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Blog: Legal Research: Going Beyond Legal Terminology

One of the many specialized tasks a paralegal performs is legal research. Our extensive training comprises of (but no limited too) research planning, generating keyword search terms and phrases, understanding primary and secondary sources, and knowing how case laws are recorded. Research today is typically performed electronically, via the internet. Consequently, paralegal research training has become extensive, that is, beyond the scope of legal terminology. Performing organic searches on the internet (on any given topic) requires a paralegal to have knowledge in search engine optimization or (SEO), and applying Boolean Logic.

Armed with SEO knowledge a paralegal knows that title tags, description tags, alt tags, and the webpage content (associated with a specific topic) are not only important elements to a webpage designer, but they are also important elements during an internet research project.

Let’s test this, assume my supervising attorney has requested a search for accident reconstruction with animation services in Northwest Arkansas. If I begin with an organic search using the search phrase “accident reconstruction” the search produces 3,330,000 results. The search engines did exactly what I instructed. It crawled over thousands of webpages looking at the title tags, title descriptions, alt tags, as well as the webpage content to find the phrase I requested. Of course, it would take me years to comb through the results. I do not think my supervising attorney has that kind of time.

Search results for organic search using the phrase accident reconstruction

Fortunately, the internet cannot read my mind, so let’s give it more information to narrow our search to a specific location, Northwest Arkansas. This is where the Boolean logic comes in; Boolean logic are logical operators “AND”, “OR”, and “NOT” that help narrow or reduce the search results to the specific requested terms or phrases. For example, using the Boolean operator “AND” between the phrases; “Accident reconstruction AND Northwest Arkansas” my search request is reduced to 231,000 results. Even so, this is a lot of data to comb through.

Using Boolean logic "AND" between phrases Accident reconstruction and Northwest Arkansas

Narrowing this search even further, remember I have one more search term “animation.” Again, using the Boolean logic “AND”, I will add “OR” to search phrases. Now my search is “Accident reconstruction AND Northwest Arkansas OR animation.” The search results went from 3,330,000 results to 231,000 results, and by adding the search term animation combined with Boolean logic “OR” I have narrowed the search to 48,400 results. Depending on your specific needs you can utilize related keyword search terms or phrases combined with Boolean logic to reduce your results further.

Adding search term animation and the Boolean logic "OR" to reduce the search results

You may be wondering what SEO has to do with this research exercise. Similar to the importance of knowing how case law is recorded, it is equally important to know (when conducting research via the internet) how webpages are indexed. Using the screen shot of the last search results, notice each result either has a title and description containing the keyword terms or phrases in bold lettering that we used. One of the methods webpages are index by the search engines is the terms populated within the title tags and descriptions tags, which are created by the webpage designers. Webpage designers do not think alike when they create terms for their titles and descriptions tags. Therefore using Boolean operators to instruct the search engines to retrieve specific terms or phrases reduces the search results further. Additionally, instead of clicking on each result, we can review the title and the brief description to determine if the webpage is relevant to our search.

While there are other research techniques, this provides a basic overview to perform electronic research via the internet. Going beyond legal terminology using this basic overview for internet research beginning with a research plan, having an understanding of SEO, as well as utilizing Boolean operators will save your supervising attorney and their client time and money.

Suzy Mathews lives in Northwest Arkansas. She is a freelance writer as well as a project manager, and a paralegal for a consulting firm. Suzy graduated Summa cum Laude at Kaplan University with a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies.