Are you new to conducting legal research? Or has it been a while since you have researched a legal issue and you need a quick refresher? In this article, we offer recommendations for using keywords to research a legal issue.
Please note: This article focuses on keyword searching, but using our CARA A.I. search engine is another great way to start your legal research. All you need is a document relating to the issues in your case. Just upload that document to CARA and get a list of cases that are relevant to the factual and legal issues in your case. To learn more about using CARA, please see: What is CARA A.I. and how do I use it?
Step 1: Run a fairly broad search to get a sense of the universe of authorities on your topic.
To start your keyword search, type in terms describing your legal research issue into the keyword search bar. We recommend beginning your research with a broad search to see the extent of the authorities on your topic.
Here are some do's and don'ts for figuring out which terms to use in a keyword search:
-Do: keep your search simple - At this stage, you want a broad search to see the universe of authorities on your topic. Focus on just a few legal terms. (As a rule of thumb, if you are using more than 10 words in the keyword search bar, that is probably too many).
-Don't: try to explain your entire case in a single search - Try to focus on one legal question at a time. You can add details regarding the parties, motion at issue, and cause of action of your case by applying filters after you run your search, as will be discussed in Step 2, below.
-Don't: use a lot of generic terms - Certain words appear so often in court opinions that it is impossible to use those words, by themselves, to find anything relevant. For example, the keyword search for a generic term like "motion" will not help you. The word "motion" appears millions of times in court opinions, making it difficult for you to sort through all those cases to find what you need. Likewise, just searching for the words plaintiff, defendant, party, court, or file will return a lot of irrelevant results.
-Do: use legal phrases - You can use quotes to look for a specific phrase. For example, instead of just searching for "motion" (which is too generic), you could search for "motion to reconsideration" through your search results. Putting "motion for reconsideration" in quotes tells our database to look for that motion specifically and not other types of irrelevant motions.
However, you only want to search for exact phrases if you are reasonably certain that these phrases actually appear in court opinions. For example, you would not want to search for "dismiss complaint filed by holdover tenant" since it is unlikely that a court has used that exact (long) phrase. But you can use "holdover tenant," as that is a legal term that does appear in court opinions.
-Do: use the root expander: You can use the exclamation point (!) to tell our database that you want to look for all variations of a word. Root expanders are commonly used with verbs so that your search captures the past, present, and future tense of a verb. For example, if I want to find cases on witness impeachment, and I just type in impeachment, I'm limited to cases that just mention that word. I miss seeing cases that use different verb tenses (impeached, impeaching, impeach, etc.). But by searching for impeach!, I see the cases that discuss impeachment, impeached, impeaching, etc., which yields a much more complete universe of cases.
-Do: use proximity connectors: Proximity connectors tell our database that you want to see cases containing words within a specified distance of one another. This is especially helpful if you want to find cases involving specific outcomes or events. For example, if I want to find cases where a motion for reconsideration was granted, I could search for "motion for reconsideration" /s granted.
The connector /s is a proximity connector that tells our database to look for "motion for reconsideration" within the same sentence as the word granted. You can also use /p to look for words within the same paragraph as one another, or /n to look for words within a specified number of words as one another. (Please note that n = a number, so you should search for "motion for reconsideration" /10 granted, if you wanted the phrase "motion for reconsideration" to appear within 10 words of granted).
-Don't: start with a restrictive search: If you want to use proximity connectors, we recommend starting with a broad connector (like /p for the same paragraph) first. If your search using a broad connector returns a lot of results, you can then narrow those results by using our filters (described below), or by replacing the /p with a narrower connector (like /s, for same sentence). You can always narrow your results, but if you start with a very restrictive search, you miss out on seeing potentially helpful cases and additional avenues for your research.
After you have chosen your keywords, along with any connectors, you can then select your jurisdiction from the right-hand side of the search bar, where it says "All State and Federal." The default setting is to show you all cases from all jurisdictions, so if you want to only see cases from a specific court, you will choose a jurisdiction from the menu. For more information on our jurisdiction filter, please see How do I filter my results by jurisdiction?
Please note: This article includes general recommendations regarding keyword terms and connectors that you can use to find cases. But for a full list of all the connectors that Casetext supports, please see What Boolean connectors do you support?
Step 2: Narrow your universe of cases
After you run your search and are taken to the search results page, you will see a heading on the left-hand side of your screen that says, "Filter and narrow." Under the heading, we include four different types of filters, as well as another search bar, which you can use to narrow your search results.
If you get a lot of results after performing Step 1, you can narrow your results using our filters, or by performing another a keyword search, or a combination of both.
Use our filters to reduce the number of results
In addition to our jurisdiction filter, we offer a motion filter, cause of action filter, party filter, and date filter.
-When to use our motion filter: If you are researching a legal issue in connection with a motion to dismiss, a motion for summary judgment, or a motion to compel discovery, we recommend using our motion filter to restrict your results to cases on your issue that pertain to that motion type. On the left-hand side of the results screen, you will see a heading for "motion type," and you can select the motion you would like from the list that appears beneath that heading.
-When to use our cause of action filter: If you are researching a legal issue in the context of a specific type of legal claim or cause of action (for example, a copyright infringement claim, a claim for breach of fiduciary duty, etc.), we recommend using our cause of action filter. Using that filter will narrow your results to include only those cases involving your cause of action. On the left-hand side of the results screen, you will see a heading for "causes of action." Click on the link that says "more causes of action" that appears under that heading to see the full menu of causes of action, and select any cause of action that pertains to your legal research issue.
-When to use our party type filter: If you are researching a legal issue that involves a specific industry or type of party (such as an insurance company, a hospital, an airline, etc.), you can narrow your search results to include only those cases involving that type of party. On the left-hand side of the results screen, you will see a heading for "party type." Click on the link that says "more party types" that appears under that heading to see the full menu of causes of action, and select any party type that pertains to your legal research issue.
-When to use our date filter: The default setting on Casetext is to show you cases that were decided at any time. But if you are interested in cases that were decided after 2000 or 2015, you can select those options under our date filter. You can also limit your cases to fall within an exact range of years (for example, all cases decided between 1980 and 2019). These options are available on the left-hand side of your search results screen, towards the bottom of the page, under where it says "Any time."
Use keywords to narrow your search
You can enter additional terms into the search bar that appears under "Filter and Narrow" on the left-hand side of your results page to further narrow your results. This search bar is known as our "search within" bar, as it searches within your original results for cases that meet additional requirements.
For example, let's say you searched for copyright! /p (phrase and song) in Step 1. (That search looks for all variations of the word copyright within the same paragraph as the words phrase and song). But that search returned over 100 results, and you are only interested in cases discussing the copyrightability of phrases in rap music. You can enter "rap music" or (rap /s (music or song)) in the search within bar to limit your results to the subset of cases that discuss the copyrightability of phrases in rap music.
Need additional help? If you are a Casetext subscriber and would like a more in-depth tutorial on legal research, we recommend attending a weekly training session, which you can register for here. You can also contact our support team by clicking on the blue chat icon in the bottom right-hand corner of your screen and asking for help finding cases or other authorities on your legal research issue.