Thursday, February 16, 2006

How Terms and Connectors Searching Works

Many law students write off terms and connectors searching all too quickly these days. Either they stick with the apparent magic of Natural Language, or they think they know it all when they get the basics of Terms and Connectors. Let's look under the hood.

Basic Terms and Connectors searching commands: AND, OR, BUT NOT, are also called Boolean logic connectors. George Boole was a mathematician who lived in the 1800s and understood that these connectors could work as "logic gates." That is, they open or shut in a way to filter the right sort of information into your sieve.

If you want documents with both crimes and torts in them, you write a query:

crime AND tort

of course, you might want to do tricks with pluralizing or truncating the terms, but we won't fool with that since we are focusing on the connectors in this essay. If you want to look at documents that deal with either crimes or torts or both, your query might be:

crime OR tort

This is a very broad query. You are going to get a LOT of documents, but maybe you need to look at all of them. And then, maybe you need to look at those documents that talk about:

crime BUT NOT tort

(This may seem like a silly query to law-trained folks right now, but I assure you that there is a coming field of Criminal Torts. It makes a handy query.) You can see how these logic gate commands work. This last one takes all the documents that mention crime but not the word tort.

The computer works very literally. Understand that it is a very literal servant, and that your query is carried out perfectly to the letter that you put in. That means if your query has a typo, you will only find documents with the exact same typo in them, and no documents typed perfectly. Even though Westlaw and Lexis are terribly sophisticated computer systems, and now appear very smooth and nearly like artificial intelligence, understand that


Lexis and Westlaw continue to refine their search systems. They have added long since proximity search terms of great subtlety: same sentence, same paragraph, within X words, X words BEFORE term, phrase searching. They also have Segment Searching in Lexis and Field Searching in Westlaw. This tags parts of a document, a court decision, for instance, with metadata tags, naming them as: Title (lawyers might say the "style of the case"), Date, Court, Judge, Syllabus, Digest (in West, these are the headnote paragraphs), Text, and so forth. Each tag can be separately searched, as a Segment or Field, giving the trained searcher even more precision for searching. Now this can be accomplished by using forms provided online as well as using the query command.

If you are a student at a law school, you have the opportunity to take brush-up classes and advanced classes in Lexis and Westlaw, and to experiment and practice for "free." Your law school pays a fee based on the number of full-time equivalent students, and then receives a flat rate contract. This means that it does not matter how long you are online, and usually, it does not matter how much you print. As somebody who wants to learn, and with an eye to the future, you should use this golden opportunity to improve your skills, practice becoming more efficient and effective in both services, and think about the costs each time you search. You can look at the time spent for every search, and basically, the multiple jurisdiction databases cost 1.65 times the single jurisdiction databases. Smaller costs less and is more efficient to search as long as it is large enough to have what you are looking for!

Here is the rule for the best way to make a search in either Natural Language or Terms and Connectors:

You have to be able to imagine the language in the document of your dreams.

Different workplaces have different arrangements about Westlaw and Lexis. Whenever you start a job or internship, you should be sure you understand about the office rules and the contract they have. Some contracts are like the law school one -- flat rate, at least for certain databases. Be sure you know which databases are flat rate, and which will cost extra to search! Other contracts charge by the search or modification of a search. Still other contracts charge by the minute or second online. All of them charge to print! Be aware of the contract and you will not be one of the sad stories I tell in my advanced legal research class each year of people who have a summer internship or clerkship, run up thousands of dollars on a thoughtless search and blow it all!

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