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Legal Methods: Electronic Legal Research

The basic techniques of legal analysis, writing and research.

Fee-Based and Subscription Services

Publicly Available Services

Alert or Clipping Services

  • Law.com
  • KeyCite Alert and WestClip in Westlaw
  • Shepard's Alert and Alert in Lexis

Public Available Internet Sources

Web Sites Operated by Government or Private Entities:

Legal Research Web Sites

Internet Search Engines

Electronic Research Process

Selecting an Electronic Legal Research Service

  • Scope -- Be sure to choose a service that contains the type of material you need.  The more you know about your research issue, the easier this will be.
  • Cost -- In practice cost is an important consideration.  You cannot use research services for which your client cannot or will not pay.  Even if your client is willing to pay, you may not have unlimited ability to use fee-based services.  Pricing varies widely among fee-based services from organization to organization, so it is important to investigate cost issues before you get online.

Constructing a Word Search

Most electronic services recognize two types of word searches:

  • Boolean -- Retrieves information based on the relationships among words in a document.  Using specific commands and connectors, you can locate documents that contain certain words in defined relationships to other words. 
  • Natural Language --

Selecting a Database

You should select the narrowest database that contains all of the information you need.  Searching in an overly broad database requires you to sort through information that is not relevant to your search, making it difficult to determine if your search was successful.  Choosing a database tailored to your research needs will improve the efficiency of your electronic searching.

Reviewing the Search Results

Word Search

If your word search does not retrieve useful information, consider the following options:

  • searching in a narrower or broader database
  • subtracting less essential terms or expanding the breadth and depth of the search
  • excluding terms from the search (AND NOT or BUT NOT can be used as connectors in a Boolean search, and natural language search menus may allow you to exclude terms)
  • subtracting or adding field or segment restrictions

Boolean Search

In a Boolean search you have additional options for revising your search:

  • making the proximity connectors more restrictive or less restrictive
  • subtracting or adding wildcard characters

Many services will alllow you to limit your search to individual components of the document, such as words in the title, the name of the author, or the date of the document.

Boolean searching requires you to understand various commands and connectors.  Most fee-based services will have a listing of their preferred boolean connectors. 

Natural Language Search

Another way to excecute a word search is to use what is called "natural language" searching.  Natural language searching can be helpful if you are researching an area of law with which you are unfamiliar.  Natural language results can be inconsistent, especially because you do not specify the connectors used to define the relationships among the search terms.  Boolean searching offers more flexibility in tailoring a word search to your needs.