A New Guide for Legal Historians

Shortly before his death in 2010, Morris Cohen told me about a book he was writing with his Yale colleague John Nann on research in American legal history. I wondered at the time if this was mostly a means of keeping Morris engaged in work and might not amount to much. But lo and behold, eight years later The Yale Law School Guide to Research in American Legal History (Yale University Press, 2018) has landed on my desk. And it’s full of great insights for the legal historian.

Instead of divisions by material type or genre, most of the book’s chapters focus on distinct time periods in American history and highlight research approaches and resources most pertinent to each period. After the chronological chapters, the book closes with several more general chapters. Particularly useful here are the discussion in Chapter Eight on doing archival research and the treatment in Chapter Ten of historical legal dictionaries.

A very useful bibliography of additional readings accompanies each chapter, and the book has a thorough and precise index. The authors provide helpful tips throughout on finding material in online catalogs, a nice touch as new catalog interfaces make subject searching less accessible and intuitive.

Chapter 2, English Foundations of American Law, 1500s-1776, does a great job of setting us in the world of an early modern English lawyer, finding case law with abridgments rather than Lexis or Westlaw. Lord Coke’s list of the fifteen sources of the law, printed at pages 50-51, is a wonderful time capsule – I didn’t know that “the Law and priviledge of the Stanneries” was a distinct source of law, let along what a stannary was. And it is interesting to learn that the abridgements of the 17th century (Sheppard, Hughes, and Rolle) were “considered to be of mediocre to poor quality” especially compared to Brooke’s Graunde Abridgement of the late 16th century. Nann and Cohen’s Guide has great explanations of the role of the Privy Council in governing the colonies and of the Calendar of State Papers. The authors point out the dangers of hastily OCR’d digital resources — unless scanned material is proofread carefully, it’s simply not discoverable through keyword searches.

Chapter 5, The Early Republic, 1790s-1870s, warns that researchers “must be careful to understand what the judiciary looked like in the state and time being researched. They must also understand the appellate process of the time.” And the authors provide good insight as to why historians can often be frustrated finding information in court reports: “Historians will find that it was not uncommon for a historically significant lower court case to go unreported. Once judges gained control of reporting, they chose cases that would become the building blocks of the law and ignored cases that merely repeated well-settled law. Historians will often want to read a case to get insight into the people involved, whereas lawyers care only about the law involved.”

Throughout the book I learned of valuable resources in legal history. These include Neil H. Cogan, The Complete Reconstruction Amendments, a forthcoming six-volume set from Oxford University Press not even on the publisher’s website yet, but also resources I never knew about or had long forgotten. I’d better take another look at American Foreign Relations Since 1600: A Guide to the Literature, which “has been described as ‘magisterial’ and is an extremely important resource that should be among the first stops in a research project touching on this topic.” And I never knew about Clarence S. Bingham’s History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, “a critically important introduction to early American newspapers.”

At page 149, I read about two microfilm resources that were unknown to me until I had to hunt them both down in recent months:  Dockets of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1790-1950, and Appellate Case Files from the Supreme Court of the United States, 1792-1831. It’s true that finding these and borrowing the microfilm (sadly, we have neither in our library) gave me a sense of accomplishment, but how much easier life would have been if I had Nann & Cohen to help me. (It seems odd in 2018 to be relying on microfilm, particularly for information about Supreme Court cases, and LLMC is currently considering digitization of both of these sets.)

One of the valuable things about the work is that it expresses strong and clear opinions. In the very first chapter, it says that William H. Manz’s Gibson’s New York Legal Research Guide is perhaps the best of the many state legal research guides now published, with its in-depth treatment and coverage of current and historical sources. (Who can argue, when guides for nine states in Carolina Academic Press’s Legal Research Series all begin with the exact same sentence, “The fundamentals of legal research are the same in every American jurisdiction, though the details vary,” and nine more offer paraphrased versions of the same idea? How refreshing to open Hollee Schwartz Temple’s West Virginia Legal Research (2013) in the same series and read its first line, “If you want to stand out in a challenging legal marketplace, develop superior research skills.” Here’s to authors with journalism backgrounds!)

Of course, I don’t agree with all of the authors’ opinions. I don’t know why researchers trying to decipher citations are told that Prince’s Dictionary of Legal Abbreviations “is the first place they should turn to” and then only to check the online Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations if a citation isn’t in Prince’s. Cardiff’s coverage of American sources is broad and thorough, it includes useful information like the period of coverage and preceding and subsequent titles in a series, and its web version is so convenient. Why not reverse the order of checking these two?

As explained in the guide’s Introduction, the chronological chapters “describe the research tools available to an attorney of the past as well as the tools that a researcher of today will use to find the law of the past.” Thus, Chapter Six, Research Gets Organized, 1880s-1930s, explains the laborious procedure required to use Shepard’s Citations in print, something I thought I might never to have to read about again. I had hoped for less focus on obsolete research approaches and more discussion of modern legal history resources. There is only passing reference to one chapter of the three-volume Cambridge History of Law in America, and Lawrence Friedman’s History of American Law is only cited in one chapter’s bibliography. These books are not just “Further Reading” but great places for legal history students to begin their research and place their ideas in historical context.

The chronological structure of the guide begins to falter in Chapter Five, The Early Republic, 1790s-1870s, when the authors devote nearly a page to explaining PACER, the federal courts’ online docket system. Why in this chapter is there a discussion of a resource that begins its coverage in the late 20th century? Similarly, the chapter on the 1880s-1930s includes coverage of modern tools such as the Current Law Index (1980-date), and Chapter Seven, The Administrative State, 1930s-2010s, discusses several valuable 18th- and 19th-century resources such as Public Documents of the First Fourteen Congresses, 1789-1817 and Documentary History of the Constitution of the United States, 1786-1870. The “Administrative State” chapter focuses on administrative law and government documents, but the dates in its title are misleading.

The authors acknowledge that “research guides, including this one, represent a snapshot in time,” but in this instance the snapshot isn’t always that close to the publication date. Parts of the book show the inherent dangers of working on a project for several years. The bibliographies, while valuable, miss several recent publications, including a 2016 edition of Morris Cohen’s own Legal Research in a Nutshell. The print Foreign Law Guide hasn’t been updated since 2007, and the online Guide to Reference closed down in March 2016. In discussing the Congressional Record, the book asserts that “No easy translation tables exist to take researchers from the ‘daily’ page numbers to the ‘final’ page numbers or vice versa” – yet both HeinOnline and ProQuest Congressional offer daily edition to bound edition cross-reference tools. An unrelated quibble (in which I have a vested interest) is that referring to Specialized Legal Research as “by Penny A. Hazelton” and Guide to Reference Books as “by Robert Balay” does a disservice to the numerous contributors to these edited works.

In sum, The Yale Law School Guide to Research in American Legal History is a welcome addition to the literature of legal research and a valuable trove of insights and tips. It goes a long way to bridging the divide between historians and legal scholars.

Written by

Kent Olson

Head of Research Services, Arthur J. Morris Law Library

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Birlymen, the Scottish Court of Session, and Your Next Paper

boundary stone
“A Boundary Stone,” Donald Bain

This is a PSA for students interested in private ordering[1] and “how neighbors settle disputes.”[2] If extralegal systems such as cattle-trespass norms,[3] industry-based arbitration services,[4] and organized crime[5] are up your alley, then the case of Aitken, and Others v. Wilson and Bannatyne—from the Law Library’s collection of Scottish Court of Session Records—might provide some grist for your next paper. You can review the case documents here.

Aitken was about whether a voluntary association known as a “birly court” could enforce its own decisions.  What, you may ask, is a birly court? A lawyer for birly court members in Elsrickle, Scotland, described the organization as follows:[6]

“In most of the parishes and country villages in Scotland, particularly in the village of Elsrighill, and others in its neighbourhood, there hath been, for time immemorial, what is called the Birly court. All the small proprietors, portioners, and tenants, are members of this court, and they, every two years, or oftener, elect three of their own number, who are stiled Birlymen, and one called the birly officer.

The business of the Birly court has always been to redd the marches,[7] place and rectify pit stones,[8] regulate the mosses and common pasturages, and, in short, to determine every necessary article respecting the inferior police and for the preservation of good neighborhood. The birlymens office is to take care that the orders and regulations of the court be obeyed, and to estimate any damages which may arise from trespasses.”

The case documents provide fascinating insight into the practices of at least four

Pursuer's Proof
Pursuer’s Proof

different birly courts. They also offer a rich account of the events behind the case, which began in May 1777 as a boundary dispute between one John Wilson and his neighbor. During the ensuing birly court adjudication, Wilson was fined for using “abusive language,”[9] but he refused to pay. As a means of enforcing the fine, the birlymen went to Wilson’s house and confiscated two pewter plates. Wilson complained to the sheriff; the birlymen were detained; and they sued Wilson and the sheriff for wrongful imprisonment. In the birlymen’s telling, they had merely been acting according to “the immemorial practice of the place, and of the whole country.”[10] The sheriff, on the other hand, “could not regard what they termed a lawful poinding [i.e., “a seizure of property in lieu of money owed”[11]] in any other point of view, than as a lawless riot.”[12]

Aiken is a fun read and provides interesting material for scholarly analysis. The documents in our collection even include handwritten notes describing the court’s unreported decision. (According to those notes, Wilson and the sheriff won because, as one judge put it, “Birly courts [are] known in this country but [are] only arbitrators.”) If you think Aitken might fit with your research interests, be sure to check out this case.



[1] See, e.g., Barak D. Richman, Norms and Law: Putting the Horse Before the Cart, 62 Duke L.J. 739 (2012).

[2] Robert C. Ellickson, Order Without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes (1991).

[3] Id.

[4] See, e.g., Lisa Bernstein, Private Commercial Law in the Cotton Industry: Creating Cooperation Through Rules, Norms, and Institutions, 99 Mich. L. Rev. 1724 (2001).

[5] See, e.g., Curtis J. Milhaupt and Mark D. West, The Dark Side of Private Ordering: An Institutional and Empirical Analysis of Organized Crime, 67 U. Chi. L. Rev. 41 (2000).

[6] Andrew Crosbie, Information for Andrew Aitken Portioner of Elsrighill, David Brown and James Richardson, Tenants there, present Birlymen for the Town of Elsrighill, and William Elder, Wright there, Birly Officer, John Cuthbertson, Portioner there, John Lawson, Farmer there, and John White of Howburn, Pursuers; against John Wilson, Portioner of Elsrighill, and John Bannatyne, Sheriff-Substitute of Lanark, Defenders (Jan. 18, 1780) (Box 4, Scottish Court of Session Records, University of Virginia Law School Library).

[7] “Redd the marches” refers to fixing boundaries. See Redd, v.2, Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/160193  (last visited Feb. 8, 2018) (“To delineate or fix exactly (a border or boundary); to mark or set the borders of (a place). Chiefly in to redd the marches. . . .”); March, n.3, Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/113952 (last visited Feb. 8, 2018) (“The boundary of an estate; a boundary dividing one property from another; a tract of land between two properties.”).

[8] The phrase “pit stones” refers to boundary-stones. Pit, Dictionary of the Scots Language, http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/pit_n_v2 (last visited Feb. 8, 2018).

[9] Crosbie, supra note 6.

[10] Id.

[11] Poind, Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/146603 (last visited Feb. 8, 2018).

[12] William Craig, Information for John Bannatyne, sheriff-substitute of Lanark, defender, against Andrew Aitken, portioner of Elsrighill, and others, pursuers (Nov. 15, 1779) (Box 4, Scottish Court of Session Records, University of Virginia Law School Library).

Written by

Kate Boudouris

Research, Instruction & Outreach Librarian, Arthur J. Morris Law Library

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Top Ten List of Research Tips for Your Summer Job

As exams wind down, you may start thinking once again about your summer plans. In case you missed our recent lunchtime session on “Preparing for Your Summer Job,” here is our “Top 10” summary list of tips:

UVA Law Library Top Ten List of Research Tips for Your Summer Job

1. Stay calm and check secondary sources.

  • Not understanding a research assignment at the beginning is perfectly normal. Take some breaths—you’ll be fine!
  • Do some preliminary research just to get your footing in a new area.
  • Try the internet, or even better: try treatises, practice guides and law review or bar journal articles.

 2. Ask questions. And that includes asking us!

  • Ask the attorneys with whom you’re working to fill you in on the context of a research assignment, to recommend sources and to let you know about cost constraints.
  • Ask librarians at your firm about resources available for different types of projects.
  • Still having trouble getting started? Call or email us—we’re happy to help in the summer!

 The Reference Desk: (434) 924-7465 or refdesk@law.virginia.edu.

3. Learn about your jurisdiction.

  • Before getting too deep into your research, make sure you understand the court system or administrative agencies that might be involved.
  • Are there decision-makers that have more authority than others? Are there agencies that might govern your facts?
  • Jurisdiction-specific treatises or practice guides can be a big help.

4. Go free to start your research.

  • There are plenty of free legal resources you can use to start your research.
  • Google Scholar is great for free case research; Cornell LII is good for free, easy access to statutes.
  • Use the free resources for your broad, initial searches; and subscription resources once you have narrowed down your research goals.

5. Give yourself time to THINK about the information you are finding.

  • Start thinking early. Exactly what type of information do you need to answer your research question? Cases? Statutes? Regulations? A combination? Would a good secondary source, like a practice guide, be sufficient?
  • A few extra minutes mulling over your research every so often may be exactly what it takes for something to click.

6. Use Westlaw and/or Lexis and/or Bloomberg Law to your advantage.

  • Lexis Advance and Bloomberg Law offer free access for law students all summer. Your firm may also give you Westlaw access.
  • Know the strengths of each database so that you can use them most effectively. We generally view WestlawNext as best for basic case, statute or law review searching; Bloomberg Law as good for federal docket searching and current awareness; and Lexis Advance as an acceptable substitute for WestlawNext’s general legal research if you do not have WLNext access.
  • Use the databases’ free 1-800 reference attorney help lines.
  • Consult your organization’s librarians for the ins-and-outs of their specific subscriptions and ask them if there are other databases available that might be even better for your project.

7. Look for Advanced Search screens.

  • Advanced searching is available in most databases and gives you more precision in your research.
  • Getting too many results or results that aren’t quite right in your initial searches? Find out how to do advanced searching in any database you use so that you can better target what you need.

8. Update your sources.

  • Shepardize or Keycite cases and statutes to check for appeals to higher courts, citations in subsequent cases or recently passed legislation.
  • Expand your research results beyond keyword searching by using the citing references both Westlaw and Lexis provide to cases, statutes, or regulations as another tool for finding relevant cases, articles or other resources.

9. Keep track of your research trail (sources you’ve checked, searches you’ve run, whether you’ve updated the law) and organize the documents you find.

  • Organizing your research is not only more efficient, so that you don’t duplicate your efforts, but may also help you think about alternative research approaches if you get stuck.
  • Use the WestlawNext or Lexis Advance folders to organize your research findings.

10. No drafts.

  • Treat everything you turn over as the best representation of the work you were able to do with the time and information you had.
  • Ensure that you truly shine this summer by giving yourself time to carefully proofread your work before turning it in.

– Law Library Reference Librarians 

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Arthur J. Morris Law Library

The Arthur J. Morris Law Library is the home of research for students and faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law.

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Thursday & Friday: Top Ten Research Tips for Your Summer Job

Thursday, April 17 at noon or Friday, April 18 at noon.

WB 128

Get ready for summer success! Learn the law library’s top ten tips to help you tackle research assignments at your summer job. The Thursday and Friday sessions are the same, so pick the time that works for you. Bring your lunch if you’d like.

– Ben Doherty 

Written by

Ben Doherty

Ben is a research librarian and Head of Instructional Services at the Law Library. He has worked at the Law Library since 2004.

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The Legal Research Tournament, The Championship: WestlawNext vs. Critical Thinking


And then there were two. It has been a fun run up to the Championship, with a competitive field of teams opening the tournament a few weeks ago. Six of those teams have been eliminated from the tournament, but not before securing their spot in the One Shining Moment montage we’ll be showing at the conclusion of today’s championship match.

The Legal Research Championship features the favorite, WestlawNext, backed by West’s decades of experience in legal research, versus the surprise team, Critical Thinking, which has actually been around for much longer than West, but in these days of fancy online databases is often forgotten about as an important research tool.

The Championship will follow the traditional format for these tournaments by requiring the competitors to complete three tasks, with their performance scored by a panel of one objective judge. Without further ado, on to the competition!

Task 1: What is the penalty in Virginia for burglary?

WestlawNext: Ooh! Ooh! I’ll go first! Just type some words into my search box! Go ahead! Quick! Don’t think! Just do it!

Objective Judge: Ok, then: Penalty Burglary Virginia.

WestlawNext: Cool! Ok, filter by Statutes! Ok! Let’s see. Result number one . . . no. Result number two . . . no. Result number three! Annotated Code of Virginia § 18.2-89, “Burglary; How Punished.” Done! Bam!

Objective Judge: Great. So what does it say is the penalty?

WestlawNext: Burglary is “punishable as a Class 3 felony!” Bam!

Objective Judge: Ok, but that’s not an actual penalty.

WestlawNext: Oh! Right! Uh. . .

Objective Judge: Critical Thinking, can you do any better?

Critical Thinking: Yes. Statutes often work this way, requiring you to navigate multiple sections to figure out the law. From prior experience, I know that crimes are often grouped into categories for penalty purposes, so now I just need to find where those categories are explained. Fortunately, WestlawNext is not just a search engine. It also allows for browsing around resources. In this case, since we’re already looking at § 18.2-89, I can just open up the table of contents to Title 18.2 and go to the portion on Classification of Criminal Offenses and Punishment Therefor. In there, § 18.2-10, “Punishment for Conviction of Felony; Penalty,” explains that generally the punishment for a class 3 felony such as burglary in Virginia is 5 to 20 years in prison and a possible fine.

Objective Judge: Thank you. Task 1 goes to Critical Thinking.

Task 2: Find a good case from Virginia discussing when an employer can be held liable for an employee car accident.

WestlawNext: Me! Me! Me! I’ll go! Type! Type! Type! Type!

Objective Judge: Ok. Employer Liable Employee Car Accident.

WestlawNext: Ok! Filter to just Cases! Then filter for jurisdiction to Virginia! Bam! Done! Virginia Supreme Court case from 1903: Norfolk & Western Railway Company v. Cromer’s Administratix!

Objective Judge: A case from 1903? But the car didn’t really come into common use until after the invention of the Model T in 1908.

WestlawNext: No problem! Let’s see. Let’s see. Ok! Result number 3: Virginia Supreme Court case from 1941, Barber v. Textile Machine Works!

Objective Judge: Hmm. Critical Thinking, what do you think?

Critical Thinking: That case actually looks like a pretty good one, appearing to establish how Virginia’s rules on respondeat superior might apply to an employee automobile accident. I might have started with some secondary sources, like Michie’s Jurisprudence maybe, or the ALR or a tort practice manual to get some background. Plus, I’d use this case as a starting point, using the West Headnotes or the Citing References to hyperlink to other Virginia cases on the same topic—to get a broader understanding of how these rules apply in Virginia. This Barber case is a great start though.

Objective Judge: Really? Ok, fine. WestlawNext takes the second task. On to Task 3!

Critical Thinking: Is that really necessary? Haven’t you made your point?

Objective Judge: What point? I’m not trying to make points. Just objectively judging an objective competition. No agendas here!

Critical Thinking: Uh-huh. The premise of this whole tournament was to answer the question “If you had to pick just one resource to use for all of your legal research, which one would be the best?” I think everyone knows that in doing research we should always use our critical thinking skills, but really I’m not much use for legal research without having some kind of database or set of books with which to work. This tournament was really about evaluating those databases or books wasn’t it?

Objective Judge: Maybe. . . but this was the perfect set-up to show these newfangled databases are not much help without using them with a critical mind. I had it all thought out!

Critical Thinking: Give people some credit. They know better than to just blindly follow whatever search results WestlawNext or any database puts up without thinking about it. If we get down to it, if I had to choose, at this moment, one resource to use for a legal research project, out of those that started the tournament, it would be WestlawNext. It just works better than the others right now on the whole.

Objective Judge: [Cold stare].

Objective Judge: Fine.

                Winner and tournament champion: WestlawNext.

– Ben Doherty 

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Arthur J. Morris Law Library

The Arthur J. Morris Law Library is the home of research for students and faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law.

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The Legal Research Tournament, The Semifinals, Game 2: WestlawNext vs. Bloomberg Law

The Legal Research Tournament continues with the Semifinals! You can review the rules of the Tournament here, or take a look at any of the Round 1 matchups. With only four teams remaining, the favorite WestlawNext is trying to fend off challenges from Bloomberg Law, Books in the Library and Critical Thinking. We continue today with the second semifinal matchup:

(1) WestlawNext vs. (4) Bloomberg Law.

This is a more typical matchup than in our other semifinal, featuring general legal research databases—both produced by major companies trying to capture large shares of the legal research market. Unfortunately for Bloomberg Law, WestlawNext is largely able to respond to any of Bloomberg’s challenges with the classic tune Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better. Bloomberg Law is essentially trying to butt in on research methods that Westlaw has been refining for years. Bloomberg is doing a good job of it and its database is improving in both content and features, but it has not yet arrived at WestlawNext’s level.

In its current form, Bloomberg Law’s bid to upset WestlawNext is like trying to beat the U.S. women’s hockey team by using only good goaltending. Bloomberg Law does certain things well. As discussed last week, its BNA practice guides and newsletters are great resources for staying on top of developments in a particular legal field. Bloomberg’s federal docket searching is a nice feature, providing more consistent access to the actual documents in the dockets than what you’ll find with WestlawNext. If you want to do basic legal research though—looking up statutes, cases, regulations, law review articles and the other basic building blocks for legal research—Bloomberg Law just does not yet have the overall game to compete with WestlawNext. Bloomberg Law offers no annotated codes, its case searching lacks the refined tools you’ll find with WestlawNext (like hyperlinked headnotes), and its law review collection does not have enough content to make it worth searching when you could search a fully stocked WestlawNext instead. It may be that in a few years Bloomberg will be able to really compete with WestlawNext, especially if Bloomberg can somehow purchase Lexis’s legal content and put it into Bloomberg’s better interface. For now though, use Bloomberg Law for its unique features like the BNA materials and the federal docket access, but use WestlawNext for your general legal research.

                Winner: WestlawNext. 

Next week: The Championships! WestlawNext vs. Critical Thinking

– Ben Doherty 

Written by

Ben Doherty

Ben is a research librarian and Head of Instructional Services at the Law Library. He has worked at the Law Library since 2004.

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The Legal Research Tournament, The Semifinals, Game 1: Books in the Library vs. Critical Thinking

The Legal Research Tournament continues with the Semifinals! You can review the rules of the Tournament here, or take a look at any of the Round 1 matchups. With only four teams remaining, the favorite WestlawNext is trying to fend off challenges from Bloomberg Law, Books in the Library and Critical Thinking. We’ll start today with the first semifinal matchup:

(6) Books in the Library vs. (7) Critical Thinking.

Raise your hand if you had this matchup in the semifinal round of your bracket. I know! Me neither! That’s what’s so great about this tournament—you never know what you’re going to get. Trying to decide who’s better between Critical Thinking and Books in the Library is tough. Neither one is a database, so it’s hard to use the same analysis I might with other competitors. Better just to put the two in a room and let them talk it out: 

Books in the Library: Did you see how I beat out HeinOnline in the last round? Not bad for an old dog!

Critical Thinking: Yes. Congratulations! In hindsight, though, we might have predicted your victory. HeinOnline is not really equipped for this tournament. It’s really focused on preserving authoritative copies of documents and not really a good source for current legal information, which is what most legal researchers really need. Now that I think about it, you and Hein are rather similar. 

Books in the Library: Thanks! Wait. . . what do you mean? 

Critical Thinking: Most legal researchers, law students included, need to figure out how the current law of a particular place applies to a set of facts. When compared to databases such as WestlawNext, Lexis Advance, Bloomberg Law or Fastcase, neither the books nor Hein are as well suited to quickly finding the most current law on a topic.

Books in the Library: I’m current! Don’t forget to check my pocket parts!

Critical Thinking: Pocket parts. . . slip opinions. . . pamphlets: all a slow, cumbersome way of doing things when the online alternatives are updated almost instantly.

Books in the Library: But you forget: I may be slower, but all online research is based on the system developed in the books!

Critical Thinking: It’s true that the book method forms the roots of legal research, but those roots are in the past. West’s digest system, for example, which is a great tool for using the headnotes of one good case to find other cases on the same topic, may have originated in the books, but it works much more easily and quickly online. Similarly, statutory research usually means looking at both the text of the statute and any cases interpreting the text. With the books, that is a multi-step process involving first using an annotated code and then looking up cases in a separate set of volumes. Online, you can hyperlink directly from the annotated code sections to the most relevant cases all in one place—much easier. I’m sorry, but online legal research has really made the books obsolete, other than for preservation purposes.

Books in the Library: What!?!? Obsolete!?!? What happens if the power goes out? Am I obsolete then? We all know the story of the young lawyer who was frantically working on some last-minute research for a brief due the next day when the lights went out. Fortunately, he knew how to use the books and not just the computers, and was able to save the day with some old-fashioned research. 

Critical Thinking: That story is apocryphal. Major power outages happen, but having to complete last-minute legal research when your city is without power? That seems unlikely even in the crazed world of litigation. Basing your main benefit on an imagined emergency is a weak position. Besides, if the lights go out, how is the lawyer supposed to read the books and write the brief?

Books in the Library: Uh . . . well . . . candles!

Critical Thinking: [Blink, blink. Blink, blink].

Books in the Library: Ok, fine. Can you at least give me that sometimes it is easier and cheaper to use a treatise or annotated code in book form, especially if you’ve already got it sitting in your office or firm library?

Critical Thinking: Fair enough.

                Winner: Critical Thinking.

 - Ben Doherty 

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Arthur J. Morris Law Library

The Arthur J. Morris Law Library is the home of research for students and faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law.

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Legal Research Tournament, Round 1, Game 4: WestlawNext vs. Fastcase

Welcome to the last installment of Round 1 of the Legal Research Tournament, where 8 teams (or legal research resources) will begin the competition to answer the question: If you had to pick just one resource to use for all of your legal research, which one would be the best? For a description of the rules of the tournament, the teams competing and the tournament seedings and bracket, please see our previous post, The Legal Research Tournament Begins!

[Opinions expressed during this completely objective competition are solely my own, and not those of the UVA Law Library, UVA Law School, or former and still champion LawDawgs softball team.]

And on to the fourth of this week’s four matchups!:

(1) WestlawNext vs. (8) Fastcase.

WestlawNext is by far the most popular choice among UVA Law students; and with good reason. WestlawNext has done a superb job transitioning to the Google-like approach to search by offering a user-friendly interface with different search options that appeal to all types of users. Like the simple Google approach of typing some terms into a box and letting the search engine do the work for you? WestlawNext’s main WestSearch box works surprisingly well, allowing users to do a broad search and then narrow the results by document type, jurisdiction or other facets. Prefer to do more precise, controlled searching? You’re in luck as well. Just browse from the main screen to one of WestlawNext’s many specific databases and click on the word “advanced” next to the search box.

That opens up a user-friendly Advanced Search screen tailored specifically to the database you have selected. There you can use their Fields template to search only selected portions of documents, and be reminded of the different term connectors WestlawNext uses for sophisticated Boolean searching.

WestlawNext’s smooth combination of basic and advanced searching works well, allowing for more powerful search techniques than just about any other database available at UVA.

Fastcase counters by offering a nice database with many of the same features as WestlawNext, but at NO COST to members of many state bars, including Virginia’s. Ok, the no cost part is no big deal to our law students because they get free access to WestlawNext while in school anyways (plus Fastcase is not actually available at the law school). However, no cost is often a BIG DEAL to practicing attorneys and Fastcase is a good database. It provides advanced case searching for all U.S. federal and state cases and easy access to all current federal and state statutes. Unfortunately for Fastcase in this tournament, WestlawNext does all that plus way more. WestlawNext offers features such as detailed case headnotes and well-edited statutory annotations that Fastcase just cannot match. Keep Fastcase in mind as a nice, no-cost alternative for practicing attorneys on a budget, but here it’s just not able to match up with WestlawNext.

                Winner: WestlawNext.

With that, four teams move on and four go home. For those teams ending on a loss: Keep your head up—just making it into our Final Eight was a big accomplishment in itself!

Stay tuned for Round 2: The Semifinals!

– Ben Doherty  

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Ben Doherty

Ben is a research librarian and Head of Instructional Services at the Law Library. He has worked at the Law Library since 2004.

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Legal Research Tournament, Round 1, Game 3: Lexis Advance vs. Critical Thinking

Welcome once again to Round 1 of the Legal Research Tournament, where 8 teams (or legal research resources) will begin the competition to answer the question: If you had to pick just one resource to use for all of your legal research, which one would be the best? For a description of the rules of the tournament, the teams competing and the tournament seedings and bracket, please see our previous post, The Legal Research Tournament Begins!

[Opinions expressed during this completely objective competition are solely my own, and not those of the UVA Law Library, UVA Law School, or former and still champion LawDawgs softball team.]

And on to the third of this week’s four matchups!:

(2) Lexis Advance vs. (7) Critical Thinking.

Out of respect for its age, we’ll give Critical Thinking first shot in this matchup. People have been using Critical Thinking to figure things out for eons. No different with lawyers. Before the internet, before computers, lawyers have been finding precedent and critically analyzing how it should apply to their clients. Even now that sophisticated databases make finding legal information easier than ever, the need for critical analysis of what you have found is no less. Just ask some judges about the importance of being able to critically analyze cases in your research and not just find them. As a future attorney, you may not know which legal research database you’ll get to use in your practice. Armed with a focused critical mind, however, it should not matter, as you will be able to find the information you need and apply it to your client’s situation no matter the resources available to you. That’s a good tool to have.

Lexis has been competing with Westlaw for the bulk of the computerized legal research market for decades. LexisAdvance, the company’s foray into the new world of search had inauspicious beginnings. It has improved since then and, like WestlawNext, benefits from the huge breadth of legal resources Lexis is able to provide. From cases to annotated statutes to regulations to law review articles, Lexis Advance provides access to just about any information a lawyer would need, all fully searchable. The problem is it is not always easy to figure out how to do so. Unlike WestlawNext, Lexis Advance does not feel intuitive and user-friendly. It often feels like a database that has been pasted together from disparate parts: a bunch of fixes on top of fixes on top of fixes—the Millenium Falcon approach to constructing a legal database.

Granted, for basic searches, it works o.k. I can plug the term “felony murder” into the main search box and then narrow down by legislation and jurisdiction to easily pull up Virginia’s felony murder statute. Great! However, what if I want to look at LexisAdvance’s treatises on employment law? Where are they? When I click on Browse Sources I am confronted with LexisAdvance’s A-Z list of every single source it has. After regaining my orientation, I can use Narrow By to reduce my options to Secondary Sources and Treatises, but that still leaves me with an unmanageable list of hundreds of options. Now what? The only other option to Narrow By is jurisdiction, and employment law covers all jurisdictions. I suppose I could use the Search Sources option, but for what? Do I search for the word labor? Or employment? Or occupational? All three? Where am I? How did I get here? This is not my beautiful house.

Lexis Advance too often leaves me with questions. When I use Critical Thinking as a resource, I want it to generate questions: Have I uncovered everything I need for this problem? Am I using the best source for this information? What precisely have I found in my searches? Unfortunately, using Lexis Advance doesn’t allow me to answer those types of questions satisfactorily. I never feel comfortable enough with the database to know I have found all the information I need. Lexis Advance will be adding enhancements in mid-February, but that’s too late for this tournament. Maybe next year! And we have our first big upset of the tournament!

                Winner: Critical Thinking.

Tomorrow’s match-up to finish Round 1: (1) WestlawNext vs. (8) Fastcase

– Ben Doherty 


Written by

Ben Doherty

Ben is a research librarian and Head of Instructional Services at the Law Library. He has worked at the Law Library since 2004.

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