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Legal Research Tutorials: Search Syntax for Advanced Searching

Search syntax for advanced searching in Lexis and Westlaw

The search algorithms used by the big legal research databases have gotten quite good at interpreting undifferentiated strings of search words (e.g., battery spit bodily fluid face) and even searches formulated as questions (e.g., does spitting in a person’s face constitute battery). But we do not know much about the search algorithms and how they choose the results they show and don’t show. Advanced search syntax lets you have more control over how your search terms are interpreted. The most useful advanced search syntax for Lexis and Westlaw are explained below.

Important: In Westlaw, if you want it to use advanced search syntax, type adv: at the beginning of your search string, e.g., adv: puppy or kitten.

And vs. Or

And: puppy and kitten = results must have both terms in them > narrower set of results

Or: puppy or kitten = results can have either term or both terms in them > broader set of results

Parentheses ( )

Parentheses are used to indicate order of operations: “Do what is inside the parentheses before you do what is outside.”

  • Used mostly with or and the proximity connectors
  • Can be nested to create more complex order of operations
    • (expert w/10 (witness or testimony)) and “cross examine”

Examples:

  • (husband or wife or spouse) and bequest 
  • (lessor or tenant) and eviction
  • (camera w/5 body) and arrest

Root expander !

Put an exclamation point at the end of a word root to find variations.

  • Useful at times, but can clutter results with unrelated words that share letters.
  • Examples:
    • secur! would return: secure, secures, secured, security, securitization, securities
    • fir! would return: fire, fired, firing, but also first, firm, and firefighter. 

Proximity connectors /n, /s, /p

The proximity connectors are used to indicate that you want two words or phrases a certain distance from each other.

  • /s: two words must be roughly within the same sentence
  • /p: two words must be roughly within the same paragraph
  • /n : two words must be within n words of each other, where n is a number, e.g. /5, /10, /35

The connectors must go BETWEEN the words or phrases

Examples:

  • “personal jurisdiction” /s residence
  • securities /5 fraud
  • (victim /10 rights) /p notice

Quotation marks " "

Quotation marks are used to indicate that you want to search for the exact phrase.

  • Unnecessary on single words.
  • Do NOT use unless the phrase is truly the unique way of saying something.
    • Good uses: “personal jurisdiction”  “fruit of the poisonous tree”  “security deposit box”
    • Poor uses: “ran into the road”  “pulled out his gun”  “airplane”

Universal character * in Westlaw, ? in Lexis

* in Westlaw, ? in Lexis . To search for both adviser and advisor:

  • In Westlaw, use *, e.g., advis*r
  • In Lexis, use ?, e.g., advis?r

The universal character cannot be first letter, and do not use within quotation marks.

Advanced search screens

Both Lexis and Westlaw have advanced search screens that can help you build a precise search if you aren’t sure which connectors to use. These screens also give you the ability to specify other information like a judge’s name, a date, a party, etc.

  • The advanced search screens are context specific according to what kind of content you choose at the opening screen, so if you want the advanced search screen for statutes, you need to navigate to statutes first.