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A Guide To...Legal Research

A starting point for legal research and resources at the federal level.

Understanding the Federal Government

WestLaw Search Tips

General Search Strategies 

Types of Searches

There are three different types of searches in WestLaw: 

  1. Natural language searching (using basic key terms in a general search box -- what you most likely do in tools like Google). 
  2. Boolean searching (searching using specific operators, resulting in a kind of equation built of your search criteria. You may have encountered a version of this searching before with AND/OR/*). 
  3. Field searching (searching for key terms in specific places in a document). 

Tricks to Know 

When just getting started, if you don't know exactly what you are looking for (i.e., a specific case), it's easiest to start with a very simple and broad, natural language search. Use as few key terms as possible. Then, use search within and the database filters to explore further. 

  • You can enter a singular version of a term ("contract") and WestLaw will also search for the plural ("contracts"). However, if you search for the plural ("contracts"), WestLaw will not look for the singular version. 
  • Hyphens matter! -- "rule making" vs. "rule-making" will produce different results. 
  • If you select a "Content Type" before searching and then go into Advanced Search, WestLaw will provide you with a list of the fields that you can search against and a diagram of where they are in the document ( very useful if you are not familiar with the parts of that document!). For example, here is the breakdown of fields for a Case. 

Special [Boolean] Operators

You may have learned how to use simple Boolean operators -- such as AND, OR, NOT and/or the * -- in other research databases. WestLaw uses its own set of operators, called connectors and expanders: You can also find these operators in the Advanced Search menu of WestLaw. 

*An important difference to note: While in most of our databases, "AND" is the default key term, in WestLaw the default is OR. So, while in CrossSearch a search for contract law would search for contract AND law, in WestLaw this will produce contract OR law, 

Operator Meaning/Purpose






" "



[a space] 







in the same sentence as...


within the same sentence and before...

in the same paragraph as....

[search for a specific phrase, ex. "Supreme Court"]

within the same paragraph and before...

but NOT 


within n words of

expander -- ex. leg! = legal, legislative, etc. 

within n words before...

universal character - wildcard

prefix which turns off automatic searching for plurals, etc.   



breach! /3 contract /s third-party 

searches for any term beginning with "breach" (breach, breaches, breached, etc.), within 3 words of the term "contract," within the same sentence as "third-party."