I’ve done a lot of online legal research over the years and the one thing that stands out is the over-kill of whistles and bells systems have stacked onto their search engines… the clear implication being one of those is the silver bullet that will drive you directly to the seminal case in your brief.
The fact of the matter is, however, legal research isn’t easy, there is no silver bullet tool or add-on and the more whistles and bells you’re offered, the less likely you are to understand how the search engine works most efficiently, e.g., having voice-control over the air conditioning system in your car does not make you a better driver.
While there is no silver-bullet to legal research, there is an overarching principle when it comes to finding decisions using ANY search engine: you are searching through thousands of documents written by highly educated and experienced judges; they don’t write their decisions willy-nilly – they write them with legal specificity to reduce as much ambiguity in later interpretation as possible. Moreover, given the diversity of courts, facts and issues involved, no two opinions are ever going to be written the same way, thus ensuring that complex issues are simply going to take longer to research. And if you are using a subscription system research site, that time will somehow find its way into, and then out of your bank account.
Judges know “affect” from “effect”; they know “principal” from “principal”; “accept” from “except”, etc. No silver bullet is going to get you around common language mistakes that judges don’t make. Remember, virtually all opinions rendered by judges are proof-read by their clerks; by the time it gets published, it is either correct or as close as it’s going to get without a fist fight between two English teachers.
If you spend a lot time on social media, texting, yelping, etc. you will likely, ultimately, find what you are looking for in a legal research site. But you’re also going to waste a lot of time because judges don’t think in terms of limiting the number of characters to express themselves. Less is not more to a judge, but it is often the key to finding your way through the opinions they write.
Think of the overall library of opinions you are searching through as a huge inverted pyramid, with the tip of the pyramid pointed down and the base at the top: the very few opinions you want are in the tip, but you are required to start with all the opinions in the base, to get there. And while the efficiency of getting there depends on how you organize the search process, having the luxury of not worrying about whether you are playing “Beat The Clock” on a pay system, allows you to settle in and concentrate on the search, not your wallet.
Start with a search that excludes what you don’t want: you are NOT looking for an opinion about “murder,” you are looking for an opinion about “homicide” – television calls it “murder,” the law the judge will cite generally refers to it by the legal term of “homicide.” If you look for “murder” you’re likely to get instances of testimony where that terms is used by a witness, but not likely by the judge in enunciating the decision and legal reasoning behind it.
Don’t be afraid to throw the net wide with proximity operators, i.e., w/n, because different search engines count those words differently, i.e., if “a” “the” “and” are not counted, your search automatically goes farther than you might expect. But if those words are counted, then limiting your search to a proximity of 5 to 7 may put you just out of range of a dependent clause that makes or breaks your use of the case.
The best search engines allow you to throw the net broadly and then search within those results, thereby giving you a much smaller subset to search through, moving you closer and closer to the point of the pyramid with each new search, through an increasingly smaller number of cases. But don’t expect to get there in one deep dive, with a complicated search of nested terms; if your search reminds you of high school math and the quadratic equation, you may be still be a math nerd, but most of the judges were not.
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