Back in the 20th century, when I went to law school and began my legal career, legal research involved a lot of photocopying. When I found a case I needed, I photocopied it. I then highlighted the photocopy, scribbled notes on it, and stuck it in a bucket folder labeled "Legal Research."
Today, I never photocopy a case; instead I download it from Westlaw or Lexis. I used to print out those downloaded cases and treat them the same way as I did the photocopies from the casebooks. But lately, I've figured something out: A downloaded case, in Word or WordPerfect format, is just like any other word-processing document. You can manipulate it, edit it, reformat it. And downloaded cases are like any other computer files: you can organize them in folders and subfolders (or for DOS veterans, directories and subdirectories) or your document-management system.
Here are some things that I do with my downloaded cases to make them easier to work with:
- I reformat them to make them easier to read.
- In the process of formatting, I put the full citation for the case in the document header. That way, if I later print out just one page with one passage that I need, that one page will have all the information I need to cite the case properly in the brief or memo.
- If they're hard to read on the computer screen, I just adjust the zoom settting. This trick comes in handy toward the end of the day, when my 48-year-old eyes start getting tired.
- I use Word or WordPerfect to highlight the important parts on the screen.
- I delete any extraneous stuff that doesn't help me do whatever I'm doing. For instance, I delete every headnote that is not pertinent to whatever I'm working on. That makes the remaining headnotes much easier to find: they're the only ones left. I also delete the names of counsel for the various parties.
- Sometimes I insert comments—notes to myself, the equivalent of the handwritten notes that I used to scribble in the photocopy margins. (If I do, I always put the comment in a font that's drastically different from the text, so I won't confuse the comment with the actual text.)
- I use the document-management system to organize the cases. Of course, the profile includes the usual: client code and matter (file) number. But it also includes a comment field. I use that comment field to classify the case according to issue. Then later, when I need to pull all cases on Issue X, a quick computer search retrieves them for me.
Perhaps none of this is new for legal researchers who grew up with computers. But if, like me, you learned how to research the old-fashioned way—by photocopying from books—some of these tips may help you organize your research and make it easier to work with when it's time to write.