Top 8 misconceptions about legal research

I am in charge of the legal research instruction as part of the Lawyering Skills course. Over the past three years, I have heard (and read) several things students have said about legal research. Before we have a new batch of students start up this fall, I would like to go ahead and address these issues.

  • Everything is available online.Surprisingly, this is not the case. While it’s true that the feds are quick to post things online, you can not say the same with regards to state materials. Of course you do have proprietary databases, but even those aren’t as comprehensive as people would like to think they are. Not to metion that, honestly, some things just aren’t easily accessible online. There’s also the issue of the cost of using these databases.
  • My firm will have unlimited access to legal databases.
    If you end up at a big firm, this just may be the case. Sort of. Keep in mind that at the end of each year, your law firm will have to renegotiate its contract with its provider of choice. And if you think that these providers aren’t keep track of usage, you are dead wrong. And if you think you won’t get canned because you caused overhead to jump thousands of dollars, you obviously haven’t worked in a law firm.
  • Clients won’t pay for research.
    It is true that some clients will look at a bill and refuse to pay for anything labeled “research.” It’s also true that many law firms won’t charge clients for “research.” So how does research get paid? By increasing the hourly rate on everything else and calling research “overhead.” Believe me, in the end, clients pay for research, being that it’s likely to be 50 percent of your job.
  • I won’t need to do research.
    This is simply not true. Think about it. A client comes to you with a problem and is seeking a legal solution. Even if you think you know the answer to his or her problem, laws change. You can be found guilty of malpractice for citing bad law. Even if you are relying on a form, you better make sure that the form you are using still conforms to the standards spelled out in the statutes or regulations.
  • My paralegal/legal secretary will do all of my research.
    True. The moment you become partner in a law firm, you can pass your research on to your secretary, paralegal or a lower associate. But if you are a first-year associate at any firm, you don’t get to pass things on. Sorry, but that paralegal is higher up on the food chain, my friend.
  • Employers don’t care about my research skills.
    The No. 1 complaint we get from law firms is that summer associates can’t do research. That they have to be gingerly walked through the entire process. If this is you and you are up against a summer associate who walked in with mad research skills, guess who’s getting asked back? You, because you play a great game of softball? Think again.
  • The research assignments are just busy work!
    Actually, the research assignments are created to actually get your face into the books and do some practical work. You can’t learn how to do research by reading a book. It’s like flying a plane. Would you trust a pilot who’d only just read “Flying for Dummies”? Or a surgeon who had never cut into a cadaver?
  • I already know how to research.
    Legal research is unlike any other type of research. Granted, there are some parallels in that you have key words and indexes and tables of context. But with legal research, there is a required level of analysis that is pervasive. Sure it might be hard to see your first year. But that’s because, at this point, the only legal analysis you can do is what you’ve brought with you. And unless you already have a degree based in law, that ain’t much.

W. Blake Wilson, Instructional & Research Services Librarian