Cooper & Elliott 20/20: The Changing Landscape of Legal Research

2020BadgeAs we celebrate our firm’s 20 years in the legal profession and forecast the next 20 years, we want to highlight legal research—the cornerstone of building a solid case for a client.

Over the past two decades, legal research has gone from books to digital downloads, law libraries to computers and tablets. This is mostly a good thing for our profession. Attorneys now have much greater access to relevant law, such as court decisions. But for some attorneys, it also creates a temptation to cut corners and a danger of missing out on key information vital to a client’s case.

We take research very seriously here at Cooper & Elliott, and we feel it’s important to take a look backwards, to ensure we’re headed in the right direction.

The nineties: a noteworthy step forward

In 1995, Beanie Babies were the rage, millions were glued to their TV sets for the O.J. Simpson verdict, and news outlets around the world were heralding the futuristic technology of the World Wide Web.

For attorneys digging into research for a case, there were a couple of available options:

  • Schedule a trip to the local law library (during business hours, of course), pore over countless hardbound volumes of court decisions and history, and follow each new informational nugget to the next step of the process in building the case. If you compare that to Googling today, imagine each click of a link being another book you had to pull from the library shelf.
  • Or, take advantage of the new technology that had recently become available. LexisNexis was at the forefront of developing electronic accessibility of legal documents. When we first opened our doors, this tech took the form of a “UBIQ” desktop computer terminal. A few word or term searches punched into the little (for its time) red wonder, and voilà! You could print whatever information you needed on this odd silver paper (and watch some of the ink stick to your fingers). It was much easier than a trip to the library.

Those early computer models now belong in antique shops, but they did get legal information into the minds of attorneys faster than before.

Unfortunately, faster isn’t always better.

The caveat of the computer age

With court decisions available at their ink-stained fingertips in seconds, some attorneys fell into a trap: they stopped thinking about the “why” behind legal rules. Searching for a word or phrase often brings up the most recent court rulings on an issue, which some attorneys think is all they need. Those attorneys may not bother to research and consider the history of how we got to those rulings. That’s a dangerous problem we’ve seen develop over the past two decades.

Imagine driving on a freeway and taking the wrong exit by mistake. You could drive for hours down that road. The highway signs look similar, the road is paved the same, the mile markers look familiar, but you’re headed completely in the wrong direction!

The same could be said for doing only superficial research and assuming that a particular rule applies in your client’s case. For example, a dozen court decisions might apply a rule a certain way. But if your attorney stops his or her research after a quick review of only the most recent decisions using a certain word or phrase, the attorney might never learn of historical decisions that show the rule works differently in a case with your particular facts.

A crude digital search may only present a snapshot of the relevant court decisions. It doesn’t necessarily tell you how the law developed. But how the law developed might be critical to a client’s specific case, or even support advocating an extension or change to the law.

Classic techniques working in harmony with current technology

Let’s be clear: electronic search methods are a major boon to the legal profession. It’s much faster and more efficient than hours of library searching. But an effective attorney can’t give in to the temptation of stopping his or her research after reading a few of the more recent court decisions about a given rule. The attorney has to take advantage of electronic research to go beyond the superficial search results and dig deeply into historical precedent to understand how a rule applies—or doesn’t apply—to a client’s case.

And yes, sometimes this even means a trip to the old law library when a particular resource isn’t available online.

This approach to research is especially beneficial to preparing a case before it even begins. One thing we’ve noticed over the years is the tendency for some attorneys to start their deep legal research only after filing a lawsuit. But because we understand how to use both electronic and non-electronic research tools effectively, we prefer to dig deeper and understand the relevant legal rules and their history before we even file a lawsuit.

This lets us frame the allegations of the lawsuit the right way. It also lets us ask the right questions in discovery and depositions so that we can build the support that we need to win a client’s case at trial or negotiate a better settlement. Armed with a deep understanding of the relevant legal rules and the reasons why a certain rule may or may not apply in a given case, well-prepared attorneys are able to enter the legal arena with the knowledge necessary to get to the heart of that case in its early stages.

Our firm is built on a foundation of research. We cherish learning, and we’ve seen the benefits that our method of preparation brings for our clients and their cases. Using all available research resources and taking the time to build a deep understanding of the relevant law and its history is the key.

The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.