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Westlaw research: Using segment search techniques with terms & connectors

Westlaw Research

My last blog, which covered the first-part to this three-part research approach, discussed knowing the what before the where to your legal research. Because this research approach is most effective when followed sequentially, it is best to refer to that blog before proceeding with this blog.

As the title illustrates, this is the second-part analysis to becoming a proactive researcher. This part focuses on searching cases that try to replicate the fact pattern, the desired outcome in the sought for litigation stage, and any exclusionary term(s) that might make the case more dissimilar than similar to the fact pattern assigned.

The aim of the second-part research analysis is to find controlling cases that address the heart of the matter while allowing the researcher to avoid constantly using the filtering option after each search result. In order to find those golden cases, applying the compartmentalized, tailor-oriented approach to search inquires to maximize each search result. In other words, using the field and segment search techniques to compartmentalize the cases and the Terms and Connectors search technique to tailor searches to your inquiry.

Since most of the documents on Westlaw are divided into segments called fields, the segment search techniques allow you to search through a specific portion of primary law or secondary source document in a legal database. And because most primary legal documents have common structures, segment searches allow you to restrict search results to materials that contain your search terms only within particular segments of the document (headnote, synopsis, opinion, date, etc.). See below.

All, if not most, fields are entered in the search as a two-letter abbreviation. For example, the abbreviation for the synopsis field in case law is sy, which contains the summary of a case. The abbreviation of the field is immediately followed by parentheses. In other words, there are NO spaces between the abbreviation and the parentheses and the word or symbol starting within the parentheses.

For example, when searching in case law dealing with the tort of negligence in medical malpractice, your search query might be entered as sy(“no duty” +5 medic!) or sy(no duty /s medic!), or a million other ways depending on your case.  In these examples, the “sy” will restrict only those cases that revolve around owing a duty of care concerning “medicine.”

Note: since “medicine” could be written in many different ways to convey the same thought, such as “medical” or “medicate,” it is best to use an exclamation mark (!) to capture all the added words associated with the root word to help maximize search results to time ratio. More on this later.   

When using the first example, the search result yielded 20 cases before even using filters. When using the second example, the number of cases in the search results went up to 199 in total.

These search results were populated without the use of any filtering options.

Search Results Filter Chart from Westlaw

This outcome is significant, because most students and professionals in the field will yield possibly around 200+ case laws before even using the filter options. The filtering option is mainly used for jurisdictional purposes. For example, in my search query, I left my jurisdiction open-ended to include “All States,” “United States Supreme Court,” and “Federal Circuit.”

Although it is important to note each result will vary depending on the number of similarly adjudicated cases in that jurisdiction, but my open-ended search query was to illustrate the efficacy of using segment searches coupled with Terms and Connectors.

The fields in segment searches fall into two categories: (1) case law fields and (2) statute fields. (I have attached hyperlinks to both Westlaw case law fields and statute fields for reference). The names and number of fields that a document contains depends on the type of database. A case law database has different fields than a statute law database.

Thus, knowing which fields a database contains and what information is in each field can greatly increase the efficiency of your search. For example, there is no opinion (op) field in a statutory database. Listed below are the fields of both case law database and statutory database. For secondary sources, which share many commonalities with case law and statutory fields, use the respective field codes found in either of the two categories.

Search Field Codes Categories from Westlaw

A combination of fields can also be used in your search inquiry. Just put a comma between the fields. By combining fields, you increase your chances to retrieve many online reporter cases that you would otherwise miss through ordinary search results—using Natural Language searching methods which uses plain English to retrieve relevant documents.

The sy,di combination field one of my favorite combinations because it searches both the synopsis and the digest fields in one search and insures that in the cases retrieved the issue is central to the case. For example, sy,di(wrongful! /5 terminat! discharg!) or sy,di(“product liability” /p danger! defect! /s item! Product! Merchan!). My other favorite field combination is le,sy because it searches both the language in the majority opinion and the synopsis in one search ensuring the precise language I am seeking in a case law.

For another example, sy,le (“duty to disclose!” /s “particular circumstance!” “confidential relation!” “specific inquiry” /p speak!). This combination in other words allows you to find relevant, controlling, and specific case laws that will help you craft a tailor-oriented work-product. 

Westlaw’s Terms and Connectors searches are very similar to Boolean searches. The key distinction between the two are in the greater flexibility and ease of use of the former than the latter.

Although Boolean searches helps produce accurate and relevant results relative to a Natural Language search, it limits your search capabilities quite dramatically when compared to Terms and Connectors search results. There are only five elements of syntax to understand when using Boolean searches: AND, OR, NOT, (), and “”.

For example, when trying to search for case law concerning medical malpractice using the Boolean search method with its operators you will yield the following respective results: 

  • Medical AND malpractice AND negligence will tell the database that ALL terms—here, “medical,” “malpractice,” and “negligence”—must be present in the search results. 
  • Medical OR malpractice will catch all materials that contain EITHER “medical” OR “malpractice”. Note: if you place a space between the terms the operator OR will be assumed.
  • Medical AND malpractice AND negligence NOT criminal will only produce results that include “medical,” “malpractice,” and “negligence” but will exclude any documents that include the term “criminal”. Note: unless you are looking to exclude a specific term, this feature might exclude relevant case laws that might have otherwise been useful.
  • Because Boolean searches does not provide any rules for the software to determine which equation to solve first, the use of parentheses tells the computer what to solve first. For example (medical OR malpractice) AND negligence will find results within the brackets before it searches for “negligence.” However, it might even be more beneficial to use (“medical malpractice”) AND negligence to get a more precise result. Even then, the results at best just guarantee that somewhere in the case law the terms “medical malpractice” and “negligence” will be present.  

To solve the dilemma of obtaining results specific to your inquiry and to avoid the confusion of setting up complex search strings, Westlaw’s Terms and Connectors are extremely ideal. Westlaw’s Terms and Connectors is helpful because for the most parts it only requires setting up one complex search string that might otherwise take several using variations of Boolean searches. A search is processed as a Terms and Connectors search if it includes a grammatical, numerical, or BUT NOT connector; a root expander or universal character; or a field restriction.

Listed below are a list of Terms and Connectors operators.

Coupling the first-part of my legal research analysis with the second-part will place you one step away from being an extremely proactive researcher. The third-part of my legal research inquiry will focus on the mini-search tool found in case laws to help you with quality skimming of the case in about a minute while preserving research efficiency and productivity throughout the process.

The final process will allow you to go through the entire list of cases produced in the second-part of your research process in about 15-20 minutes. For this process to become second nature, it is best to practice this process sequentially starting with the first-step.

Please feel free to connect with me via LinkedIn if you have any questions regarding the second part of my research analysis.

Adil Khoso Adil Khoso is a rising 2L at Cumberland School of Law. His professional career has been blessed with setting a company record in a company that has been around for over three decades to starting a successful company despite the overly-saturated market.