This semester saw the publication of the thirteenth edition of Legal Research in a Nutshell, by our own Kent Olson. (Despite the ominous edition number, Kent assures me that he didn’t experience any bad luck while preparing the text). The Nutshell, which dates back to Morris Cohen’s 1968 original edition, provides a comprehensive but concise guide to legal research. I sat down with Kent to learn more about the new edition and his experience working on this important text.
Kate: What’s new in the thirteenth edition of the Nutshell?
Kent: There are always small changes, like FDsys (which replaced GPO Access) being replaced by Govinfo, but the biggest change may be the inclusion of Practical Law, the Westlaw feature with checklists and practice notes in more than a dozen major practice areas. I believe it was around when I finished the 12th edition, but I completely missed its significance. It’s not that useful for academic research, but it can be an enormously valuable tool for new lawyers needing a refresher or step-by-step guidance.
In this edition I was also able to include our own library’s UN Human Rights Treaties: Travaux Préparatoires, a searchable collection of documents that Ben Doherty, Loren Moulds, and others worked on for more than two years.
What hasn’t changed is my opinion that strong Boolean search skills continue to give researchers an edge over database algorithms. Anyone can find a few relevant documents using an algorithm, but crafting intelligent searches and figuring out where to go from there is the art of legal research.
Did you consider skipping straight from the twelfth edition of the Nutshell to the fourteenth edition, in the way that elevators sometimes omit the thirteenth floor of a building?
No way. I’d always wondered what happened on that mysterious thirteenth floor that the elevator skipped. And it wouldn’t be fair to other Nutshells to skip a number. Legal Research has been in more editions than any other Nutshell, but it’s not that far ahead of two others in their eleventh editions, International Taxation and Securities Regulation.
Speaking of the fourteenth edition, what developments in legal research might inform the next revision of the Nutshell?
Even a Boolean-based dinosaur can see that artificial intelligence is improving, particularly in resources such as CARA, Casetext’s tool that analyzes a brief or memorandum and identifies relevant cases that it doesn’t cite. I doubt it will take precedence over Boolean search by the fourteenth edition, but we’ll see!
The Nutshell was originally written by Morris Cohen, and the two of you co-authored the text for many years. Are there ways in which Cohen continues to influence your work?
Morris was the librarian at Yale Law School for many years (and before that at Harvard and Penn). He was a very sweet man, but also one of the most inquisitive people I’ve ever known. I like to think that I carry on his interest in new resources and how they fit together to help us make sure we have the best possible information. He also read what we had written very closely, word for word, and I got from him the view that every sentence matters.
This edition is dedicated to two of your colleagues, Taylor Fitchett and Joe Wynne. Can you tell us a little about them?
Taylor and Joe have both gone happily into retirement. As library director for almost twenty years, Taylor kept the place humming and allowed the rest of us to focus on things like teaching and reference services (and Nutshell revision). Joe wore a bunch of hats over thirty-seven years, ending up as our guru of budgets and other systems. They’re great librarians, and friends, who are missed by everyone in the library.
So what’s next?
I’d like to put my feet up, but I have a bigger book, Principles of Legal Research, that hasn’t been revised since 2015 and is sitting on my desk staring at me. So I’ll have another chance to ponder how the world of legal research is constantly changing.