Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
When was the last time you spent more than 30 minutes in a law library? If your answer is “within the past month,” you are probably considered “old school” or even a Luddite. If your answer involves dead trees and something about how online research is so much faster and more efficient, then you are probably a bit younger. If you are a managing partner, you may consider the library an inefficient use of square footage. And if you are a summer associate, you figure you won’t be spending much time there. Law libraries used to be the sole place where written legal information was kept. Today, though, we’re surrounded by computers, Wi-Fi, Westlaw, and LexisNexis, all powerful legal research tools. They reside on our desks and even in our BlackBerrys and Treos. So, for a legal profession presumably controlled by stare decisis, rules, and statutes, all with an additive of creative thought, you would think the Internet would be a universally beneficial blessing for attorneys. After all, a minute saved from leafing through dusty, old books becomes a minute more spent on client development or putting the right polish on a brief, right? Well, the premise of that assumption is that “old school” research is more time-consuming. ON THE SOAPBOX Climbing atop a soapbox, I would like to suggest that the alluring attraction of online research is diminishing the application of comprehensive research in our field. Somewhere along the way, “finding” information became synonymous with “citing” and — even more dangerous — “understanding” information. Once that crucial switch was thrown, the indispensable tools we use to find everything from the Endangered Species Act to lyrics for an old song effectively took over. For example, the answer to a legal question often evokes the response: “I found this quote in a case.” A parenthetical is added to a citation in a brief, and one moves on. In relying so heavily on a singular case found electronically, the researcher adopts a view ironically constrained by technology, its boundaries set by what a keyboard and mouse can deliver to us, not by the totality of information out there. When it comes to the practice of law, secondary sources are therefore becoming an overlooked resource. Unless one knows the law so well, these secondary sources are the best places to start research and quickly gain knowledge of the legal landscape. Many lawyers have a tendency to trust databases and search engines and let their staggering reach and volume of results shape the research, thereby defeating the purpose. When your key word search for “willful” and “patent infringement” returns more than 700 hits, it’s easy to assume the most recent and accurate case is only a few clicks away, and that is probably close enough to get the job done. This point-and-click attitude has redefined our view of research. No longer an “art,” legal research appears to have become a “task” in our “Send me a meeting invite,” e-mail-driven existence. This is not lost on those aspiring to join our ranks. To get a great look at what a younger generation thinks of research, get to know the summer associates visiting your firm this year. Most of these law students have been on the Internet since elementary school — AOL was the first online service provider for consumers, and that was back in 1985. BOOKBINDERS AND DUST JACKETS Beyond sparing the toner and trees we ritually sacrifice for the sake of printing case law, actually opening books helps attorneys reason out relationships of cases to one another and put legal issues in perspective. For example, suppose you find a particularly useful Federal Circuit quote in a case with a key word search. “Shepardizing” it (checking Shepard’s Citations) reveals no negative authority. Fast-clicking through a Westlaw hyperlink trail leads to a series of historical cases that a summer associate may print out and highlight. This is a typical scenario. Now consider the person who visits the law library and peruses the applicable secondary source. This person understands the issues, has cases in context, and knows which cases are best suited for the situation. Further online research is then focused. Many secondary sources are even online, but they too are underutilized and often undersubscribed. It’s easy to think of information as buried and too cumbersome to find in books. In this caffeinated era of Google, we forget the tangible, visual advantages of books, such as tables of contents that organize subject matter to help guide us and indexes to focus us quickly. The electronic databases behind the curtains of our favorite Web sites do a great job of matching key words but will never be a muse offering anything more than what we ask of them, which diminishes our ability to understand the fabric of the legal issue surrounding the quoted case. Lest you think I’m an embittered Luddite about to wax nostalgic over the virtues of typewriters, VCRs, LP records, and rotary phones, rest assured I’m a BlackBerry addict and a big fan of online research — as tools. Tools, by the way, which are also expensive. Indeed, the addiction is started with a free password handed to us as we enter the hallowed portals of law school. Armed with a free Lexis or Westlaw password, we have unfettered access to home purchase prices, voting records, and all manner of information. Out in the real world, this access can cost a fortune — not only for the firm but also for the client. Those using online research may be surprised at the costs if they are not already aware of them. TIME FOR A SUMMER SHOWDOWN Is there a solution here? Will the summer associates at your firm think you’re just another attorney with a retro research bend? Is there an easier way to broaden their horizons and let them discover the merits of libraries for themselves? About six years ago, another partner, Kevin Kramer, and I came up with our office’s “Summer Associate Research Challenge” here at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. It pits teams of summer associates and a team of new associates in a race to see who can accurately answer the most legal questions in 90 minutes or less. Yes, they are legitimate questions, with a few inspired by legal questions of our day. (Example: “Your neighbor, an NFL player, invites you to attend a dogfighting match he is holding in Potomac, Md. You decline, but later wonder if your attendance would have been legal. Is it?”) Our contest’s rules stipulate that contestants must not use computers and must provide copies of all their answers in photocopy form — no Wikipedia, search engines, or screen printouts allowed. Our office librarians, Patsy Stann and Eileen McCarrier, are tremendous partners in this contest. Afterwards, our library hosts a little bash to identify the winners, who receive prizes, bragging rights, and a newfound appreciation for why we keep books and treatises around. A team of summer associates took the honors this year, marking only the second time that the summers defeated the firm’s new attorneys. This fun, page-flipping fury shows that our field will always benefit from a broad understanding of the law first. That means we need to keep a healthy level of familiarity and faith in books, versus continually leaving research to cyberspace. Finite numbers of hours, heavy caseloads, and tomorrow’s seductive technologies may make legal research faster, but the basic starting point is secondary sources, even if they are dead trees in a quiet library. By the way, here’s the answer to the research question: In the state of Maryland, it is illegal to knowingly attend a staged dogfighting event.
William P. Atkins is a partner in Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman’s McLean, Va., office. He confesses to owning his own set of the entire U.S. Patents Quarterly casebooks but swears he is totally fine with shredding paper, having recently helped a shredder-manufacturing client, Fellowes Inc., win a major patent trial.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.