Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research
Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research

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The Search for Foreign Law

This article has been archived and may no longer be updated.


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


   Originally published by Law Office Computing (Oct/Nov 2002) under the title, "Around the World in Search of Law." Revised to reflect resources and strategies current as of the date appearing at the end of the page.


5 March 2004. Lawyer X considers the complex issues raised by the plaintiff in his brief. A thought occurs to him, and then quickly vanishes as a telephone in an office next to his slams into its cradle. Loud muttering follows, presumably as a fellow associate vents his frustration.

Lawyer X refocuses his attention on the document. Soon, he hears a lawyer call out to his secretary. The two hold a brief but loud conversation about continuing legal education requirements. Then on the heels of this interruption, a nearby printer starts to beep incessantly.

Lawyer X thinks he stands a better chance of finding quiet on the sidewalks of Center City Philadelphia. He wants to clear his head and put his thoughts in order. In full swing, the summer season seems to bring even more activity to the law office.

He almost makes it to the door. Almost.

A young man, looking scared, eager and serious all at the same time, peers into his office. Lawyer X regards him silently. "A summer associate," he thinks.

"Hi," the law student begins. "I'm a summer associate. Partner Eloquent told me to talk to you before starting an assignment. Do you have a minute?"

Lawyer X yearns for the mental breakthrough he's certain a walk outdoors would bring.

But with no noticeable hesitation, he invites the young man in.

Lawyer X learns that Partner Eloquent asked the student to investigate current law in various countries regarding several employment issues. Specifically, the partner wants to know about legal developments in the European Union and its member states, Australia, and several South American countries concerning sexual harassment, disabled workers, and workplace privacy. The partner plans to participate in an upcoming international law symposium where he will discuss trends in these areas.

Feeling overwhelmed, the student wants to know how to begin. He admits that he already conducted a Google search. But it failed to retrieve much that he could use.

Although you will find the laws of many countries available on the Web, you may encounter a variety of problems in using them. These include language barriers, inconsistent publication formats, outdated information, difficult or confusing interfaces, and inadequate or non-existent search features.

Moreover, learning about trends, or understanding the impact of a law, requires more than simply obtaining a copy of it. For these reasons, Lawyer X suggests the student begin with locating relevant and current commentary.

Law journal articles, legal news, and newer, or frequently updated, international law treatises available on LexisNexis or Westlaw make good starting points. Without overlooking these traditional sources, the student may also find helpful information on the Web. But locating substantive reliable Web-based resources likely will require persistent expert searching.

The student already ran a few queries at Google. Why did he fail to find useful sources? Besides the obvious answer that such may not exist, the query probably failed because the searcher sought an answer rather than a research starting point.

More than likely, the student entered queries like "sexual harassment," "sexual harassment European Union," "disabled workers Australia," "employees disabilities Brazil," "workplace privacy Europe," "employees private email Argentina," etc. While these may produce a few relevant articles or leads, they are unlikely to yield resources that provide regular legal updates or that cover several countries.

A better approach encompasses finding a topical Web site operated by legal professionals with expertise in international law or in the law of one of the countries included in the scope of the research. In this scenario, the ideal Web site would cover employment law issues worldwide, or in one or more of the countries the partner mentioned.

Comprehensive directory sites like FindLaw or the Resource Discovery Network may help in the hunt for such a site. But Google and other search engines will also aid the law student provided that he formulates the queries to seek a research starting point rather than the specific commentary and news items that will answer his question.

Instead of selecting keywords directly from the partner's assignment (e.g., sexual harassment, etc.), think broadly about the overall research topic. In this case, the trends the partner wants to follow concern international and foreign employment law. These terms -- not the more narrowly defined issues -- should comprise the keywords entered into a search engine.

Moreover, launching the research with the widest range of ideal starting points will require more than one query at more than one engine. To find Web sites with an international focus, include key terms like international, global, worldwide, transnational, or transborder. Use only one of these terms per query, which should also contain a key phrase or keyword that describes your broad topic. Like this:

Performed using Google and AlltheWeb at the time of this writing, these and similar queries yielded several top-notch resources, including Baker & McKenzie Law Alerts (with a link to Global Employment Law Alert), Global Employment Law Guide (CCH fee-based subscription), and NATLEX, an International Labour Organization database containing information about current and historical labor laws in numerous countries.

To find resources covering your legal topic in a specific country, use a key term that describes the country in your query. Like this:

  • british employment law
  • australia workplace law

You may also use a search engine like Google Language Tools that limits retrieval to Web pages from a specific country. Note that you may have to enter terms in the language of the country.

Sometimes worthy sites do not appear in search engine databases; or even though highly relevant to the query, they rank too low to be noticed. Elexica by the law firm Simmons & Simmons provides an example in this case.

The site does not appear within the first 100 hits at Google when using the global-oriented queries above. Yet it offers an employment law update that covers case law, legislation, regulations, and other legal actions in countries around the world.

Finding such gems requires diligence and a certain amount of luck. Try browsing the external links of the useful resources you find. Also locate relevant research guides and pathfinders, which librarians typically compile.

Librarian Lyonette Louis-Jacques offers two deserving mention in the area of foreign and international law. Finding Foreign Law Online When Going Global covers databases and other resources that assist researchers in finding the law of multiple countries. Legal Research on International Law Issues Using the Internet provides information about various types of international law resources.

Locate these research aids by adding keywords like research guide, pathfinder, or even the term, finding, to your topical query. Like this:

  • research guide international law
  • pathfinder international law
  • finding European Union law

Good deed accomplished, Lawyer X once again prepares to leave his office for a refreshing walk. But as he approaches the door, another anxious face appears.

"Are you Lawyer X?" it asks.

Even a patient fellow like Lawyer X sometimes reaches his wit's end. "No," he responds quickly.

"But isn't this his office?" it persists.

"Yes," he replies, turning falsehood into truth, "I'm looking for him myself."

As the student starts to leave, Lawyer X suggests, "Come back in 15 or 20 minutes. He's never gone for long."


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Created: 10 February 2003
Revised: 18 October 2007 (no text revisions)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/archive/foreign_law.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com