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.
Here's another success story about using Google to do legal research.
In a brief, my opponent cited a lawyer-written article about one of the issues in the case. I wanted to see whether I could find anything showing the author's bias. That part was easy: I just went to Google, typed in the author's name, and found links to his bio—and to several other article he'd written on related topics.
Then it occurred to me to try a Google search using some terms describing the legal issue itself: like a Westlaw search, only it's free. It took Google all of 0.33 seconds to give me oodles of recent high-quality legal-research pieces written by lawyers all over the country on my issue—including two written by my opponent! These results led me to a recent decision, on point (albeit from another jurisdiction), that I'd missed in my earlier research.
I don't suggest Google as a substitute for more traditional methods of legal research. But this experience tells me that nowadays, if I want to research an issue thoroughly, I need to add Google to my checklist.
Diannah left this excellent comment: "I wish somebody would post a list of Google tricks. It seems like there is a good book in it." An excellent idea for a post. Here are a few that I've picked up here and there.
I've found Holmes' Appleman on Insurance 2d to be a valuable research tool when working on a coverage issue. There is one little thing you might do to make this multi-volume treatise even more useful. In the Table of Contents, how about adding page numbers? I've seen this innovation in other books, and have found it most useful for locating the exact page that something is on, without having to leaf through the entire volume.
While you're at it, you might consider adding page numbers to the index too. Today the index told me that I could find what I was looking for somewhere in § 129.2, but did not provide a pinpoint cite to a specific page. While that reference saved me the trouble of looking through all 20-something volumes of the treatise, I still had to leaf through all 202 pages that compose § 129.2 to find what I was looking for. (To save myself some time and trouble, I flipped forward to the table of contents, but alas!, no page numbers there either.)
I trust that the lack of page numbers in the index and table of contents is a mere oversight, not a sinister ploy to steer researchers away from books to pay-by-the-minute computer research.
Well, it's a new trick for me anyway. I'm reading a commercial general-liability policy and I come across the term sidetrack agreement, which is not defined in the policy, or in Black's Law Dictionary (7th ed.). I do a computer search for a Louisiana case defining the term, but found none. What to do? Google to the rescue. A Google search for sidetrack agreement turned up this list, and the third item gave me my answer, courtesy of Rupp's Insurance & Risk Management Glossary.
How to save for future reference? A few weeks ago, I would have printed a hard copy and put it in my legal-research folder. Lately I've figured out that our document-management system (iManage) is great for managing legal research. That will be the subject of another post. For now, suffice it to say that my iManage legal-research database for this project now includes an HTML file and a PDF file, each showing Rupp's definition of sidetrack agreement.