Searching Using Keywords & Boolean Logic – Keywords: Defining Legal Concepts

Keywords are the search terms used to locate legal materials!

Developing an effective search strategy

1. Start with factual analysis and issue identification, using a model such as FILAC

2. Choose Keywords that Describe or Fit the Legal Concepts and Issues

3. Develop Keyword Alternatives!

CAVEAT: When devising new keywords, be careful not to lose sight of that "net" you are trying to cast and the question you are attempting to answer!

Catchwords & Keyword Hierarchy

Not all keywords are created equal!

Depending on the nature of the legal problem, certain keywords will be more important, relevant, or useful than others. This is particularly true when you do not use them in combination with each other.

EXAMPLE: Take the case shown in Fig 1.1 as an example. The catchwords are ordered hierarchically, from broad and general to narrow and specific:

These "catchwords” give you a good indication of the case content: it is a tort case, in which a negligence claim is being brought against a defendant who allegedly failed to discharge the necessary duty of care, thereby causing psychiatric harm to the plaintiff.  The words "fly" and "water" reveal the specific context and circumstances of this particular decision.

When choosing and brainstorming keywords, you should try and classify them in a similar way, developing this type of "keyword hierarchy.” Remember that "net.” By using only primary keywords you will capture all the materials you need, but at the expense of capturing many more that are irrelevant to your specific, particular question.  

On the other hand, if you adopt only tertiary keywords you will fail to capture some of the information pertaining to the broader legal issues, and return search results that have little to do with the area you are researching. Consider the above example. If you searched only "fly” and "water”, you would likely return cases relating to product liability or fishing. If you searched only "depression”, your results might concern the diagnosis of mental illness or worker's compensation.  These decisions would offer minimal assistance to you concerning the elements of negligence or its applicability in the circumstances you are researching.

By combining primary, secondary, and tertiary keywords along the hierarchy you will have the best of both worlds and be able to conduct a more effective and efficient search.  The primary words will cast the broadest net possible over the relevant areas, and the secondary and tertiary keywords will ensure that net shrinks to produce manageable and highly focussed results.

Once you've categorized your keywords in this way, you can apply your hierarchy to an actual search using Boolean operators and connectors.