What Is KeySearch?

KeySearch is a research tool that helps the researcher to find cases and secondary sources; a feature which allows the legal researcher to use “pre-packaged”searches designed by Westlaw researchers for many Legal topics .

According to the publisher “KeySearch is a search tool that identifies key numbers and terms based on the topics you select from an easy-to-use list of topics. KeySearch then runs a query created by a West Attorney -editor. It retrieves documents that contain key numbers, such as cases
with West headnotes, as well as documents that don’t contain key numbers, such as law
review articles and cases without West headnotes.”

The topics represent nearly 10,000 legal issues, a more small group than the original 100.000 of subtopics of the Key Number System . The number of legal issues of Search Advisor is even smaller, about a half of Keysearch.

Cindy Curling made an interesting comparision in her “Features – KeySearch, West’s Key Number System , and Lexis ‘ Search Advisor”(

“For each issue, a West expert has formulated a matching query. Essentially, a user drills down through the topic hierarchy until he gets to an issue specific enough for his research. If the user is not sure where an issue falls in the hierarchy, he can run a general keyword search and the result will show any category that includes his term(s).

The queries themselves are difficult to compare because the Search Advisor queries are hidden. With KeySearch you can opt to see the pre-formulated queries for each issue by clicking to “View Query”. Queries may consist of one or several Key Numbers, a combination of Key Numbers and text, or text only, depending in part on whether or not the database searched is one which contains topic and Key Number references. This assures that families of Key Numbers categorized under different topics are pulled together for the broadest relevant search and that any additional terms not treated in the topic and Key Number System are included.

Printed West System and the need of change

The of Search Advisor over the printed West system is that use a term-based structure rather than the numbered hierarchy of West Key Numbers, being more more intuitive.

Cindy Curling made also a comparision between the Search Advisor Features and the printed West System. See Search Advisor.

KeySearch vs. Search Advisor

For Cindy Curling, “KeySearch allows access to most of West’s secondary materials, though not to general legal news as does Search Advisor. When you choose a topic, applicable secondary materials are available to search from the same screen where you can search case law. According to West, news materials are not included since they are not likely to use the sort of legal terminology which makes up the queries derived from the topic and Key Number System.

KeySearch is more current than the topic and Key Number System. User searches run on any database included on Westlaw for that topic or sub-topic, including new unedited cases. The Key Number queries, however, are only meaningful on West annotated cases with headnotes and Key Numbers as they become available from the editorial process.

KeySearch is much more flexible and responsive to the vagaries of the law than the topic and Key Number System since text can be added to modify queries without changing the formal classification scheme.

The Shortcomings of KeySearch

In his paper “The Death of the Digest and the Pitfalls of Electronic Research: What Is the Modern
Legal Researcher to Do?”, Lee F. Peoples asks students to compare search, keySearch and printed Digests.

He wrote the following abut the KeySearch tool in the above paper:

“KeySearch is West’s most overt attempt to integrate elements of the printbased digest system into the electronic world of Westlaw…. KeySearch has been described as a cross between a search created by humans and a search created by computer algorithms, a “prepackaged free-text search . . . loosely based upon the Key Number system.” (1) Commentators have been critical of KeySearch. One author saw KeySearch as a “shell over the existing key number system” and thought its pre-established categories defeated much of free text searching’s power. (2) He described the introduction of KeySearch as “an example of advancing into the past.” (3) Another article reviewing KeySearch was critical of search results being dependant on selecting the
proper prechosen path through the layers of topic categories.(4)

Criticisms of West’s efforts to integrate the digest into the electronic environment date back to the early days of computer-assisted Legal Research . John Doyle’s article, “Westlaw and the American Digest Classification Scheme,” (5) pointed out a number of deficiencies with the online version of the digest as it existed in 1992. Many of the problems Doyle identified have been corrected in the years since his article appeared. Improvements include offering the ability to browse digest topics with the Custom Digest, informing users when outdated topics or key numbers have been replaced, and providing a capacity with KeySearch to create searches for users who do not know how to use the system.

Some of his critiques remain valid, however, including the conservative pace at which digest
topics are changed, the unavailability of the descriptive word index in the online format, and whether the print digest based in a linear mode of thought is adaptable to the computer at all.

Students’ opinion of KeySearch went from bad to worse after training and completing the exercises.
Twenty-nine percent of students rated KeySearch as least efficient at answering both fact and rule questions before training and completing the assignment. This percentage notably increased after students completed the assignment….. Students said it took the longest amount of time for them to feel confident and satisfied when using the print digest and KeySearch.

KeySearch was not shown to be a tool that successfully integrated the structure of the print digest into the electronic environment. Students had poor opinions of KeySearch and answered the least amount of questions correctly using it. They ranked it at or near the bottom for effectiveness and found it required more time to feel confident and comfortable using than other resources. Some
students indicated they spent more than one hour trying to answer questions with KeySearch that were answered in minutes with other resources.

Students’ comments about KeySearch were in line with some common critiques of the resource. Students felt that KeySearch’s hierarchy of topics and subtopics trapped them into a line of thinking and unnecessarily narrowed their search options.

This critique is similar to the concern expressed by Wolf and Wishart that KeySearch results are too dependant on selecting the proper prechosen path through the topical layers. Students also expressed concern that KeySearch was not adding anything of value to their searches, and they would have preferred to run them as terms and connectors searches. This is similar to the critique voiced by Hanson that KeySearch’s reliance on the existing digest hierarchy is an example of “advancing into the past.” ”

He concluded that “Librarians must advocate for improvements in KeySearch and other similar technologies that address the weaknesses of electronic databases should incorporate positive aspects of print research into the electronic environment.”


1. Paul Callister, Getting Your Research Bearings: Dead Reckoning v. The Sextant, 92 ILL. B.J. 49, 50 (2004).(Headnote from the paper)
2. F. Allan Hanson, From Key Numbers to Keywords: How Automation Has Transformed the Law, 94 2002 LAW LIBR. J. 36, supra note 17, at 578.
3. Id.
4. Alan Wolf & Lynn Wishart, A Tale of Legal Research : Shepard’s and KeyCite are Flawed (Or Maybe It’s You), N.Y. ST. B.A. J., Sept. 2003, at 24, 29.
5. John Doyle, WESTLAW and the American Digest Classification Scheme, 84 LAW LIBR. J. 229

See Also

Further Reading

  • Gabor, Francis A. Guide to Legal Research and Writing from the Transnational Perspective. Lake Mary, FL : Vandeplas Publishing, 2008.
  • Hoffman, Marci, International Legal Research in a Nutshell. St. Paul, MN : Thomson/West, 2008.
  • Germain, Claire M., Germain’s Transnational Law Research : a Guide for Attorneys, Ardsley-on-Hudson, N.Y. : Transnational Juris Publications, Inc., 1991- .
  • Hoffman, Marci, International and Foreign Legal Research : a Coursebook. Leiden ; Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2008.
  • Introduction to Research in International Law, Research Guide,University of Southern California Libraries, available at
  • European law databases: an experiment in retrieval, PJ O’Shea, E Wilson
  • How to find the law, ML Cohen, RC Berring, KC Olson
  • The Death of the Digest and the Pitfalls of Electronic Research: What Is the Modern Legal Researcher to Do?. LF Peoples – 97 Law library Journal 661-679, 2005
  • Law library evaluation standards: how will we evaluate the virtual library. GM Daly – J. Legal Educ., 1995
  • Forty-Two: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Teaching Legal Research to the Google Generation.I Gallacher – bepress Legal Series, 2005
  • Legal research in the computer age: A paradigm shift. CM Bast, RC Pyle – Law Libr. J., 2001
  • LawBot: a multiagent assistant for legal research. S Debnath, S Sen, B Blackstock
  • Electronic Databases in Legal Research: Beyond Lexis and Westlaw. SB Kauffman – Rutgers Computer & Tech. LJ, 1987
  • Collapse of the Structure of the Legal Research Universe: The Imperative of Digital Information. RC Berring – Wash. L. Rev., 1994
  • Full-text databases and legal research: Backing into the future. RC Berring – High Tech. LJ, 1986


References and Further Reading

About the Author/s and Reviewer/s

Author: international

Mentioned in these Entries

Attorney, Corpus Juris Secundum, How to search legal journal indexes?, Key Number System, Law library, Legal Research, Legal topics, Lexis, National Reporter System, U.S. Digests, UK Case citators.



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