Happy 2014, everyone! With a new year comes a new adventure for me – I’m participating in Ms. JD‘s Writers in Residence program. Essentially, I have committed to writing a monthly column for their blog: “Research Makeover: The Tips, Tricks, and Trade of Legal Research in the Digital Age.” My first post is up, and both introduces who I am and why I thought a column on legal research was important.
Essentially, I discuss legal research the way many have before me – as an overlooked, but essential, lawyering skill. I cite to AALL’s recent task force survey of practitioners and the research faults of their summer clerks and new hires, and I allude to several other studies as well. Given all this evidence that legal research is an essential and lacking skill, I postulated two main reasons I see for why such an essential skill is so commonly overlooked: Assumption of Skill and Information Overload. I hope you’ll read the post (and my next 11 as well!), but I thought I’d flesh this out a little further here.
Assumption of Skill – I think it is easy for anyone today, not just law students and not just in the legal profession, to assume s/he has solid research skills. In the Ms. JD post, I cite one reason for this: that most of us have had to do some kind of research during our education, for a paper, an article, or something similar. Therefore we know how to research, right? Unfortunately, there is a critical distinction to be made here between academic research and client-based research. Sure, you might use some of the same resources and materials for both, but the strategy is necessarily different. Academic research can be a little more exploratory without causing any significant problems; you can wander between resources, run a thousand different searches, and download hundreds of documents without worry. When you’re researching for a client, however, you have to know the best resources for finding your answers, you have to have the confidence that the answers you’re finding are complete and accurate, and you have to complete the research process efficiently, both for time and financial concerns. With many subscription databases, opening documents, downloading documents, or even running multiple searches can rack up your costs without you knowing it until the bill arrives! The stakes are high in client-based research. You need to have a plan; you need to know what you need to know; and you need to know where to find it. All that issue-spotting ingrained into you in your substantive law classes is a critical component of your research strategy, and an important first step in the process. You don’t want to go in blind.
In addition, I think today especially it is easy to assume that legal research is a no-brainer because of the Google world in which we live. Even the legal research databases we’ve been accustomed to for years have begun migrating to a Google-esque platform. With the “world at your fingertips” mentality, it is easy to assume you’re finding everything there is to find on your subject by running these catch-all searches. But I must reinforce my earlier point: you still have to know where to find the answer. Even if you’re running a whole-database search, if you don’t know that you need to be looking at regulations instead of statutes, you may end up looking at the wrong search results. Legal research is just as much about knowing where to look as it is about finding the right answers.
Information Overload – This point has already been touched upon as well, but, ironic though it may seem, having easy access to so much more information than before may actually make it harder to find answers. There is so much more to sift through, and evaluating the validity and reliability of electronic resources is not always an easy task. Like many librarians, I find value in both print and electronic research. One of the characteristics I value most highly about print research, and something I find lacking in electronic, is the ability to always know what I am looking at and how the information is organized. I try to emphasize to my students that, with electronic research, you need to always be cognizant of what you’re looking at; with a few tabs and hyperlinks, I may go from looking at one case to looking at a citing decision without realizing it. That makes it awfully easy for me to misappropriate references in my briefs and memos. And when dealing with statutes and regulations, it’s so much easier to understand these materials when you can see how they’re arranged; yet many databases post these materials without posting their finding aids, such as tables of contents and indexes. Information is only as good as what you can comprehend.
This discussion is a little more fleshed-out than in my Ms. JD post on the subject, but I am hoping that it will prompt devoted followers of the blog to tune in to my future posts. Like any law librarian, I am passionate about legal research, and I am so happy to get to share this with others.