Both Westlaw and Lexis use a default Natural Language search, similar to Google's: type a term (keyword), a group of terms, or a question, and press Enter. Results appear ranked for relevancy.
But we don't know precisely how Lexis or Westlaw determines what is relevant. Nor do we know how either legal research service processes the terms we type. Consequently, we can't know for sure why we're seeing these particular results. This makes refining our search frustratingly complicated, because we can't predict how the results of a slightly different search are likely to differ from the original results.
Both Westlaw and Lexis also offer alternatives to the default search that give us more control over search results. This in turn allows us to refine our searches to improve relevancy and precision.
There are good reasons to prefer alternative number 2, Terms & Connectors searching. Once you learn a handful of core connectors and operators, you can type sophisticated searches directly into the search field without being confined to a search template. You can also predict how slight adjustments to the search will refine your results. For an illustration of a tool on Lexis+ that helps visualize the logic of a Terms & Connectors search, see this brief blog post about Connecting to Connectors.
For all you need to know to start using smart, logical, sophisticated Terms & Connectors, proceed to the box below, All You Need to Know.
Terms are the keywords you search. If you're interested in materials about dogs and cats, you'll want to search
...and maybe also
...and so forth.
Connectors are tools for relating your terms to each other. Two basic connectors are AND and OR. If you seek materials that discuss both dogs and cats, you should search
dogs AND cats
If you seek materials that discuss either dogs or cats, including materials that refer to them only using the synonyms, you should search
dogs OR cats OR feline OR canine
|OR||searches for occurrences of either (or both) terms. Ex.: damage OR harm OR injury|
|AND||searches for occurrences of both terms. Ex.: erisa and fiduciary|
|/s||searches for both terms within the same sentence. Ex.: fiduciary /s actuary|
|/p||searches for both terms within the same paragraph. Ex.: immunity /p government|
|/n||(where n is a number) searches for both terms within n words of each other. Ex.: herma /2 kay|
|"phrase"||(where phrase is any phrase consisting of multiple terms, enclosed in quotation marks) searches for the exact phrase. Ex.: "herma hill kay"|
Operators (or commands) are tools that instruct the search engine to treat the terms in special ways. There are really only two operators you need to know. The first has to do with truncation of a term, the second with a term's relevance.
|term!||(where term is a string or root common to several words, followed by an exclamation point) searches for occurrences of those words. Ex.: term! (= term, terms, terminal, terminate, termination, termite...)|
|atleastn(term)||(where term is a term and n is the minimum number of occurrences in a resulting document) searches for documents in which term occurs at least n times. Ex.: atleast5(fiduciary)|