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The use of free form searching can be the most effective way to perform a legal search – whether the search is for case law, government data (trademark or patent databases); or e-discovery projects.
Each platform/database will have different rules behind the free form searches but in general you will be using three main components in your free form search:
Fields are separate defined components of data entered as part of the whole document in a database. In other words, a field will be a subcategory of data within the main document. Examples of fields are: date of a case decision; title of a patent; owner of a trademark; etc.
For many databases allowing free form searching, the field will be defined before the search term. For example in the USPTO Full Text and Image Database a field is defined with a certain abbreviation. So if a searcher wants to search for a patent issued on a particular date the search would be: isd/(the date). The “isd/” defines the search will be performed in a particular field -- the date field. If the field is not defined then commonly the search will look for the search term anywhere in the document.
For case law legal research platforms, usually a free form search does not require an indication of the field. The search terms will be included in the main search box and those search terms will be searched in the whole document. There can be separate search terms based on other fields but those will be entered separately on the interface - usually on a side column or a button near the search button (Example: entering the date range of the decision; or the court making the decision).
A search term can be: (A) a single search term; (B) an exact phrase; or (C) a parenthetical.
There are three types of operators: (1) Boolean operators (also called logical operators); (2) proximity operators; and (3) truncation operators.
1) Use of a Boolean operator is a way to combine two search terms. The main Boolean operators are: (A) AND, (B) OR, and (C) NOT.
2) Use of a proximity operator is a way to find a result where the two search terms are a certain distance from each other. Proximity operators can: (A) define proximity between two search terms where the order doesn’t matter; (B) define proximity between two search terms where the order does mater; or (C) define proximity within a certain part of the document.
3) Use of a truncation operator is a way to manipulate a single search term to return multiple results. A truncation operator can be a: (A) end truncation operator; or (B) middle truncation operator.
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