Boolean: The dead language of legal research?

Posted on 06-01-2015 by
Tags: legal research , Boolean , Top Stories , research

“Nobody uses Boolean anymore,” a lawyer recently told me. When I heard this, my jaw dropped because I’m a child of Boolean searches. In law school, Boolean connectors were drilled into our heads, while natural language was brushed under the rug. Back then, Boolean exemplified accuracy. Natural language … well, it was like throwing a dart blindfolded.

Technology has evolved, and natural language (the once 99 pound weakling) has put on some muscle. Or to put it another way, Boolean has stopped kicking sand in natural language’s face. In fact, according to my lawyer friend, Boolean is pretty much dead.

But is Boolean really dead?

To crack this question, a group of legal professionals were recently asked:  “How do you search?  Natural language ... Boolean ... a little of both?” To my surprise, Boolean is not dead. In fact, it’s alive and well. With over 100 responses, the majority championed Boolean searches, either exclusively or in complement with natural language. Here’s what some of them had to say:

“I love boolean searching.  I am totally addicted.  My favorites are the adjacent and within a certain number words.  I think those behave most like a natural word search word but with better precision.  Truth be told though, I always feel like a pro when I can use parenthesis. “ - Susan J.

“I use natural language to get started most of the time. Once I get a sense of the case, I sometimes use Boolean to narrow the results. From time to time, when I am trying to find a particular phrase or a reference to a person, I use Boolean from the outset. “ – Calvin H.

 “It really depends on my search.  If it is a new topic or I am casting a wide net, I will use natural language searching.  Often, once I receive the results, I will use boolean to narrow.  If, however, I am well aware of the topic, I will use boolean from the get-go.  My most common terms or connectors are AND, OR, wild cards with specific words, and the BUT NOT.  I often forget about AT LEAST -- this is reminding me I need to use that too!” - Rebecca B.

“I always use Boolean first - I only use Natural if I can't find anything using my terms.  I have found the natural language search results to be too broad or "fuzzy." with what they come back with.  And I dread trying to answer the question - why did your search return *this* case?? - which is harder (if not impossible) to answer with a natural language search.” – Abigail R.

A sigh of relief on my end because I’m a big Boolean fan. And I’m sure George Boole appreciates your continued support too. 

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