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It is not uncommon for new associates to go down the wrong path when they undertake research in the law firm setting. Unlike the more finite research assignments in law school, the questions posed by real-life client needs are often open-ended and may cross a number of disciplines, laws, or regulations. Legal research as an associate differs from law school research in another important way, as well: Clients are billed for the hours spent researching and, in some cases, for the tools used to determine the answer. Billing partners cast a critical eye on costly research, and often end up “writing off” some of the time. The expense may, in fact, be warranted. However, research done by newer attorneys is often subject to errors of judgment in terms of time spent, sources selected, and results presented. In the transition from law school to the “real world,” new associates would do well, with each research assignment they accept, to take some time to think critically about the task at hand. Preparing a research plan upfront that thoughtfully maps out the best, most cost-effective way to reach the end result will help avoid costly missteps. Good research has many aspects in common with taking a journey. Plan and execute your research projects in much the same way you might prepare for that long-awaited vacation. Where am I going?A seemingly simple question that needs to be asked at the beginning of any research assignment, but one that many associates often don’t ponder and answer completely before undertaking the assignment at hand. Real attorneys do ask for directions! Most law school legal research classes present schema for analyzing a problem. In the real world, JUST ASK, an acronym developed by Ellen Callinan, a former librarian at Crowell & Moring, is a simple but very effective way for beginning researchers to be sure not to leave the assigning attorney’s office without all the necessary information: Jurisdiction, Useful tips, Scope of research, Terms of art, Acronyms, Sources, and Key cost constraints. Having a clear understanding from the start goes a long way toward a better end result — and a happier partner and client. Don’t leave home without it! WAYS AND MEANS Whether traveling by plane, bus, or car, vacationers need to be aware of budget limitations and the rules of the road. Bus transportation is cheaper than flying, but a car will allow more flexibility. Going by plane saves time over driving, but unless you arrive at the airport two hours before your scheduled departure time, you may miss your scheduled flight. Similarly, researchers need to be aware of the costs, benefits, and limitations of their selected modes of “transportation.” A common error among newer researchers is to overlook traditional research tools such as case law indexes, treatises, and looseleafs. These can be extremely useful if you are unfamiliar with an area of law. Treatises provide thoughtful analysis of discrete topics. Looseleafs are a great source of primary materials related to the subject, as well as cases and analysis. Each of these tools provides the researcher with a “lay of the land” view of the topic at hand, in a way that an electronic answer cannot. Newer associates grew up on video games and likely used the Internet extensively for college homework. They’re familiar with and most often turn to their computer for the first stage of a research project — and sometimes for all of it. Perceived as free, the Internet also appeals to newer associates, as an alternative to services such as Westlaw and Lexis and other fee-based resources. Before automatically starting with the Internet, though, a good researcher will weigh the costs in terms of time spent searching and the likelihood of getting what’s needed from the Internet, as opposed to skillfully using a pay-for-use online service or books to get the information. The choice is not always clear. Assuming a reasoned decision does lead the researcher to the Internet, missteps and mistakes can be avoided with some basic information all new associates should possess. Become familiar with some of the tools available within whatever browser you use for research. For example, the Edit/Find command on Explorer and Netscape can save time by taking you right to your desired term on the Internet page you’re looking at. Another useful browser tip is to open results in a second window, leaving the first search window available for viewing while looking at results. Taking a little time to become familiar with some of the more sophisticated features can pay off down the road. Most new associates today seem to come into firms with Google as their search engine of choice. Like the general population does, they type in one or two words on the main search screen and transmit. They then begin to scroll through the results, sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands, looking for something that seems useful. This approach may be fine for recreational searching, but it is time-consuming and dangerous in the legal arena. KNOW YOUR TOOLS Legal researchers using the Internet need a fundamental understanding of whatever Web tools they select, and they should use more than one. What’s better for the assignment, a search engine or a directory? If selecting a search engine, how does it function? Does it recognize capitalization, can phrases be searched, how deeply does it index, and are all results equal or does the engine accept paid placements? How deeply does the crawler index? Are there limits to the number of cites from a particular source? What about advanced search features? Having an in-depth knowledge of various Web tools can greatly affect research results. Specialized Google searches that let you limit results to PDF or Excel documents might make all the difference in finding a government report or an illusive statistic since most government documents are in PDF and many statistics are presented in Excel spreadsheets. And how about searching only for images? Simply using the image tab on Google might just produce the picture that is worth a thousand words! Much of this user information is available on the search tool’s Web site and requires just a little extra reading. Researchers can also consult Search Engine Showdown ( for reviews and charts of search engine features. When using a directory, researchers need to ask questions as well. Most important, it is vital to know if paid indexers actually do the selection and categorization or if any user is welcome to contribute. There are a number of directories on the Internet specifically for the law. Findlaw (, Heiros Gamos (, WashLaw (, and Lexnotes ( are among the most popular. Attorneys not familiar with these should learn about them and use them. No matter how you conduct research on the Internet, it is very important to view all results with a critical eye. The Internet is open to publishing by anyone with a computer, and not everything indexed is of equal value or authority. For example, a researcher looking for information on the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade from the World Trade Organization ( might easily stumble onto the parody site Any Web site being relied on needs to be evaluated in terms of accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency, and coverage. A good presentation of evaluation criteria and tips can be found at Neglecting to do a thorough job of verifying your sources can result in errors that are both embarrassing and costly. Sometimes the old adage “you get what you pay for” is true. Lexis and Westlaw, while often perceived as costly, are useful tools. Each provides numerous databases, value-added content, and enhanced functionality. Often the cost of use is offset by the convenience or content, but this is true only if the researcher understands the nuances of the systems and is skilled at searching. Keeping up with their changes is important, as well. Don’t hesitate to make use of telephone customer service for search strategy formulation (West: (800) 733-2889; Lexis: (800) 543-6862). These folks are experts and will provide step-by-step directions to get the results you need. CALL ON THE EXPERTS Many of us have memories of the family vacation with the kids packed in the car and frequent consultations of maps and guidebooks for recommended sights and hotels. For a short trip, many of us now check MapQuest or Yahoo! Maps on the Internet. The point is to get where you want to go and have the best experience. To accomplish this in research, as in travel, consult the experts. Many new lawyers, for whatever reason, overlook the expertise available to them within their law firm: the library staff. Librarians manage the firm’s information collection — print and electronic resources — and are trained in legal research. They know the subjects and sources for each of the firm’s areas of practice. Because they stay up to date on changes in content and searching on the Internet, librarians are also a valuable resource when you need search advice and training. The resources offered by the library are vetted, unlike the free-for-all nature of the Internet. The library staff can help you form a search strategy, as well as point you to sources that might be helpful, taking into consideration both content and cost. Because of their skill and experience with the Internet in particular, a good rule of thumb for new associates is to spend no more than 10 minutes searching for information on the Internet. If you don’t find what you’re seeking within 10 minutes, turn the job over to your librarian. New researchers who do not make use of their firm’s library offerings — and more important, the library staff — jeopardize their research success, not to mention wasting time and money. When it comes to a vacation, knowing when it is over is usually not a problem. If nothing else, you’ve probably run out of money! With research, on the other hand, new associates often have difficulty knowing when their search can reasonably be stopped. There are no hard and fast rules, but if the same cases keep coming up using different tools or if the same sources are cited repeatedly, you can be fairly confident that you’ve reached the end of your road. Remember, too, that sometimes if no answer can be found, that fact may be an answer in itself. When a trip is over, it can be fun to look back on pictures taken along the way. Keeping a record of your research stops is very important. Lexis and Westlaw and a number of electronic resources offer users the option of research logs. When searching on the Internet, capture the vital statistics of whatever sites you rely on. Given the changing nature of the Internet, you will need to be able to identify where you found what you found. You may even need to use a cache Web site such as the Wayback Machine ( to get back to something that has disappeared from a Web site. Don’t forget to get all the information you need for proper citation, too. Rule 18 of the Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation(17th edition) deals with electronic media and other nonprint resources; Rule 18.2 specifically addresses the Internet. Most new associates don’t find research quite as pleasant as a vacation, but research doesn’t have to be a negative experience. The trick is to be well-prepared before setting out, and to ask for directions along the way. Carolyn P. Ahearn is director of library services at Wiley Rein & Fielding.

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