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Ask the Online Search Expert

November 04, 2009

Dear Online Search Expert,

I am an experienced searcher. I use Google all the time, but I am new to Westlaw. When I searched the Westlaw databases ALLSTATES, ALLCASES with the terms “power of attorney” and “conservator,” it turned up the maximum of ten thousand documents. I modified it as follows: “power of attorney,” “conservator,” “new york,” and I still got the same maximum of ten thousand documents. Something went wrong. What happened?

Frustrated 2L

Dear Frustrated 2L,

There are a couple of factors at work here.  Let’s explore them.

First, we need to look at which databases you selected. If you had chosen a more relevant database, you would have received fewer, but more appropriate results. In short, selecting the right jurisdictional databases limits your results to relevant authority.

Similarly in legal practice, selecting a multi-jurisdictional database, whether in Lexis or Westlaw, will cost more than selecting a limited jurisdictional database. Larger more all encompassing databases are more expensive than smaller more relevant jurisdictional databases, resulting in less cost and better results. This will allow you to spend more time with analysis and writing.

Second, your search query can be improved. Adding terms narrows a Google search, but adding additional terms does the opposite with Westlaw. This has to do with Boolean connectors, such as AND or OR. Where there is no express connector, Google implies an AND between terms. On the other hand, Westlaw implies an OR, increasing the number of results.

Westlaw limits search results at 10,000 to reduce unnecessary strain on its servers, caused by poorly constructed search queries. In your case, adding “new york” would have increased the actual number of results from the hundreds of thousands into the millions.

What would I have done? I would have chosen a New York cases database like NY-CS. I would also have wanted “power of attorney” and “conservator” to be near each other in the discussion.   To do this, I would have run a search with a proximity connector (such as “/p” to search terms within the same paragraph) instead of an implied OR. Therefore, one search would be: “power of attorney” /p conservator. Using this search, results in 24 manageable cases.

Thanks for asking,
Online Search Expert