Legal research is now synonymous with online search. Advances in search relevance help legal professionals be more productive, but human expertise drives productivity gains as much as algorithms do.

Quality legal research is critical to the practice of law. Practitioners must efficiently search a growing number of sources to ensure complete and accurate results. More than ever before, good search results require clear connections among disparate sources and types of information. Current online technology makes this possible. New technology will improve search. But lawyers, paralegals and law librarians—real people, not algorithms—and their understanding of search concepts and techniques remain key to quality results. That means understanding search today, and where it’s headed tomorrow.

Divining the Legal Mysteries of the All-Powerful Search Box explains the online search landscape and distills the essential principles behind good search technique with an eye toward future developments. It’s a must-read for legal professionals.


[The lawyer] is the sole interpreter of an occult science.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America


Foundations of Modern Online Legal Research

We’re pretty sure most lawyers didn’t train at Hogwarts, but online legal research may seem like an occult science to many. Divining the Legal Mysteries of the All-Powerful Search Box demystifies search with the Lexis Advance® system as a guide. LexisNexis brought the law online to the legal profession and remains a leader in the field. A brief look back at the foundations of online search provides a point of reference for things to come.

  • Boolean search made online research possible. Simple to understand and easy to implement, it remains a great way to search if you know what you are looking for and where to find it.
  • Natural language made search more human and forgiving. By recognizing inexact though similar matches, it expanded the realm of relevant results.
  • Special searches like LEXCITE® and LEXSEE® tackled a problem unique to legal research, recognizing and finding legal citations.
  • The need to disambiguate legal terms that mean different things in different jurisdictional or practice settings is being accomplished with search filters and advanced recognition algorithms.

The use of special solutions for problems unique to searching legal information differentiates Lexis Advance and other online legal platforms from so-called “free” online search engines.

Future Legal Research: Order from Chaos

Divining the Legal Mysteries provides insight into the future of online legal research. One method it explores for improving legal search involves finding relationships—connecting the dots—between discrete bits of information.

  • Sophisticated parsing routines include phrase and case recognition, as well as recognition of implied phrases and the relationships between specific search terms. These approaches not only find connections but also aid disambiguation.
  • Recognizing characteristics that meaningfully differentiate sources of information significantly boosts relevance. For example, all courts of cognate jurisdiction are created equal, but they do not all stay that way. Leaders emerge: Delaware for corporation law, the Eastern District of Texas for intellectual property. Appellate courts are more authoritative, but trial courts issue fact-rich analyses. Judges obtain reputations that do not go unnoticed and cannot be ignored.
  • The human factor further distances online legal research platforms from general search technology. Legal expertise is a key element in enhancing searchability of data. Legal specialists—the kind LexisNexis employs—work constantly to add context, metadata and quality control that enhance not only searchability of data but utility of results.

For a more complete overview of the history of online legal research as well as a look into the role humans will play as technology becomes more intuitive, download the complete article (PDF).