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

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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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