In which I write about legal research

Minn. Stat. (2010)

Minn. Stat. (2010)

As one does. You know, sometimes.

I recently read an empirical research paper called, “Rebooting Legal Research in a Digital Age,”  which discusses the results of a survey asking new lawyers how they do legal research. This stuff is like catnip to me; I can’t resist these surveys. I’m always looking for insight into how better to teach students legal research skills, like the do-goody, suck-uppy librarian that I am.

So this survey looked at 190 new-ish attorneys (in practice five years or less). I can’t remember enough of my stats class to know if this is a sufficient pool of respondents. They found some interesting things, some of which we’ve heard before: associates think they need more legal research training in school; they do their research online, etc. Here were the parts that most jumped out at me:

Considering the significant amount of time that associates spend conducting online legal research, nearly half surveyed (49%) feel that legal research should be a larger part of the law school curriculum. And, eight in ten feel that there was at least one area of legal research that should have been given more time. Statutory research, administrative law, and public records searching topped the list for specific areas that deserved more time or exposure. A greater law school focus on online research would seem even more critical given that, as previously noted, associates believe employers expect them to have strong legal research skills, they spend the majority of their time in paid for legal research services, and many firms may not be offering professional development in this area.

I have some quibbles with some of their explanations for their findings:

There is wider use of Boolean queries over Natural Language searching as a search method, particularly among associates in practice two or more years (51% use Natural Language, 79% use Boolean with nearly half using both). That said, associates in practice less than two years favor Natural Language, and this trend is expected to continue as a result of Google exposure and the emergence of next-generation research platforms such as Lexis Advance® and WestlawNext®. Certainly, as this trend grows, there will likely be a debate about the effectiveness of research results using Boolean search query compared to Natural Language.

I am perfectly willing to accept that most people do not embrace Boolean searching the way that librarians do. But, could it not also be  the case that, as attorneys become more experienced as searchers, they find that Boolean (sometimes) works better, rather than that newer associates are necessarily younger and more used to Natural Language searching (which, after all, has been around for quite a while, even if it is much more ubiquitous – and, admittedly, better – now)?

And the concluding sentence to this paragraph is interesting – if Natural Language continues to improve, there very well may be a debate about the effectiveness of the two methods (well, it will be a short debate – if it improves enough, and it is easier to do, that’s the method people will use, period). However, at least for me, Boolean searching remains much more effective now, in both Lexis Advance® and WestlawNext®, even though these systems are diligently trying to get me to stop using it. Heck, Boolean is often more effective than Natural Language searching on Google. That’s why power searchers use it.

And I was perplexed by this part:

In general, [for statutory research,] small and large law firm associates both tend to take similar approaches but start out quite differently. Large law firm associates start by consulting an index or table of contents for federal statutes or a particular state, then go to case annotations in relevant statutes, and next link to related materials, ending with a citation validation program. In contrast, small law associates begin by formulating a Natural Language search in statutes, follow the same workflow of reviewing case annotations in statutes, linking to related materials, and concluding with a citation validation program. 20% of associates begin statutory research by running a search in an online case law database to find a case mentioning a relevant statute. One may hypothesize that the variation in research methods is a result of cost recovery. Large law firms typically charge clients for online research and consulting an index or table of contents is a free or inexpensive option. 

(Emphasis mine). If it’s “free or inexpensive,” shouldn’t everybody start their statutory research this way, regardless of whether they work for a small or large law firm (also, wouldn’t small law firms be even LESS willing to pay for the inefficiencies apparently created by not going to the TOC or index??)? I may be misunderstanding this paragraph.

I do think the differences in the way new associates versus not-so-new associates approach research is something to pay attention to – although I think it’s hard to make conclusions about why the differences exist. Is it because newer associates are younger, more “digital natives”? Is it because they are simply more inexperienced? Will their own research habits change as they become not-so-new associates?

And, of course, I need to pay heed to differences between the way I approach searching and the way students/associates do. Do they all need to become power searchers? I don’t know.


2 responses

  1. Interesting…I run into some of the same issues in my courses/curriculum.

    One of the tricky pieces of this is that the available tech can change so quickly, even in a year or two. Three years ago, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to think of Twitter as a viable research site–now it’s an important part of my repertoire both for discovering others’ work and promoting my own. You’ve got more inertia with the long history of Westlaw and Lexis, but still–part of the challenge is not focusing too heavily on something that may not be relevant or useful in a few years.

    I cast my vote for power searching: better to have those skills and not need them than the reverse, yeah? 🙂


  2. I agree with you, Collin. Just need to figure out how/when to get it in. They’re required to take research their first year, but it’s kind of limited; we can’t get it all in. Some of them take advanced research classes, but not all do. It’s interesting that many surveys indicate that associates feel they didn’t get enough research training – the opportunities are generally there, but they have to choose to take an advanced research class at the expense of something else.

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