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Westlaw Searching for Cases or Statutes Defining a Legal Term:

If you're looking for cases or statutes that define a term, rather than all cases that mention the term in any context, search for WP(term), e.g.,

WP("DANGEROUS WEAPON")

This only works for those terms that West includes in its "Words and Phrases" books; but that's a pretty large set of terms.

Naturally, searching for all references to the term, rather than just for the WP() references, will give you a more complete list. But it may be far too complete, giving you thousands of cases. WP() searching will knock out many of the false positives, though at the risk of omitting some of the true positives.

Maybe most of you know about this feature or already, but some experienced lawyer and law professor friends I asked hadn't, so I thought I'd pass it along in case many people are unfamiliar with it. For similar tips about ATLEAST, NOT W/, and SY,DI(), see here.

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:
Bruce:
"Words and Phrases" was one of the dustiest, most-unused set of volumes in our firm library. Good to know it's made it into the electronic age.
6.8.2009 6:15pm
rickster:
Good to know. Does Lexis have a similar feature?
6.8.2009 6:32pm
Graham:
That's a helpful hint! Nice entry.
6.8.2009 9:45pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
I don't suppose that you can get your own copy of the database and do your own searches using the various tools available: regex matching, approximate matching, Boolean combinations of the basic matchers, etc. ?
6.8.2009 10:25pm
Stevie:
Bill Poser-
Of course you could, if West is willing to sell it to you. I'm sure they'll negotiate a fair price.

Or you could assemble your own database from the publicly available sources. That shouldn't be too expensive.
6.8.2009 10:29pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Stevie,

Obviously, assembling everything yourself would be excessively time-consuming and expensive, not to mention creating all of the synopses. Since most people don't know how to do their own searching at the level I'm talking about, and until recently haven't had sufficient disk space etc., the possibility of obtaining the corpus periodically from West or Lexis at a reasonable cost has quite likely not have been of interest to many people for very long, so I thought it a reasonable question whether one could do this.
6.8.2009 10:40pm
Avatar (mail):
One wonders how much it would cost to, as you say, assemble your own database from the publicly available sources. That number's finite, and lots of people pay a lot of money for Westlaw or L-N searches; it's not beyond belief that a patient group of law firms could build a private index independent of either of those two firms, and either share its resources or go into business as competitors.
6.8.2009 10:54pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Avatar,

The task would certainly be more reasonable for a group of law firms than for an individual. I would think that the synopses would be a major hurdle since unlike the texts of the decisions themselves in most cases they are created by West et al. and would have to be created afresh.
6.8.2009 11:02pm
Stevie:
Bill-
I apologize for my flip response. But seriously, I suspect that West or Lexis would find it more profitable to maintain their proprietary databases and then sell access to their own (potentially improving) search technologies than license their databases to others.

Avatar-
Again, while what you outline is certainly possible (and could possibly be more economical), I doubt law firms will change their minds and go away from paying for outsourced aggregation and search resources. Under the current system, it's also easier to pass the cost along to clients.
6.8.2009 11:12pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
There actually is a project of this sort: see http://public.resource.org/.
Lawrence Lessig is one of the people behind this.

Interestingly, I would have expected the motivation for this to be primarily the interest of people without the money to pay for West and Lexis rather than the well-heeled who think that they can do the searching better themselves, but that may be wrong. One of the major contributors to the above project is apparently David Boies, who I am pretty sure can afford to pay for search services. He may be engaged in philanthropy of course, but I wonder if this means that he is interested in do-it-yourself search.
6.8.2009 11:29pm
Hadur:
Tomorrow I will read this post at work and bill 0.1 hours of professional development time.
6.8.2009 11:54pm
Prosecutorial Indiscretion:
Thanks! I'll endeavor to put that little bit of Westlaw ninjary to good use.
6.9.2009 1:49am
Just Dropping By (mail):
Tomorrow I will read this post at work and bill 0.1 hours of professional development time.

If we get a long enough comments section going, you could bill 0.2!
6.9.2009 7:23am
John M. Perkins (mail):
For cheaper versions than WEXIS check out:
Casemaker (available for free through most states' bar association)
FastCase (best search engine of the cheaper versions, available free through some specialty bar associations)
LexisOne (free, clunky and the hyperlinks obnoxiously keep trying to get you to log in to Lexis, but has 10 years of free cases, plus statutes)
LoisLaw
VersusLaw (cheapest if you want more than 10 years back)
6.9.2009 10:38am
Go Horns!:
Just used it. Worked great. Thanks!
6.9.2009 10:53am
common sense (www):
I can't wait until Google wades into legal opinions. I'm unsure what would be more useful- just the text of court opinions indexed and searchable with Google's algorithms, or Westlaw/Lexis's additional cataloging. Of course, you would still need Shepard's after you found cases.
6.9.2009 11:17am
matthew (mail):
As a Legal Researcher for West, I would like to remark on this. The WP field is good, but I find it underinclusive. If you get results, they are on point, but sometimes you don't get anything.

The next best way I've found to search for definitions is not Westlaw specific. Perhaps it's too logical, but it's to search for words in the way that Court cases tend to define terms, which usually goes something like this: "the words 'DANGEROUS WEAPON' in this statute..." or "the use of the phrase
'DANGEROUS WEAPON' indicates..."

So the search would look like this:

(word or phrase or term) +3 *defined term*

Running this search in Westlaw ALLCASES database with "Dangerous Weapon" results in a search of mostly relevant results.
6.9.2009 11:50am
Stash:
Back in the day, when books were king, I used Words and Phrases frequently. I have often lamented its apparent lack on-line, but apparently the lack was mine. Thanks for the tip, I am off to Westlaw right now.
6.9.2009 4:02pm
Bill Dyer (mail) (www):
Thanks.
6.9.2009 11:25pm
Robb (mail):
Very interesting.

I want to see how Westlaw's offering compares to my moonlighting project:

This week I'm publishing an open source legal glossary containing definitions drawn from high-quality primary and quasi-primary sources. Example entries:

principal office

judgment

I noticed the same semantic issues that @matthew mentions above, while working on this. I've got some nice algorithms implemented, but there are limits. Oregon+Ninth Circuit is the first jurisdiction I've implemented. If anyone has critique or comments, please drop me a line.
6.11.2009 2:31am

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