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Case Law Research Manual

Case Law Research Manual
Table of Contents

Part 1: Welcome to and Search Basics
Electronic Searching Strategy
Full-Text Libraries and Documents Defined
Virtual Library: Searching Multiple Libraries
Stop Words
Relevance Ranking

Part 2: Conducting a Search
Selecting Jurisdiction to Search
Designing a Query
Launching a Search and Viewing Results
Refining a Query

Part 3: Advanced Search Techniques
Advanced Search Operators
Using Wild Cards in Searching
Processing Rules

Search Operator Guide

Search Operator Comparison Guide

Part 4: Putting It All Together: Sample Research Problem


This manual is designed to instruct you in doing legal research on Part 1 gives the basics of searching on and an overview of the product's searching philosophy. Part 2 will walk you through conducting your first search. Part 3 introduces advanced searching strategies. Part 4 is a sample research project that incorporates the whole process.


This documentation assumes that you are already comfortable with the basic functionality of a web browser (e.g., NCSA Mosaic, Internet Explorer, Netscape, etc.)


To help you quickly distinguish different types of information, this documentation adheres to the following conventions for notation and visual cues: Italics are used to emphasize a word or phrase, or to indicate a variable expression (e.g., dbname) Initial Caps are used for the names of keys (e.g., Enter, Alt+F, Ctrl+P) and interface elements (e.g., Search Results Window, Navigate Menu, Back button.) ALL CAPS are used for the name of a path, directory or file, such as C:\TEXTDB\*.SRC. Bold words are used to represent the contents of a text file, program listings or sample queries.

Research Manual Part 1:
Welcome to and Search Basics

Thank you for learning more about case law research provided by  If you've never conducted electronic searching, you will find it easy to learn and surprisingly efficient. If you have prior experience with Westlaw or LEXIS, that experience will be helpful, but remember, is a different product. Even though each of these services can provide you with court cases, each has a unique way of doing it. That will affect your strategy and search construction.

Electronic Searching Strategy

Searching is a process, not an event. This should be your mantra when using Searching a library is not about spending time and mental energy formulating the "golden query" that retrieves your desired information in a single stroke. In practice, good online searching involves formulating a succession of queries until you are satisfied with the results. As you view results from one search, you will come across additional leads that you did not identify in your original search. You can incorporate these new terms into your existing query or create a new one. After each query, evaluate its success by asking:

·         Did I find what I was looking for?

·         What better information could still be out there?

·         How can I refine my query to find better information?

Issuing multiple queries can be frustrating or rewarding, depending on how long it takes you to identify the key material you need to answer your research problem.

Full-Text Libraries and Documents Defined

A full-text library is a collection of related whole documents assembled into a single searchable unit. The individual documents can be massive or minuscule, but they should bear some relation to each other (e.g., court opinions issued from the same jurisdiction). A full-text library is composed of smaller units called documents. When you search a database, you will retrieve documents that contain information that matches your query request.

Virtual Library: Searching Multiple Libraries

Your query can search in multiple jurisdictions at once; this is known as a virtual library. Our system organizes the information this way to make it easier to find for users. This way, you don't have to know precisely which exact jurisdiction an opinion was handed down from in order to find it. Documents retrieved from different jurisdictions are combined into one Results List, but with an abbreviation next to each one to tell you which jurisdiction the opinion comes from.

Indexing, Lexis and Westlaw all depend on the word as an essential tool to search and retrieve documents. And, like Lexis and Westlaw, uses the principle of word indexing. During the publication process, an indexer goes through every document and creates an index of every word in every document and also tabulates how many times each word is used in each document. When you do a search, you are not really searching through the full-text of the documents; you are searching the word index of the documents.

Stop Words

As opposed to a keyword-based system, uses a full-text retrieval software, meaning that it indexes every word in a document with the exception of Stop words. Stop words are those terms that are programmed to be ignored during the indexing and retrieval processes, in order to prevent the retrieval of extraneous documents. Generally, a stop word list includes articles, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions ("the", "they", "very", "not", "of", etc.) that are most common words in the English language. Using stop words in full-text searching is vital in the context of Relevance Ranking; as described below.

Relevance Ranking

The most powerful weapon in the searcher's arsenal is Relevance Ranking. Simply put, relevance ranking lists a set of retrieved documents so that the documents most likely to be relevant are shown to you first. Remember, Relevance Ranking is not an indication of legal relevance. Relevance Ranking arranges documents based on the mathematical measurement of similarity between your query and the content of each record. What determines the likelihood of relevance? An analysis of the database is performed using a combination of the following indicators:

·         Breadth of Match - Documents containing more of the various query terms are weighted more relevant.

·         Inverse Document Frequency - Documents containing terms which occur less frequently in the entire database are weighted more relevant.

·         Frequency - Documents with a higher occurrence of a query term are weighted more relevant.

·         Density - The comparable length of retrieved documents is calculated to apply a higher relevancy weight.

In this analysis, stop words are ignored. This reduces the time spent processing your search and prevents an artificial boost of relevance to what are actually irrelevant documents, since "the" would probably retrieve every record in a database.

The researcher receives several benefits from Relevance Ranking. With the ease of natural language queries and the assistance of Relevance Ranking, you will find the most relevant documents in the shortest period of time. And, as you read down the Hit List, once you determine the documents are getting less applicable, you can stop reading results of this search because you know you have already viewed the most relevant documents. Finally…you don't have to be a computer expert who can compose the most complex of queries in order to find valuable information!

Table of Contents

Research Manual Part 2:
Conducting a Search

When you connect to to conduct legal research, click on the Search button from the homepage, then complete the following steps:

Step 1: Select Jurisdiction to Search
Step 2: Design a Query
Step 3: Submit the Query/View the Results
Step 4: View a Document

Step 1: Select Jurisdiction to Search

To begin, you must select a category. For example, if you select “Federal Circuits” as your category, after you press Submit you have the opportunity to select the specific circuits to include in the search. You select or deselect a jurisdiction by clicking on the associated box. In, you are not limited to searching in one jurisdiction at a time, nor are you limited to a grouping of jurisdictions.

Step 2: Design a Query

A query is a word or string of words you want to find in retrieved documents. When designing a query, you should think about the words a court would use when discussing the issue you are researching. When you have determined the words you want to search for, you can design a query based on those words connected with Boolean connectors (AND, NOT, OR, etc). Alternatively, you can search for a phrase without using Boolean connectors.  More on phrases later.


A Boolean search requires the researcher to incorporate operators into the query. A search operator is one or more characters that instructs the search engine on how words should be related in retrieved documents. An operator can work at word-level, where it applies to a single query term, or at query level, where its presence affects the processing of the entire query. When you use a search operator in conjunction with a stop word, the operator is ignored.

By way of background, the Boolean search was named after George Boole, a mathematician of the nineteenth century. Boolean logic is a commonly used algebraic form where all values are reduced to either a true or false convention. The three Boolean search operators are: AND, OR, NOT. Here are examples of these three operators:

medical AND malpractice

searches for all documents that contain both the search terms that the operator AND separates. All documents that are found by this search will have both the word “medical” and the word “malpractice” in them. In George’s world this meant that in order for the statement to be true, the documents had to contain both words.

medical OR malpractice

searches for all documents that contain either of the search terms separated by the operator OR. All documents that are found by this search will have either the word “medical” or the word “malpractice” in them.

medical AND NOT malpractice

searches for all documents that contain the search term(s) before the NOT operator, but not after it. All documents that are found by this search will contain the word “medical” but not the word “malpractice.”

medical AND NOT legal malpractice

also searches for all documents that contain the search term(s) before the NOT operator, but not after it. All documents that are found by this search will contain the word "medical" but not the phrase "legal malpractice." In this example, the search engine first looks for documents in which the word "medical" occurs. Then, because the default operator is ADJ, the search engine looks for instances in those documents where the word 'legal" is adjacent to the word "malpractice" and discards them retaining only those documents in which the word "medical" is present without the phrase "legal malpractice."

CAUTION: It is not advisable to start your search query with the NOT operator. For example, if you start with the query “NOT malpractice” the search engine will retrieve ALL documents that do not contain the word “malpractice.” This is not usually a desirable result. If you choose to start your search query with the NOT operator, you can minimize this effect by specifying a short date range. However, the best practice is to avoid using the NOT operator at the beginning of a search query. Using the "AND NOT" technique described above will give you better results.


The default operator is ADJ (adjacent). Therefore, if no operator is specified, the search engine will look for the words in the search query occurring immediately adjacent to one another. ADJ is unidirectional, from left to right, e.g., the query "medical malpractice" will result in documents where "medical" is immediately to the left of "malpractice" but not "malpractice medical."

There are still other operators you can use to help you get the results you need. You can consult our Operator Grid for a concise list of operators. If you have search experience with Westlaw or LEXIS, you may find the Operator Comparison Grid to be helpful, too.


Because the default operator on is ADJ, you can search for a phrase by simply entering the phrase in the search query box. For example, to search for “negligent infliction of emotional distress” just type that phrase in the search query box. The search engine will automatically search for those words immediately adjacent to one another in the same order they are typed.

A Natural Language query is one that is expressed using normal conversational syntax; that is, the query is presented as if making a spoken or written request to another person. However, because the default operator on is ADJ, a natural language search will not obtain satisfactory results unless you only enter a search for words that you would expect to appear immediately adjacent to one another in the opinions you hope to retrieve.

Once you have designed your query type the words and search operators in the box labeled: Enter Your Search. 




You have the option to specify a date range; use this format: 01/01/1999. As a final option, you can select the Number of Results (documents) to retrieve (25, 50, 100, or 200) by using the pull-down menu. The default is set at 50.

Step 3:  Submit the Query/View the Results

Once you have entered a query, click on Submit to launch a search for relevant documents. Most searches process within 30 seconds. It's probably simpler to just wait and try again, but should you wish to interrupt a search in progress, you should talk to your system administrator.


When the search engine finishes processing your search query, the site displays the Search Results Window (a.k.a. “The Results List”). Appearing at the top of the results list is a statement indicating the number of documents your requested.

If your search retrieves no documents, a message will appear above the "Enter Your Search" box that reads "Your search returned no results." Edit your search text or your options and try again.

Some other tips:


Step 4: View the Document
To view a document, click on its name in the Results List. The screen will display the document. Your search terms will be highlighted in the document; use your browser’s scroll bar to move around within the opinion to find the highlighted search terms. Alternatively, you can use your browser’s Find function (CTRL+F3) to jump to a particular search word within the document. To close a document and return to the Results List, click on the "View Results" button at the top of your screen.

While examining the retrieved documents, you may learn of additional relevant search terms or find that your search query was too broad and retrieved irrelevant documents. To try again, click on the "New Search" button and then enter your search query again with any changes you wish and hit "Submit" again. Writing down a query might be helpful if you need to find a specific document again.


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Research Manual Part 3:
Advanced Search Techniques

This section explains three additional tools that help you retrieve relevant documents with increased precision: advanced operators, wild cards, and shortcut searching. As you incorporate these tools, you will want to understand the processing rules and the ramifications of nesting that are associated with these techniques.

Advanced Operators

In addition to the Boolean operators you were introduced to in Part 2, there are additional operators which let you do even more precise types of searching. Using these operators, you will find documents where your search words appear only in the exact relationship to each other. Stop words and punctuation do not count as words in the stated range.

Proximity Operator w/n:

The first proximity operator allows you to specify the number of words between your search terms. This operator is bi-directional; that is, it will retrieve documents where the second word appears on either side of the first word by the stated number. For example, to find documents about "deficit spending", your search may look like this:

deficit w/5 spending

This search would retrieve documents in which the word "spending" either precedes or follows the word "deficit" by one to five words. When designating the number of words remember that Stop Words count; therefore, you should use a number that will allow for any Stop Words that might be included in the phrase. Example: "negligent and intentional spoliation of evidence" counts as six (6) words.

Wild Cards

Wild Cards can be very useful if you are unsure of the spelling of a word or if the word is commonly misspelled. The single character wild card operator, a question mark (?), substitutes for a single character, while the character string wild card operator, an asterisk (*), represents a string of unknown characters. 


Here are examples of Wild Cards, how to use them and what they retrieve:

Search Word with Wild Card Retrieves

medic* medics, medical, medicine, medicate, medically, medication

*ane bane, lane, crane, plane, profane, insane

m?n man, men

m??? mean, moon

m*n man, men, mean, maroon, Manhattan

run+ run, runs, running, rerun

judg?ment judgement, judgment


Note: You cannot use wild card operators to represent numeric characters (e.g., 19??).


Note: You can combine both wild card operators within a single query word, e.g., ?ffect*, for results such as, effecting, effective, affects, etc.


Processing Rules

When processing search queries, evaluates some types of operators before others. If you formulate queries in which different operator types are combined, you should understand the order in which they will be processed. The search operators are processed in the following order:

Proximity, Adjacent, Near (processed in order from left to right)

If you want to override the processing rules, you can use parentheses as scope of operation delimiters to change the order in which operators are processed, just as you did in an 8th grade algebraic expression.

If you use one set of parentheses inside another to reorder the processing, you have done what is called nesting, wherein one operation becomes a subset of another. The nested (internal) operation is evaluated before the one that contains it. If you want to retrieve documents discussing negligence or assumption of the risk related to jaywalking, your search may look like this:

(negligen* or (assum* w/5 risk)) and jaywalk*

Search Operator Grid

You can consult our Operator Grid for a concise list of operators. If you have search experience with Westlaw or LEXIS, you may find the Operator Comparison Grid to be helpful, too.



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Research Manual Part 4:
Putting It All Together: A Sample Research Problem

Okay, so now you have an understanding of each component part of performing legal research on Now, how do you actually put a search together in real life? The number one challenge of an electronic legal researcher is to anticipate how a judge will characterize an issue in a legal opinion and what terms of art are used in this area of law.


To get the feel for the whole research process, we’ve included a research problem that is designed to take you through all of the steps in conducting legal research on


Suppose you have a client relay these facts to you:


The client’s son lives in a house owned by the client and, though his son is an adult, the son pays no rent. The son was arrested and charged with illegal drug trafficking (sale of marijuana) allegedly using the house as his base of operations. Later, the U.S. government instituted civil forfeiture proceedings and seized the house. At this point the client produces a notice of forfeiture under 21 U.S.C. Section 881(a)(7). The client believes this forfeiture is unconstitutional since a) his son was convicted of the crime and seizure of the house seems like double jeopardy; and b) the house didn't belong to the son to begin with.


To begin your research, access the and click on Cases then Search Case Law


To begin your research, choose a library. Select the Federal Circuit Courts library from the list. This library allows a search in any or all federal circuit courts, including the District of Columbia. On the Search Query Page, click the box for any circuits you want to search; you can select one or several.


Now, enter your search in the Search Query box. To begin the research, let’s focus on the seizure. Read through the text in the form to see if you can find any hints as to special words they use to talk about this. To find cases dealing with any type of property seized as a result of the federal civil forfeiture law due to trafficking marijuana or any type of drug, your search may look like this:

      (civil forfeiture) AND (drugs OR marijuana)

What you hope the above search will find are documents where the word "civil" is in front of (i.e., adjacent to) the word "forfeiture"; and where the word "drugs" or "marijuana" occur in the same document.

Type in a Date Range (format: MM/DD/YYYY) within the past two or three years to ensure you get all of the "recent" opinions. Since we will be happy with finding 50 cases on this issue, we won’t change the Number of Results. Click on "Submit".

When the search is finished processing, the site displays a results list with several documents in it. Remember that the documents are arranged with the highest relevance score at the top. What's actually going on is that the search engine has "looked" at the statistical occurrences of your search terms in each found document and ranked them based on its ranking algorithm. To view any of the listed documents, click on the name and they will load up on the screen.

Now that you’ve studied the approach, give a try with your own research project. If you run into any brick walls, contact a research customer service representative via e-mail or give Customer Service a call for assistance.  Good Luck!


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