Reducing False Positives in Lexis/Westlaw Searches:

A while back, I briefly mentioned ATLEAST, NOT W/, and SY,DI() searches, and a lawprof friend of mine wrote me,

You can probably do a big favor to a lot of VC readers, including me, by explaining [these search options].

So here's a brief explanation.

All three of these help reduce the number of false positives returned by your Lexis (ATLEAST, NOT W/) or Westlaw (SY,DI()) search, without much increasing false negatives.

1. Lexis's pretty bad Index feature doesn't help much here -- try searching for ATLEAST and NOT W/, and you'll get nothing -- but if you look in the online help under Searching/Using Terms and Connectors/Connectors, and you'll see:

The NOT W/n connector tells the research software to find documents in which at least one occurrence of the first search term is not within n searchable words of the second term....

EXAMPLE: ... rico NOT W/2 puerto

This finds documents that have at least one occurrence of "rico" (possibly standing for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) that has no occurrences of the term "puerto" within two searchable words of it. This does not mean the same document could not have these two words within two searchable words of each other elsewhere.

So NOT W/ is better than AND NOT -- rico AND NOT puerto will miss cases that have both Puerto Rico and a standalone RICO, but rico NOT W/2 puerto will catch them.

2. The online help, if you properly navigate it, will also tell you about ATLEAST: Searching for, say, atleast10(copyright) will find all documents that contain the word copyright at least 10 times.

3. SY,DI() is a Westlaw connector: Searching (using terms and connectors, not natural language searching) for SY,DI(search terms) finds all cases that contain the search terms in the Synopsis -- usually a paragraph that appears at the start of the case and that was written by West, though for some courts by the court itself -- and in the Digest entries for the case. This will thus focus on what West has seen as the heart of the case's holdings, and skips casual mentions in the facts or in a parenthetical briefly discussing some other case.

Note that SY,DI() searching will exclude many unpublished cases, for which West often doesn't prepare synopses and digests, but that may be part of your goal.

If you folks have other such research tips to add, either as to Westlaw or Lexis, please post them in the comments.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Westlaw Searching for Cases or Statutes Defining a Legal Term:
  2. Reducing False Positives in Lexis/Westlaw Searches:
  3. Research Tips:
Erasmus (mail):
Very helpful. Thank you.
6.12.2007 4:08pm
Waldensian (mail):
What an incredibly useful post. Many thanks.
6.12.2007 4:25pm
Waldensian (mail):
I should add that your post about obtaining unclaimed property held by the state netted me $240, which has been held all this time for me by the Commonwealth of Virginia!!

Dude, you're on a roll.
6.12.2007 4:26pm
Colin (mail):
Thank you. I'm baffled by Lexis' and Westlaw's failure to set out a clear, comprehensive, and easily available help page listing all of their terms, from the simplest and most common to the most abstruse tools. It's part and parcel of my frustration at their inability to join the 21st century and provide a modern interface, fully compatible with non-IE browsers, or copy and paste citations in Bluebook format, instead of their worthless proprietary formats.
6.12.2007 4:37pm
just a researcher:
Would you mind posting a link back to your original inquiry regarding useful search terms? The comments were very helpful and a number of us at [undisclosed location] would greatly benefit from the summary of less common search terms.

Muchas gracias
6.12.2007 4:39pm
skyywise (mail):
Colin, you shouldn't be baffled at all, just more cynical. It's in the best interest of West and Lexis to provide just enough instruction to keep research only a fraction above what is minimally required. The longer lawyers take searching, the more money they make. Both site designs reflect this, to my eye at least, Lexis moreso. E.g. Anyone else ever notice how hard it is to find the research history link (note: not a button) in Lexis? Of course the features to work efficiently have to be there, but who ever feels like they have the time to refine their search methodology?

Many thanks Prof. Volokh.
6.12.2007 4:55pm
J.D. (mail):
Two things, Colin. First, I access Westlaw with Firefox and have never had any problems. Second, Westlaw includes a dropdown menu under the search window allowing the user to easily insert the search strings to limit the search to the Synopsis of the Case, Digest entry, Annotations, and a dozen or so others.

I should also mention that even my small firm (4 lawyers) has an unlimited Westlaw plan (limited, primarily, to Florida), so they don't get more revenue if takes me longer to find what I'm looking for. Westlaw actually has an incentive to make searching as easy and efficient as possible for me. Not only might this help Westlaw with its infrastructure costs, but it will also make it less likely that I'll move to one of its competitors.
6.12.2007 5:16pm
Obvious Sock Puppet (mail):
I find the most useful field restriction to be Westlaw's HN(), which limits the search to the headnotes. West headnotes place the key search terms in proximity, so /s restrictions work well, and they use a predictable vocabulary that makes designing and refining a search easier.
6.12.2007 5:35pm
Colin (mail):
First, I access Westlaw with Firefox and have never had any problems.

Really? I use Firefox too. I'd prefer to use Opera, but Westlaw's buttons aren't reliable with Opera. With Firefox, I cannot use the "copy with citation" function at all, and trying to use the Shephardize function is a hit-and-miss proposition. Linked cases sometimes open in the wrong tab or not at all, and I often can't access the limitations feature (limiting citing cases by jurisdiction, for instance). I have the same problem on every machine I've ever used. Do these specific features work with Firefox for you?

Second, Westlaw includes a dropdown menu under the search window

That is helpful. What I want is an explanation of what all of those bracketing terms do, though. Something that sets out clearly what "LE()" does would be more useful to me than a menu that inserts the term so that I don't have to type it. That list also doesn't include connector terms, like /p or +s. It's better than nothing, but it's not what I would consider to be the obvious, helpful guide that Westlaw would provide if it was focused on usability.

I do agree that Westlaw isn't trying to maximize search time; I don't think I've ever worked with a bill-by-the-search system. Overall, most plans are tiered so that lots of extra search time might result in a higher price point, but that's pretty broad. I think the explanation is simply a lack of incentives; Lexis is as bad as Westlaw is, so why would either spend any time or money improving their user experience? It's easier and cheaper to avoid starting another front in their arms race and leave their interfaces as static as possible. I hope that one renovates its interface soon, because that would probably result in a flurry of improvements in both sites.
6.12.2007 5:40pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
just a researcher: Good idea, I've linked in the older post as a related post.
6.12.2007 5:41pm
amicusterrae (mail):
Per West, you can add the following to your terms and connectors search in order to exclude unpublished cases:

% CI(slip no not unpub! unreport! table)
6.12.2007 5:43pm
Bill Dyer (mail) (www):
Skyywise: Lexis/Nexis and Westlaw are both appropriately terrified that free searches via the internet will swallow their businesses. Believe me, they're EAGER for you to understand, and become reliant upon, all of the features they offer that you can't duplicate with Google or Dogpile, because that's increasingly the only reason to pay their fees.

Restrictive strings that let you search only headnotes or the synopsis certainly may have their use. However, for something important, I generally go belt-and-suspenders, meaning that in addition to free-text searches of my own creation, I'll duplicate online what I would have done in the old days using West's key numbers and digests. My concern is that West's digesters sometimes miss, misunderstand, or mangle the key holdings when they're writing those headnotes and synopsis entries, so personally, I'm not likely to want to restrict my searches to those very often.

I've been using Lexis since 1978 and Westlaw almost as long, and I never have failed to bitch and moan any time I've been shanghai'd into another training class. I find that I already know 95% of what's being taught; I fancy myself a "power user." But that last 5% can turn out to be awfully handy. And to the extent that posts like these can provide those power user tips without the need to sit through so much drivel, you've done us a great service, Prof. V -- thanks!
6.12.2007 5:59pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Obvious Sock Puppet: Westlaw tells me that HN() refers to historical notes -- which presumably refers to statutes -- and not to headnotes. Am I mistaken? I'd think that DI(), which refers to digest entries, captures the headnotes, no?
6.12.2007 6:21pm
RefDesk (mail):
A really to good way to find (or eliminate) acronyms is the ALLCAPS command in Lexis. It's a good way to get the RICO cases and not the Puerto Rico cases.

Another way to find these advanced commands in Lexis: select the database, and you'll see the more basic commands to the right of the search box in a box marked "SEARCH HELP" and at the bottom of the list, a link to "More Connectors and Commands . . .".

Giving one to WESTLAW: their RegulationsPlus Index to the CFR is simply fantastic and, if you're on a transactional pricing plan, free. Clicking from the index to the relevant section is finding a document and therefore pretty reasonably priced. Starting with an index is always a good way to minimize false hits anytime you're researching statutes or regulations. The Westlaw indexes are better than the Lexis ones.
6.12.2007 6:47pm
Lisa Simpson:
For those of you who do pay for the searches (or at least your clients pay), LOCATE in Westlaw is key. Working in patent litigation, I can do a search in ALL-IP-CASES for patent /250 infring! and pull up almost all patent cases ever decided in less than the 10,000 max returns allowed by Westlaw. Then, for the rest of the day, I can search with LOCATE in those patent cases. Westlaw will only charge for the initial search.

Also, the pound symbol forces Westlaw (not Lexis) to search for the term after it even if the term is "noise word." So, if you want to search for how a court construed the word AND or other noise words (OR, NOT, etc.), you can use the following search: (constru! interp! defin! /5 *and).
6.12.2007 10:19pm
Lisa Simpson:
Sorry, that should be: (constru! interp! defin! /5 #and).
6.12.2007 10:20pm
Westlaw now has an ATLEAST feature as well, but only for certain databases.

The WP() feature in Westlaw is sometimes helpful. It searches for cases that define the word or phrase within the parentheses.
6.13.2007 12:49am