Adding terms and connectors searching to your legal research toolkit

Have you ever searched on Westlaw, Lexis, or Bloomberg and found that your “Google”-like keyword searching is bringing up an overwhelming list of 10,000+ resources, and worse, none of those resources seem useful? When this happens to you, we recommend terms and connectors searching. Terms and connectors searching, also called Boolean searching and advanced searching, will enable you to take charge of your search. It is a way to ensure your search results are comprehensive and precise. We’ve mapped out steps below to help you become comfortable with making terms and connectors searching your default search strategy.

1. Assess the problem
Before you search, consider:
What’s the area of law? Am I familiar with it, or do I need to get some background?
What words (jargon, terms of art) are used in this area of law?
What type of materials do I want to search?

2. Write an issue statement

3. Turn the issue statement into a search query
A mnemonic for doing this is TARC:
Root expander

T = Terms — Identify key terms
Which terms in the issue statement represent the most legally relevant facts and/or issues?  

A = Alternatives — Identify alternatives to the key terms
Brainstorm words that legal writers might use in place of the key terms you identified. Helpful options include listing synonyms and related terms, which may be broader or narrower in scope than the main key term (ex. if the main key term is car, alternative terms could include automobile and vehicle). You can connect these within parenthesis in your search using the OR connector, discussed below.

R = Root expander
Using the ! character (root expander) can help account for different word endings/variations.
– Ex. constit! = constitute, constitution, constitutional…  
– Plurals: the singular will retrieve the regular plural.

C = Connectors
Use connectors to dictate the relationship between the search terms you enter. The two main connectors are OR and AND.
OR expands search results
When used between two words, OR means that the results may contain either or both words.
AND limits / restricts search results
When used between two words, AND means that the results must contain both words.
Variations of AND:
w/s — within the same sentence
w/p — within the same paragraph
w/# — within # words (e.g., w/4 equals within 4 words)
The connectors w/s and w/p are particularly useful in issue-based searching. If words are in same sentence or paragraph, there is a greater chance they’ll relate to one another and to your issue, and therefore that the document will be relevant.

Phrase Searching
Always put phrases in quotation marks.

4. Write out your search query with all the terms, alternatives, root expanders, and connectors in place
Here is an example of how an issue statement related to drunk driving can be crafted into a terms and connector search:

Issue statement: Is an individual who was found asleep in his car, which was parked on the side of the road with the engine off but the keys in the ignition, guilty of driving under the influence?

Terms and connector search: (asleep OR unconscious OR “passed out”) AND (“drunk driving” OR DUI OR intoxicated OR inebriated) AND ((car OR vehicle OR automobile)/s (park! OR stationary))

When running a terms and connectors search, what you are doing is specifying the relationships that must exist between the terms in your retrieved documents, instead of letting the database search algorithm determine those relationships for you. In Westlaw, a space between terms is by default interpreted as an “OR” connector (first amendment = first OR amendment); in Bloomberg Law, a space between terms in interpreted as an AND connector (first amendment = first AND amendment); in Lexis, it depends on the other connectors in the search as to how the space in interpreted by default. Don’t let the databases push you around! Using terms and connectors searching puts you in control of your search.

For individualized help with terms and connectors searching, make an appointment with a law librarian!