Many attorneys waste time hunting for law in the all the wrong places. This month, I asked a top legal-research expert for tips on streamlining the process.
Here are three of her suggestions:
1. Stand on the Shoulders of Giants
Don’t reinvent the wheel when researching well-tread issues such as privilege, expert disclosure, and collateral estoppel. Start with a print treatise before you even consider expensive online research. Consult a librarian or a law-school research guide to identify the best titles, such as Edna Epstein’s The Attorney-Client Privilege and the Work-Product Doctrine.
If you prefer to start online, try a free—but vetted—web encyclopedia, such as the legal section in Answers.com or Cornell’s Wex site. If you search “collateral estoppel,” for example, you’ll get short summaries, additional search terms, cites to major cases, and cross-references to related issues.
2. Crackdown on the Law
When working with regulatory matters, resist the urge to dive into the case law. Start with an annotated statute, where you’ll find the text of the statute; its history; cites to related statutes, regulations, articles, and treatises; and annotations of court and agency decisions.
You should also find out the popular name that serves as insider shorthand for complex regulatory regimes. If you use that name in an online search, you’ll save time and get more precise results. Searching “Superfund” or “CERCLA” is much cleaner than searching “(prohibit! require!) AND (closed abandon!) AND “hazardous waste sites.”
3. Follow the Chain
A key way to save money and time is to target a recent, binding case from the highest court in your jurisdiction. Before you can find such a case, though, you have to know the court structure. In New York, for example, the New York Supreme Court is not the top of the heap; you need a Court of Appeals decision to make it there.
A good resource: Want’s Federal-State Court Directories. You’ll find graphs that show you how the courts are structured in each jurisdiction. You’ll discover where disputes originate and how they get appealed. You’ll also learn the names and numbers of key court personnel.
Ellen Callinan, JD, MSLS, is a law firm and academic law librarian who has taught legal research for more than twenty years. Since 1999, she has been an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law, where she teaches the popular Law Firm Research course. For information on Ellen’s research training seminars, please visit www.LearnLegalResearch.com.
© 2006 Ellen M. Callinan.