Updated Aug. 2008.
Prepared by Nancy McMurrer for Basic Legal Skills.
The Law Library subscribes to the two most commonly used online legal research systems: LexisNexis and Westlaw. Law students are provided with passwords and IDs to use both systems for academic-related research.
This guide answers your questions about when to use the online services and books to conduct legal research. The short answer: both are useful approaches but in some cases the online systems are preferable and in other books are preferable.
- Use the same research process in manual and online research
- Often best to use both together
- Unique search terms
- Unique fact situation
- Question can be narrowly drawn
- Emerging area of the law
- Paper sources can't easily perform the function you want (e.g. multi-state search)
- For information not "published" in paper
- Time is a consideration (would a 5 minute online search take 3 hours manually?)
- Cite checking and verifying
- To establish general knowledge of an area of law
- To explore complex concepts and legal theories
- To research procedural questions which often rely on common words
- Search terms are too common, ambiguous, or have too many synonyms
- Mandatory authority on point cannot be located and analogous situations must be considered
- To research in documents like statutes or regulations, where terminology is very particular
- To research issues for which very old materials are needed
- You find too much (information overload!) or too little.
- What resources are available to you?
- How good an online searcher are you?
- Do you like to find materials by browsing or by pinpointing a specific source?
- Do you need to skim or read documents, or do you need to locate a particular word or phrase?
- What are the cost considerations?
- The reference librarians: 206/543-6794 or email
- LexisNexis & Westlaw have student representatives who keep office hours in Room L240, the computer lab, Room 222. Both services have academic representatives who visit regularly; they will do special training for you if asked.
- Both services have online chat help.
- You can also call the 800 Customer Service numbers:
- LexisNexis 800-543-6862
- Westlaw 800-733-2889
- Consult the services' research guides and manuals
- Check the Law Library's homepage under the Research heading for more information about online services and databases
- Remember, the research process is the same whether you use manual or electronic resources.
- Develop exhaustive list of search terms
- Decide which part of the research should be tackled electronically, which manually.
- Plan everything before you go online.
- Choose the best electronic source for your research.
- What electronic choices do you have (commercial services, Internet)?
- Where is the information likely to be found?
- Which electronic source can you use most effectively to keep costs to a minimum?
- Choose a database or file.
- Choose the most specific (commercial) database that will meet your research needs.
- Determine what reliable, authoritative (free) site(s) will have the information you need.
- Devise a strategy for finding the online database or file that has the documents you need.
- Using the search terms gathered during your preliminary analysis to construct a query.
- Take spelling variations into account (dr*nk to find drink or drank or drunk).
- Establish what form must be used so the search engine will recognize a phrase.
- Create relationships among search terms using Boolean and/or proximity connectors.
- If needed (and if possible), put terms in parentheses to control processing order.
- Use searches in fields or segments of the documents.
- Limit by date to eliminate extraneous materials.
- Use natural language or concept searching if appropriate.
- Look in online help for search tips; each online system is a bit different.
- Consider backup strategies if your first search is unproductive.
- Are there other electronic sources, databases, or Web sites you should search?
- What are other searches or other terms you should try?
- Decide the format and destination of the search results.
- Do you need the full text, kwic, or will a list of citations be satisfactory?
- Should you print, download, email, or read the results online?
- Update by using the most current electronic resource to which you have access.
|AND||Add terms to limit the number of hits you retrieve; use whenever it does not matter whether your terms are close together or not. Use in smaller fields or segments of a document (search roe and wade in the case name field to find the case with that title).|
|OR||Increase number of hits by searching for synonyms (law or act or statute); terms can appear anywhere in the document.|
|NOT||Use with caution; the search virginia not west (to retrieve "Virginia" and avoid "West Virginia") eliminates not only documents with "West Virginia" but also the one with "West Road in Richmond, Virginia."|
|PROXIMITY||Use instead of and to increase precision (environment /25 toxic to avoid finding "environment" on the first page and "toxic" on the last page). Use when a connector or a stop word is part of your search (search /2 seizure to find the phrase "search and seizure" or time w/2 day to find "time of day"). Use to find a case or statute cited in a document (42 pre/5 210 or 42 +5 210 to find "42 U.S.C.S. § 210" or "42 U.S.C.A. § 210"; the pre/5 or +5 requires 42 be followed within five words by 210.|
|FIELD or SEGMENT||Promotes the precision of the search. Search in the case syllabus, summary, or headnotes to find cases really about your issue. Locate opinions by a particular judge (opinionby(scalia) or ju(scalia) to find decisions written by Justice Scalia).|
|DATES||Limiting a search by date aids precision and eliminates false hits. There may be thousands of "Smith" cases, but only a few decided on September 28, 2005 (ti(smith) and da(8/28/2006) or name(smith) and date is 9/28/2005).|