reduce research-induced stress and anxiety.
You are already familiar with keyword searching. You enter a string of words into the search bar in Google and rely on the search algorithm to retrieve what it believes to be the most relevant results for your terms.
Keyword searching can be a useful part of your research path. Some people find that it helps them get started in an unfamiliar area. For many research projects, you will conduct several searches, some using keyword searches and some using terms and connectors.
Unlike keyword searches, searching with terms and connectors (also called Boolean searching) allows you to specify relationships between your search terms. This gives you the ability to give the legal research system you're using more information about what you're looking for, which means the results will be even more relevant. Do you want all of your terms to appear in your results? Do you want a certain phrase to be found? A few of the most commonly used connectors are below. Note that some platforms have alternative forms of connectors. You can find a full listing of the connectors available for each by visiting the following: Lexis, Westlaw, Bloomberg Law.
|Results containing exact phrase within quotation marks||" "||" "||" "||"space needle"|
|Results containing both/all your search terms||&||and||AND||seattle & "pacific northwest"|
|Results containing both or one of your search terms||or / space||or||OR||"seattle" OR "emerald city" OR "rat city"|
|Results excluding a particular word or phrase||%||and not||NOT||"mount rainier" % "mount baker"|
|Results where your search terms are found in the same paragraph||/p||/p||P/||boeing /p airline|
|Results where your search terms are found in the same sentence||/s||/s||S/||"pike place market" /s fish|
|Results with variations of the root word||!||!||!||rain! (will return rain, raining, rainy, etc.)|
Here are some tutorials if you would like additional information about using terms & connectors on each platform:
Just looking for Washington State cases? Or law review articles? Or provisions from the CFR? By first selecting the database that contains the type of materials you are looking for you'll avoid sifting through irrelevant results.
Each legal research platform identified in this guide has a big search box available on the home page. Without further filtering, running a search in these boxes will give you results for ALL types of content (cases, statutes, secondary sources, etc.) across ALL jurisdictions (state and federal). You can tell from the main search pages that all content and jurisdictions are being searched - see the screenshots below.
You can also whittle down your results after you've completed a search by using the filters on the left-hand side of the results screen. In addition to the common filters (date, jurisdiction, court, etc.), both Westlaw and Lexis allow you to run a keyword search within the set of items retrieved to further refine your results.