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Prepare to Practice Series

Search Strategy Basics

Your goal any search for information is to find relevant material without the clutter of irrelevant material. If your search is too narrow you may miss important things, but if your search is too broad, you’ll get too many results. There is some educational value in trial and error in your searching while in law school, but in a legal practice this approach is too time-consuming and your organization may be charged for every search!

You’ll want to Select a Database to search, Choose Terms, Brainstorm Synonyms (or “better” terms), and sometimes use Terms & Connectors to improve your results.

Select a Database

  • Search in the database directly – instead of using the main search box
    • This will limit irrelevant results
    • For instance, if you think a good answer will be found in California Jurisprudence, why run a search that will generate case law, statutes, and regulations from all 50 states?
  • Choose the smallest relevant database
    • This will limit irrelevant results
    • It’s more cost effective!
  • Consider your universe
    • The larger the database, the more precise your search needs to be. 

Choose Terms

Choosing the right search terms will improve the relevance of your search results. 

  • Identify terms from the fact pattern
  • Consider how these terms will appear in the database
  • Expand or Narrow
    • Related/narrower/broader terms
  • Terms of Art
    • A little context reading or consulting legal dictionaries and encyclopedias can help you with this
    • Learn the names of key cases/tests/statutes.

Natural Language vs. Terms & Connectors searches

Natural languages searches use no connectors or commands and the database guesses what results you want. In that way it is a lot like using Google or other search engines. The algorithms continually get better at predicting what you want, but skilled researchers can improve this process.

A “Terms & Connectors” search uses tools and commands more precisely tell the database what you want. This approach requires analysis, but this initial investment of time is often worthwhile.

Terms & Connectors Basics

  • Remember that search engines like the ones in Google and Lexis default to “OR” often increasing irrelevant results
  • There are numerous ways to improve your results in terms of yield and precision
  • One simple way is by using the Advanced Search feature
  • Another is learning just a few proximity and connector tools to save time (no need to get too fancy here)

Advanced Search Menus

In Westlaw, you can find an “Advanced Search” option to the right of the main search bar.


Example: Westlaw Advanced Search


You can use the Advance Search menu to guide and improve your searches by using some of the most common tools.


Example: Westlaw Advanced Search Menu


Use the Thesaurus to find alternative terms.


Example: Westlaw Thesaurus

Take a look at the “Search Tips” and use the “Connectors and Expanders” legend as a “cheat sheet” for doing Terms & Connectors searches.

Example: Westlaw Search Tips Connectors and Expanders


Lexis+ has a similar option near the main search bar.


Example: Lexis Advanced Search


You will find similar tools and legends to help guide your searches if you are not familiar with Tools & Connectors commands.


Example: Lexis Tools & Connectors guide

Research Logs

Keeping a research log or detailed notes on searches may seem like an extra task. But why should you or your colleague waste time or money repeating a search that you have already run? Learn from experience and improve your subsequent searches.