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

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It's the Source That Matters!

This article has been archived and may no longer be updated.


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


27 July 2006. Jerry Lawson (NetLawBlog) comments on Google's edge over the long-standing research systems Lexis and Westlaw. He points out that it's easier to use and does a better job of keyword ranking. Picking up the conversation, Tom Mighell (Inter Alia) remarks that "any research project should begin with a determination of whether the information can be found for free on the Internet."

While valid observations, I caution anyone against becoming completely reliant on any one utility, whether Lexis, Westlaw, Google, or the next search tool to win the public's favor. As Jerry indicates, no resource answers all questions all the time. Moreover, technical strengths or weaknesses should influence your decision to use a search engine only after you identify the potential source of the information you seek. Then, if all things are equal, by all means, begin with the easiest, fastest, cheapest resource.

Tom relates a story about a group of summer associates, who experienced difficulty answering five research questions. Four of the five were factual questions. Only one student answered three of the four questions listed on Tom's site correctly. All missed the final question. Tom observes that knowledge of Internet resources would have aided the students tremendously.

Indeed, knowledge of sources -- whether on the Internet or a bookshelf, or in a commercial research database or CD-ROM -- is the key to becoming a successful researcher. Unfortunately, many students never learn about the importance of this step in the research process.

They learn about encyclopedias, case reporters, treatises and other sources of information, but fail to make a connection between the question at hand and a potential resource. Instead, students and many beginning researchers immediately convert a question into a keyword search. They do this before giving thought to whether the information ought to appear in the database.

I'm glad lawyers are thinking about research systems and technology, and testing the knowledge of future lawyers. But debating who's bigger, faster, easier or cheaper overlooks the more important question: Who has the answer?

Tom Mighell: Now that I see my comments again, I regret my "any research project" remark -- I guess my (artlessly worded) point was that if it's easily available on the Internet for free, then why pay West for the same thing? I suppose the comment should be reworded to say "any research project should begin with a determination of the resource where the information can be found..."


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Created: 22 January 2003
Revised: 27 July 2006 (link updates only), 27 November 2007 (archived, no text revisions)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/archive/sources.html

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