Online platforms are fantastic tools for conducting legal research. They make a wealth of content readily accessible to students working on papers and projects. However, this massive amount of content can prove to be a double-edged sword—the documents you need might become buried under a mound of less useful or irrelevant results. That being said, there exist many different techniques to improve the quality of search results. One particularly useful search tool located on WestlawNext may have escaped your attention because it does not stand out among all the other hyperlinks listed on the main page. However, if you look directly to the right of the search bar button, you will see this small gray “advanced” link.
Users who select the Advanced Search option will be greeted with many different tools designed to improve search result quality. Three extremely useful tools for crafting more sophisticated searches are the “Document Fields,” “Term Frequency,” and “Connectors and Expanders.”
In order to take full advantage of the advanced search features, it is important to understand how the available search options directly relate to the underlying content being searched. If you selected the “advanced” link on the main page without searching within a specific database (i.e. cases, statutes, secondary sources), there will be limited Document Fields search options. The reason for this limitation is that the various Document Fields search options are tailored to the specific content being searched.
As an example, if you selected the Cases database and performed an advanced search, the Documents Field would be populated with options specifically focused on Case Law such as “Party Name.” The same would be true if you conducted an advanced search within Secondary Source content. Selecting the Secondary Sources hyperlink on Westlaw’s main page will allow you to search just Secondary Source content. You will know that you are searching Secondary Sources, and only Secondary Source material, by the light-blue box located directly above the search bar. Users can target their Secondary Source search even further by selecting specific content (i.e. Law Reviews & Journals).
You will know that you are searching Secondary Sources, and only Secondary Source material, by the light-blue box located directly above the search bar. Users can target their Secondary Source search even further by selecting specific content (i.e. Law Reviews & Journals).
Selecting advanced Search while in Secondary Sources, or the more focused Law Reviews & Journals, database provides Document Fields search options tailored to these Secondary Sources such as document Title and Author.
Performing a Title search in Secondary Source content represents an extremely effective way to locate highly-relevant legal analysis. If your keywords appear in the document’s title, there’s a strong chance that that publication will provide significant legal analysis about your subject.
Another valuable option for boosting result relevancy is the Term Frequency option. This function allows users to require that a word, phrase, or multiple words and/or phrases appear a minimum number of times within a document. The rationale behind employing Term Frequency centers around the premise that the more frequently a word/phrase appears within a document, the more likely that the document will devote substantial discussion to the topic as opposed to containing only a brief mention.
To perform a Term Frequency search, simply input your search terms into the “Find documents that have” field(s), select the Term Frequency link, enter the minimum amount of times (ATLEAST) you want that word/phrase to appear in the document (5-10 occurrences is a good range), and check the box next to that word/phrase.
Finally, while many students employ basic Boolean language to perform searches (and, or, not), there exist more precise options which help specify a physical relationship between two words/phrases. These operators which are called “Proximity Connectors” require that the two words/phrases appear within a designated physical distance from each other.
The three main proximity connectors are “/p” within the same paragraph, “/s” within the same sentence, and “/n” within a specified number of words where “n” is replaced by the number (i.e. /3).
As you can see, there exist many useful advanced search options which help boost relevant search results. While this blog post focused on Westlaw, Lexis employs very similar functionality.
Need help using advanced search features to craft more effective searches or help with any other legal research questions? Stop by the Reference Desk and speak with one of our friendly, experienced law librarians or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.