Introduction to Computer-Assisted Legal Research (CALR)

Updated Aug. 2008.
Prepared by Nancy McMurrer for Basic Legal Skills.

The Law Library subscribes to the two most commonly used online legal research systems: LexisNexis and Westlaw. Law students are provided with passwords and IDs to use both systems for academic-related research.

This guide answers your questions about when to use the online services and books to conduct legal research. The short answer: both are useful approaches but in some cases the online systems are preferable and in other books are preferable.


CALR Does Not Always Replace Manual Research!

  • Use the same research process in manual and online research
  • Often best to use both together

When May Online Research Be Preferable?

  • Unique search terms
  • Unique fact situation
  • Question can be narrowly drawn
  • Emerging area of the law
  • Paper sources can't easily perform the function you want (e.g. multi-state search)
  • For information not "published" in paper
  • Time is a consideration (would a 5 minute online search take 3 hours manually?)
  • Cite checking and verifying


When May Manual Research Be Preferable?

  • To establish general knowledge of an area of law
  • To explore complex concepts and legal theories
  • To research procedural questions which often rely on common words
  • Search terms are too common, ambiguous, or have too many synonyms
  • Mandatory authority on point cannot be located and analogous situations must be considered
  • To research in documents like statutes or regulations, where terminology is very particular
  • To research issues for which very old materials are needed
  • You find too much (information overload!) or too little.


Consider When & How to Integrate Computer & Manual Tools

  • What resources are available to you?
  • How good an online searcher are you?
  • Do you like to find materials by browsing or by pinpointing a specific source?
  • Do you need to skim or read documents, or do you need to locate a particular word or phrase?
  • What are the cost considerations?


Who Can Help When I Have Questions?

  • The reference librarians: 206/543-6794 or email
  • LexisNexis & Westlaw have student representatives who keep office hours in Room L240, the computer lab, Room 222. Both services have academic representatives who visit regularly; they will do special training for you if asked.
  • Both services have online chat help.
  • You can also call the 800 Customer Service numbers:
    • LexisNexis 800-543-6862
    • Westlaw 800-733-2889
    • Consult the services' research guides and manuals
    • Check the Law Library's homepage under the Research heading for more information about online services and databases


Checklist for Electronic Research

  1. Remember, the research process is the same whether you use manual or electronic resources.
    1. Develop exhaustive list of search terms
    2. Decide which part of the research should be tackled electronically, which manually.
    3. Plan everything before you go online.
  2. Choose the best electronic source for your research.
    1. What electronic choices do you have (commercial services, Internet)?
    2. Where is the information likely to be found?
    3. Which electronic source can you use most effectively to keep costs to a minimum?
  3. Choose a database or file.
    1. Choose the most specific (commercial) database that will meet your research needs.
    2. Determine what reliable, authoritative (free) site(s) will have the information you need.
    3. Devise a strategy for finding the online database or file that has the documents you need.
  4. Using the search terms gathered during your preliminary analysis to construct a query.
    1. Take spelling variations into account (dr*nk to find drink or drank or drunk).
    2. Establish what form must be used so the search engine will recognize a phrase.
    3. Create relationships among search terms using Boolean and/or proximity connectors.
    4. If needed (and if possible), put terms in parentheses to control processing order.
    5. Use searches in fields or segments of the documents.
    6. Limit by date to eliminate extraneous materials.
    7. Use natural language or concept searching if appropriate.
    8. Look in online help for search tips; each online system is a bit different.
  5. Consider backup strategies if your first search is unproductive.
    1. Are there other electronic sources, databases, or Web sites you should search?
    2. What are other searches or other terms you should try?
  6. Decide the format and destination of the search results.
    1. Do you need the full text, kwic, or will a list of citations be satisfactory?
    2. Should you print, download, email, or read the results online?
  7. Update by using the most current electronic resource to which you have access.


Tips & Examples

AND Add terms to limit the number of hits you retrieve; use whenever it does not matter whether your terms are close together or not. Use in smaller fields or segments of a document (search roe and wade in the case name field to find the case with that title).
OR Increase number of hits by searching for synonyms (law or act or statute); terms can appear anywhere in the document.
NOT Use with caution; the search virginia not west (to retrieve "Virginia" and avoid "West Virginia") eliminates not only documents with "West Virginia" but also the one with "West Road in Richmond, Virginia."
PROXIMITY Use instead of and to increase precision (environment /25 toxic to avoid finding "environment" on the first page and "toxic" on the last page). Use when a connector or a stop word is part of your search (search /2 seizure to find the phrase "search and seizure" or time w/2 day to find "time of day"). Use to find a case or statute cited in a document (42 pre/5 210 or 42 +5 210 to find "42 U.S.C.S. § 210" or "42 U.S.C.A. § 210"; the pre/5 or +5 requires 42 be followed within five words by 210.
FIELD or SEGMENT Promotes the precision of the search. Search in the case syllabus, summary, or headnotes to find cases really about your issue. Locate opinions by a particular judge (opinionby(scalia) or ju(scalia) to find decisions written by Justice Scalia).
DATES Limiting a search by date aids precision and eliminates false hits. There may be thousands of "Smith" cases, but only a few decided on September 28, 2005 (ti(smith) and da(8/28/2006) or name(smith) and date is 9/28/2005).

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