Washington and Lee University School of Law

Washington and Lee University School of Law

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Life-long learning and the Future of Legal Research

Gene Hamilton, a rising 3L from Grayson, Georgia, is working for the Air Force General Counsel's Office at the Pentagon.

Going into law school, I had the faulty impression that attorneys knew absolutely everything there was to know about their respective field of practice. I was naïve. During my first semester of law school I quickly discovered how wrong that impression was. Just like the rest of life, it is impossible to know everything about anything.
 
This realization became even more apparent to me over the last two school years and the last two summers. I have had the chance to work with some extremely talented, bright, exceptional attorneys. But even the ones with 20-30 years of  experience can’t know everything. Sure, they might have a better initial understanding of the issues they confront, but even the most experienced attorney needs to conduct research on the most basic aspects of their practice areas, if for no other reason than to ensure the law hasn’t changed. Understanding that fact helped quite a bit during both of my summer experiences. It also helps during the school year. Research skills are vital to practicing law.
 
Legal research changed quite a bit over the course of the Twentieth Century. Practitioners have progressed from using physical digests, reporters, and pocket parts to electronic databases on Westlaw and LexisNexis. And while searching the electronic databases can be a pain at times, I am thrilled that, except in limited circumstances, I don’t need to conduct my primary research with the physical legal reporters. All of these changes lead me to wonder, what’s going to be the next big thing in legal research? Where do we go from here?
 
Will we finally get away from the distinction between published/unpublished cases in every court across the country? After all, if the primary source becomes what is electronically available, and no one has to physically publish anything, does it even make sense for us to not treat one case’s holding as being equal to another’s when they are issued by the same court?
 
Will mainstream search providers such as Google and Microsoft eventually take over the legal research markets as well? No offense meant to Westlaw or LexisNexis, but I often wonder how much more effective legal research would be if their search engines were powered by one of the larger search providers.
 
I have a number of other questions about the future of legal research. For now, I take comfort that we all have to do some research before giving legal advice. Although it can be a pain at times, learning about a new aspect of the law can also be one of the best parts of working in the legal world.

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