Legal Research in a Nutshell: Lucky Thirteenth Edition

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 Boudouris

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.

A man holds a book and smiles at students.
Kent Olson teaches a legal research class.

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.

A man sits at an early computer. A woman smiles beside a statue.
Top: Joe Wynne ca. 1980, not long after joining the law library. Bottom: Taylor Fitchett upon her retirement in 2018.

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.

Written by

Kate Boudouris

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

Kent Olson

Head of Research Services, Arthur J. Morris Law Library

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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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UVA Legal Experts Offer Their Picks for Summer Fiction Reading

For many of us, summertime means reading. A lifelong bibliophile, Thomas Jefferson considered fiction to be useful reading for anyone who wanted to understand the law. University of Virginia Law School faculty and staff agree. Here are some of their picks for fiction that helps explain the law.

Daniel Ortiz

Michael J. and Jane R. Horvitz Distinguished Professor of Law
Director, Supreme Court Litigation Clinic

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (1596-98)

“In addition to being fantastic literature and containing one of the greatest trial scenes of all time, [The Merchant of Venice] pits justice against mercy and leads the reader to question those who advocate either position to the exclusion of the other. In the end, both sides’ absolutes appear cruel.”  

G. Edward White

David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professor of Law

John Galsworthy, In Chancery (1920)

In Chancery “deals with the difficulties of getting divorced in England in the early years of the twentieth century, where virtually the only two ways to obtain a divorce were through cruelty or adultery, and both had to be publicly proven in court. Two of the characters in In Chancery, Soames Forsyte and his sister, Winifred Dartie, who is married to Montague Dartie, would both like to be rid of their spouses, Soames because he wants to remarry and Winifred because her husband has run off to South America with his mistress. Soames’s wife is only too happy to divorce him, but neither he nor she wants to admit in public to having an affair, which would amount to social ostracization for members of their upper-middle class. Winifred is capable of bringing an action against Dartie but wants to avoid public scandal.

“The novel demonstrates the grip of the law on persons in England in its time period. ‘In Chancery’ refers to the fact that divorce proceedings took place in chancery court, whose procedures enforced the adultery and cruelty preconditions for a divorce decree. It also signals that any persons seeking to divorce in England at that time were ‘in the grip’ of those procedures.”

Leslie Kendrick

Vice Dean
Albert Clark Tate, Jr., Professor of Law

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852-1853)

The renowned English author’s ninth novel, Bleak House satirizes the English legal system through its exploration of families and wills in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. Bleak House is a thrilling read that touches on how the law can be–or at least feel–for those who experience it as parties. That is only one minor reason that it is a great book.”

Rip Verkerke

T. Munford Boyd Professor of Law
Director, Program for Employment and Labor Law Studies

Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (1946)

“The book loosely follows the sordid career of Huey Long. It’s both a gripping narrative and a cautionary tale about corrupt influences in political life. When I recall re-reading the book about five years ago, I can still see, hear, and smell a number of vivid and memorable scenes. Highly recommended.”

Paul Halliday

Julian Bishko Professor of History, University of Virginia
Professor of Law

Jane Austen, Persuasion (1817)

“I don’t think one could do better than look at almost any of Jane Austen’s six novels. I suppose Persuasion is my favorite. The social confines in which the heroine, Anne Elliot, operates were constructed by the ways her family, and most landed families of the Regency period, used the law of property. Contrary to what many think, the property interests of Anne Elliot (or Elizabeth Bennet or Elinor Dashwood) were not undermined by common law. By common law rules, Austen’s protagonists would have inherited their father’s property, though where there were multiple daughters, they would have split the inheritance with their sisters. Instead, it was the use of entails that meant that their father’s property would pass to a distant male relative. Thus the equitable practice of entails was used to defeat a common law practice: the common law rule that land descends to a daughter in the absence of a son and in preference to collateral males. What daughters lost was less a matter of law than of the cultural norms that shaped people’s choices about the use of law.

“As with everything else, Austen handles law more subtly than other authors. Law is not idiotic (think Fielding), nor is it obscure and self-serving (think Dickens). Austen doesn’t bore us with legal details, nor does she dish out easy criticisms of law and lawyers. Instead, law forms a quiet yet critical a backdrop in her novels. Austen knew that her contemporary readers would appreciate how law could function as a synecdoche for what really mattered: the patriarchal norms about women and families that were her real concern.”

Jessica Lowe

Associate Professor of Law

C.J. Sansom’s “Matthew Shardlake Series”: Dissolution (2003); Dark Fire (2004); Sovereign (2006); Revelation (2008); Heartstone (2010); Lamentation (2014)

Sansom’s mystery series feature Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer in King Henry VII’s court. “Sansom is a lawyer as well as a historian, so his books do a great job of portraying the legal practice of the time, while also exploring the moral ambiguities of the Reformation.”

Gordon Hylton

Professor of Law, General Faculty

Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (2015)

Harper Lee’s second novel was published in 2015, just before her 2016 death. “It is much more subtle and nuanced than To Kill a Mockingbird, and it better illustrates the nature of the power and influence that lawyers traditionally exercised within their communities.”

Kate Boudouris

Law Library Special Collections Metadata Research Team Lead and lawyer

Donald Barthelme, Concerning the Bodyguard (1978)

Concerning the Bodyguard is a short story told almost entirely through questions. For members of a profession that often relies on questions–from discovery to cross-examination–it’s a fascinating meditation on the uses of questions and the challenge of telling a story within formal constraints that preclude a more straightforward narrative. You can hear Salman Rushdie read the story on this New Yorker Fiction Podcast.” The story can also be found in Barthelme’s collection of short stories, Forty Stories.

Kim Forde-Mazrui

Mortimer M. Caplin Professor of Law 
Director, Center for the Study of Race and Law

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

“I’d probably recommend a book that many others have recommended: To Kill a Mockingbird. For me, it reveals that the law is only as good as society is. In the book, a fair trial was conducted but the jury verdict was unjust and based on racism.”

Cale Jaffe

Assistant Professor of Law, General Faculty
Director of the Environment and Regulatory Law Clinic

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952)

“I re-read Charlotte’s Web with my kids a few years ago, and was blown away by how poetic it is…For aspiring lawyers, it carries two powerful lessons. The first comes from Fern, the young girl who initially saves Wilbur from her father’s axe. Her father announces the ruling that awards Fern custody over Wilbur, reasoning, ‘Fern was up at daylight, trying to rid the world of injustice.’ Every client deserves to have an advocate as zealous as Fern.

“The second comes from Charlotte, who reminds us that great writing (legal or otherwise), often requires the most efficient use of language. ‘Terrific. Radiant. Humble. Some Pig.’ Not a 70-page brief with voluminous footnotes. Just five simple words. That’s all it took for Charlotte and Wilbur. I think most attorneys would benefit from adopting a similarly economical–and thoughtful–approach.”


Written by

Melissa Gismondi

Melissa leads interpretation for the first phase of the 1828 Catalogue Project. She holds a PhD in early American history from the University of Virginia and is currently working on a book about the political partnership of Andrew Jackson and his wife, Rachel. Follow her on Twitter @melissajgismond.

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Interview with a Nutshell Author

This semester saw the publication of the twelfth edition of Legal Research in a Nutshell, a compact but venerable text on legal research that dates back to 1968. Its original author was the late Morris Cohen, then Law Librarian at the University of Pennsylvania, but since the fifth edition in 1992 he has been joined as coauthor by our own Kent Olson. Kent has written about the book’s early days (Birth of a Nutshell: Morris Cohen in the 1960s, 104 Law Libr. J. 53 (2012)), but we sat down to ask him about his own role in the book since then.

AJM: How did you get started as a coauthor of Legal Research in a Nutshell?  

Kent Olson
Legal Research in a Nutshell coauthor Kent Olson.


Olson: It started when I was a law student, lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. In 1984, I was a second-year student at Boalt Hall (UC Berkeley) and working for the Law Library part time. My boss, Bob Berring, had worked at Harvard with Morris Cohen, the author of Legal Research in a Nutshell. Morris put out a call looking for people to revise and update chapters of the Nutshell, and Bob turned two chapters over to me. Morris may have been looking for light edits, but I attacked my chapters with gusto, crossing out huge chunks of obsolete text and inserting several new pages. A lesser man might have been offended or appalled, but Morris liked what he saw and asked me to review the entire manuscript before it went to the publisher. We talked on the phone, but we never met in person until the project was over.

The following year I came to Virginia and became a coauthor with Morris and Bob of their legal research hornbook, How to Find the Law. Morris had no interest in taking on a coauthor on his Nutshell, but in 1991 he found himself a week away from a deadline with no revised manuscript. And I was visiting him in the hospital.

AJM: Morris Cohen was a legend among law librarians. What was it like working with him?

Olson: He was my mentor and nearly thirty years my senior, but he always made me feel like a peer rather than a junior associate. Working with him was one of the great privileges of my life. He knew so much more than I did about legal bibliography (and was probably sorry that I never quite shared his love of rare books), but as legal research turned more and more to online search techniques our roles gradually shifted.

I do remember one disagreement, a friendly one, over how to describe the state of administrative law before the Federal Register and the CFR. Morris wanted to call it a wilderness, and I didn’t understand why until I realized we had very different concepts of “wilderness.” Mine was a pristine roadless area protected by environmental legislation, but he was thinking of a biblical place where people wandered lost and in despair. I think we ended up abandoning the metaphor.

AJM: You’ve now worked on nine editions of the Nutshell. How has the book, and legal research, changed over the years?

Legal Research in a Nutshell, 12th and earlier editions
Legal Research in a Nutshell, 12th and earlier editions


Olson: When the fourth edition was published in 1985, we had Westlaw and Lexis but a large focus of research was still print-based – some of it in materials today’s students are fortunate never to have seen, such as digests and Shepard’s Citations. “Case-Finding by Computer” was a two-page section of the chapter on case research. Research isn’t necessarily simpler these days, but there are so many answers that used to take work that we can now Google our way to.

People talk about a “sea change” in legal research from print to online, but to my mind it’s more of an evolution. In the end, it’s still about finding persuasive authority and reasoning by analogy. If we reach the point where cases are decided by the number of “likes” or by some machine-based measure, I’ll need to move on.

The book itself has evolved with the changes in research. Free Internet sites were first mentioned in the 6th edition (1996), and HeinOnline first appeared in the 8th edition (2003). There are now more than three hundred websites discussed. We’ve had a companion website with updated links since 2003, and in 2013 we took the illustrations out and put them online as well. Small black-and-white illustrations were fine back when we were showing sample pages of books, but screenshots of websites work so much better in color and on a larger scale. 

Olson with a student in Advanced Legal Research
Olson’s students “help keep me honest by letting me know what’s superfluous and what’s unclear.”


AJM: You’ve written other books on legal research, notably the concise hornbook Principles of Legal Research (2d ed. 2015). You also teach Advanced Legal Research. How do teaching and writing about legal research inform each other?

Olson: At the basic level, my students who’ve used draft versions as course texts have saved textbook money and they’ve helped to catch some embarrassing typos before they made it to print. But they also help keep me honest by letting me know what’s superfluous and what’s unclear. If we don’t cover something in class, it might not be important enough to include in the book. And without my students I wouldn’t have known that you need to explain to some digital natives the difference between a table of contents and an index.

AJM: Any regrets about the new edition?

Olson: Of course. There are always regrets. One minor one is that I completely missed that stopped tracking state legislation several months before we went to press. At least I could update that on the Nutshell website. A more significant omission is that I made no mention at all of Practical Law, to which our students have access through Westlaw and which is a really useful and current source of basic legal information in several disciplines. At some point I also should really think about how research by mobile app differs from website-based research.

But this just means I need to start planning for the thirteenth edition. In the past couple of months Lexis Advance added a directory of resources to its main screen and made its Advanced Search much more useful, and Westlaw introduced its “Westlaw Answers” feature when you type a question into the search box. All the references to FDsys in the current edition will be obsolete once GPO completes its transition to It won’t be long before January 2016 seems like a very long time ago in legal research.

– AJM 

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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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Second Edition of Olson’s Principles of Legal Research Published


Kent Olson
Kent Olson.

This week, West Academic released the second edition of Kent Olson’s highly acclaimed Principles of Legal Research. The first edition of Principles earned Olson his second Joseph L. Andrews Bibliographic Award from the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), which honors a significant contribution to legal bibliographic literature. Principles is the product of Olson’s many years of practicing the art and craft of legal research, and of teaching Advanced Legal Research to many bright and able students at the University of Virginia School of Law. It is the successor to the venerable How to Find the Law, published in nine editions beginning in 1931, the last of which Olson co-authored with Morris Cohen and Robert Berring.

The second edition of Principles of Legal Research remains true to its roots as an indispensable guide to practical legal research. Much of legal research still relies on traditional print-based sources and methods, and for those situations, the book offers refuge for those who may be more comfortable conducting research with a keyboard, mouse, and touch screen than by sifting through hefty tomes of pulp and ink. At the same time, Principles is a trustworthy compass for intelligent navigation of the latest generation of algorithm-based online legal research systems and the vast and growing array of Internet-delivered legal information services.

Works by Kent Olson
An extensive collection of works authored, co-authored or compiled by Kent Olson.


Skillful legal research requires a foundational knowledge of how law is made and interpreted and a solid understanding of the documentary outputs of those processes, and Principles of Legal Research offers novice readers the knowledge of both. The book has features that also make it a valuable reference work for experienced legal researchers, including copious footnotes, indexing, and a useful appendix of treatises and services arranged by subject. New to this edition, images of key websites are displayed in full color.

A prolific writer, Kent Olson is also the author of Legal Information: How to Find It, How to Use It (1999) and is author or co-author of several iterations of West’s Legal Research in a Nutshell, now in its 11th edition. Olson is an expert legal researcher and a dedicated professor of legal research. For nearly three decades he has also been colleague, friend, and mentor to the Law Library staff. We heartily congratulate Kent Olson on his latest literary achievement!

– The Law Library Staff

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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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Party with Books! Virginia Festival of the Book, March 19-23

Love to read? Love to read things other than cases and codes every once in a while?! Check out Charlottesville’s Festival of the Book events on campus and around town starting this Wednesday, March 19. For twenty years the Festival has been bringing great authors from around the world to our doorstep to tell us stories – ones they’ve written and ones about what they’ve written. Most of the events are free, no pre-registration required. 

Getting caught up on your Crim Pro casebook reading? Supplement it with the Festival event with authors of historical thriller books. Take a Saturday afternoon stroll to the downtown mall to hear about “Hell on Heels: Bad Girls, Feminism, and Rebellion in Romance Fiction”. If you’re looking for a study break & breath of fresh air, check out the many Festival events just down the hill at the Barnes & Noble at Barracks Road, including a panel on protest movement memoirs and one on writing about climate change.  

– Kristin Glover 

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Kristin Glover

Kristin Glover is a Research Librarian at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library.

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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 


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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 2: HeinOnline vs. Books in the Library

Welcome 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 second of this week’s four matchups!:

(3) HeinOnline vs. (6) Books in the Library.

HeinOnline is of course the journal cite-checker’s best friend, providing PDFs taken from the original source of Supreme Court Opinions, law journal articles, UN Documents including major treaties and International Court of Justice Opinions, state and federal statutes and much more—often going back in time to the first run of these documents. It’s a great, one-stop shopping experience that can help you collect the documents you need for your cite check before the weekend even begins! In addition, Hein has partnered with Fastcase to provide access to all federal and state cases (having previously only provided U.S. Supreme Court cases) either by plugging in a citation or linking from another Hein document. It’s a smart partnership by two niche providers of legal research services, although for law students, it’s really not a game changer.

Hein remains a nice depository of PDFs for cite checkers, but not a general legal research database. Even with the Fastcase feature, you still cannot do full-text keyword searching of any cases except for the Supreme Court opinions. Hein also has no annotated codes, case headnotes, or other features found in the major legal research databases like WestlawNext or LexisAdvance. It’s a great place to go to pull up an original document when you have a citation already, but not really a general legal research resource.

The Books in the Library, on the other hand, are the original legal research resource. Yes, they are slower and more cumbersome to use than WestlawNext, for example, but this is a head-to-head matchup so we’re not concerned with WestlawNext at the moment. All the mainstays of legal research, such as treatises, annotated codes, published cases, and case digests, originated in the books and can still be found there. It’s true that in these days of instant, online research feedback, using the books seems like a step backward. In this matchup, though, books have the advantage over Hein’s online database. If you need to do some basic research on a topic of Virginia law—finding relevant statutes, regulations or cases—and your choice of sources is between HeinOnline and the Books in the Library, you’ll be much more successful with the books.

                Winner: Books in the Library.

Tomorrow’s match-up: (2) Lexis Advance vs. (7) Critical Thinking. 

– 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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The Legal Research Tournament, Round 1, Game 1: Bloomberg Law vs. Google

Welcome 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.]

Without further ado, on to the first of this week’s four matchups!

(4) Bloomberg Law vs. (5) Google.

The 4/5 matchup is always a tough one to call. On the one hand, we have Bloomberg Law, a new player in legal research databases, but backed by the research power of the Bloomberg company and featuring established practice guides and treatises from BNA. On the other hand, we have Google, which owns Search, and gives us completely free access to state and federal cases, statutes and regulations.

Bloomberg Law is a nice database. It is user-friendly, easy to navigate and visually appealing. For basic legal research, Bloomberg Law is not bad—at least as useful as a database like Fastcase. It allows for basic keyword searching of all state and federal cases, or easy access to more sophisticated Boolean searching, including proximity connectors, through its Search Help pop-up. It also provides easy access to current federal and state codes, either by browsing or searching. However, Bloomberg’s codes are not annotated, a problem for two reasons. The first is that the code annotations are a great way to easily find those all-important cases interpreting a code section—without them you have to look the cases up separately on your own. The other is that when you search code sections without annotations, you have to be completely accurate in wording your search or you won’t get any results. For example, a search of the Virginia Code Annotated in either WestlawNext or Lexis Advance for “felony murder” will get you to the right statute even though technically it is called “felony homicide” in Virginia because plenty of the case annotations use the more common term “felony murder.” Doing the same search in Bloomberg Law, you get no results because there are no annotations. The other big hole in the Bloomberg Law lineup is law reviews—a great source for background research when confronted with a legal issue new to you. They have some law reviews, but relatively few compared to the other major legal research databases (although they are working on it).

Bloomberg Law makes up for those gaps in coverage somewhat with great access to federal court dockets. They have a great system for mirroring PACER, the federal courts’ electronic records system—just go to Search Dockets under the Litigation & Dockets tab. As lawyers know, a lot of important legal developments occur in filings that are never published in traditional case reporters. Through Bloomberg you can easily access everything that has happened in a federal case and track new developments. It is a nice feature, and one that Bloomberg does better than either Westlaw or Lexis.

Bloomberg Law also provides access to all of the great BNA daily and weekly newsletters on specific practice areas. These are among the most valuable resources out there for staying on top of developments in an area of law so that you can anticipate your clients’ needs.

Google, on the other hand, has the advantage of being free to everyone: law students, lawyers, the general public—everyone. And everyone knows how to use it. In particular, Google Scholar allows nice, free access to just about all federal and state cases in an easy-to-search database. It has few of the bells and whistles for case research you’ll find in the other databases, but for just doing some introductory case research or looking up a case when you know the citation, it is easy, effective and cost free. Google also allows easy access to state and federal statutes. Just Google “Virginia Code” and you can get right to the online Code of Virginia provided by the legislature. O.k., Google doesn’t really own those codes, but it is the tool that gets you there. As long as you are attentive to what you are seeing, there is a surprising amount of legal research you can do through Google for free: case law, statutes, regulations, and law review articles. Legal research does not necessarily requiring signing onto an expensive database.

All in all though, in this matchup, Bloomberg Law has the advantage. It may have gaps in its content, but overall it allows for more sophisticated legal research, without having to jump around to different sites on the web for different legal resources. Google and Google Scholar are nice places for the public to do legal research or for a lawyer to do some preliminary looking, but Bloomberg Law provides more of a one-stop shop, with the added bonus of the easy docket access. 

                Winner: Bloomberg Law.

Tomorrow’s match-up: (3) Hein Online vs. (6) Books in the Library.  

 – 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 Begins!

Law students have at their hands a variety of good databases and other resources to use for legal research, including WestlawNext, Lexis Advance, Bloomberg Law and HeinOnline. With free access to them all, law students tend to gravitate towards one or another of these databases, but is the one they choose truly the best database for legal research, or just the first one they learned or the one that offers the best rewards prizes?

We thought it would be useful to address the question: If you had to pick just one resource to use for all of your legal research, which one would be the best?  However, picking “the best” out of so many good choices poses a methodology problem. After all, each database or resource has its pros and cons, and each resource operates a little differently. Is there really one method we could use to single out a database or resource as hands down better than all the others? Fortunately, we did some of our own research and found that among other governmental institutions, there is a preferred method for determining who or what is “the best.” We found that the NCAA, the National Football League, the Australian Open, Pokemon and King’s Landing have all settled on a format known as a “tournament”—that familiar, objective format for leaving only the best team standing. With the format decided, on to The Legal Research Tournament!

The Rules

The eight top teams, or legal research resources, will face off against one another in a three round, knock-out tournament. The teams will compete head to head, in draws based on their seeding, with the winner moving on to the next round. The winner of each matchup will be determined by a completely objective comparison of their features until all teams are eliminated except for our Champion. Simple. [Any views expressed in these competitions are my own and not necessarily the views of the UVA Law Library, UVA School of Law, or the former LawDawgs softball team].

The Eight Teams

Listed in order of their seeding:

(1) WestlawNext. Every tournament has its favorite. When it debuted, WestlawNext was the 2011 American Association of Law Libraries’ New Product of the Year. It has evolved since then, making helpful changes in response to user suggestions, continues to win awards, and seems to be the choice of most UVA Law students. WestlawNext is highly favored to win the tournament, so much so that they fired hundreds of their employees shortly before this tournament began.

(2) Lexis Advance. The other big power in the computer-assisted legal research business. Westlaw and Lexis have set the standard for computerized legal research for decades. LexisAdvance has struggled in its introduction, but is backed by a company with a long history of providing legal research solutions. It is hard to imagine Lexis Advance will not go far in this tournament.

(3) HeinOnline (now featuring Fastcase). HeinOnline has long been a favorite of cite-checkers, providing original source PDFs of a large volume of legal documents. It recently made a step up by partnering with Fastcase so that Hein can now offer access to all federal and state case law and not just Supreme Court decisions. It may make Hein more of a one-stop shopping experience.

(4) Bloomberg Law. Bloomberg is best known as a business research and media company, but recently successfully entered the legal research marketplace by offering a user-friendly interface and partnering with BNA to provide popular legal practice guides and tools. Bloomberg Law is dangerous in this tournament because it provides free access to federal court dockets by mirroring the PACER system—a great feature.

(5) Google. Wait . . . Google? For legal research? When we have all of these other fancy, expensive databases? Yes. Why not? You use it for everything else. Actually, Google Scholar has the best free-for-everyone federal and state case law database available right now. Google is also the gateway to all sorts of other free legal resources. You can do a lot of legal research online without having to pay a dime to some of our more heavily-favored competitors.

(6) Books in The Library. Lawyers have been using the books for legal research since long before computers were invented. All online research systems are actually based on the books. Ok, maybe it takes a bit longer than online research, or even a lot longer. What happens, though, when you are doing last-minute research for a major brief you have to file tomorrow and the power goes out? Books are still a player.

(7) Critical Thinking. People have been using critical thinking to solve problems since long before books were invented. Like books, it doesn’t require electricity; and it can be applied in almost any situation. Critical thinking might be a low seed, but don’t sleep on it.

(8) Fastcase. Our law students are generally unfamiliar with Fastcase because we do not offer it at the law school. However, it is offered to many lawyers, including Virginia lawyers, at no extra cost as part of their bar membership. It does not have all the features you’ll find in WestlawNext or Lexis Advance, but it is a pretty good database for basic legal research. Yes, it has partnered with HeinOnline, another tournament team, but we’ll give it its own shot at victory.

The Bracket

                Round 1

                (1) WestlawNext vs. (8) Fastcase.

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

                (3) HeinOnline vs. (6) Books in The Library.

                (4) Bloomberg Law vs. (5) Google.


                Round 2

                (1)/(8) winner vs. (4)/(5) winner.

                (2)/(7) winner vs. (3)/(6) winner.


                Round 3 – The Championship!

                Remaining two teams square off for the championship!


Stay tuned for Round 1!

– 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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