Taming Legal Information Overload

Vol. 42 No. 8

By

Shawn G. Nevers teaches legal research and is head of reference services and research instruction at the Howard W. Hunter Law Library at Brigham Young University.

It happens every year. A student sits in my office and asks for a life jacket—figuratively, of course. They’re drowning in legal information.

It’s a common problem. Legal researchers today deal with a rising sea of legal information. In 2012, for example, the US Courts of Appeals and District Courts published over 150,000 pages of case law. Additionally, there were another 2,500 pages of federal legislation and nearly 80,000 pages of the Federal Register. That’s over 600 pages a day without even considering the states, let alone anything else.

This abundance of information causes a variety of problems for researchers. Many researchers simply feel overwhelmed—paralyzed by the hundreds or thousands of results facing them. Some simply graze at the top of a results list like they would on Google, missing relevant information that’s harder to find. For others, the mass of information instills a fear that they’re missing something—that elusive case or statute that solves all problems but is always beyond reach.

While you can’t avoid this ocean of legal information, you can learn to float. Here are some tips to help.

Planning

I often see law students receive a research assignment and jump right into Westlaw or Lexis and search for the first thing that comes to mind. After some floundering they may get on the right path, but it’s always a better option to take a few minutes to think through the research process before you get started. Creating a research plan allows researchers to be more deliberate, making it more likely that they’ll use better sources, create better searches, and find more relevant information.

Articulating your research question is a good first step in the planning process. (More on this shortly.) Researchers should also spend some time brainstorming search terms as well. Legal research is so focused on searching these days that having the right search terms is critical to returning relevant results.

Planning should also include deciding which sources would be most helpful in answering your question. Is there a secondary source that might help? Is this more likely to be answered through case law, statues, or regulations? Picking the right source can help bypass a lot of irrelevant information. It may take a few more minutes up front, but planning will save you time and frustration in the long run.

Research Question

In Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat taught Alice that if she didn’t know where she wanted to go, then it didn’t matter which way she went. In a research context, the research question provides the ultimate destination—and, therefore, direction—for a researcher’s journey. Effective researchers stay focused on their research question throughout the research process. This sounds obvious enough, but I’m often surprised at how quickly law students begin chasing white rabbits that won’t help answer their research question. Hyperlinks are great tools, but they can easily lead to distraction if you’re not careful.

One way to avoid this is to write down your research question and refer to it often as you research. What is it that you’re ultimately trying to find? Sometimes your research question will be straightforward—when can alimony be terminated under Florida law? Other times it will be more complex and subject to modification as your research progresses. As you frequently refer back to your research question, you’ll make sure you’re moving in the right direction while avoiding irrelevant information and wasted time in the process.

Secondary Sources

Another important way to survive the deluge of legal information is to find someone or something that’s already charted the waters. Secondary sources, especially treatises and practice guides, can help to focus your research and filter out a lot of irrelevant information.

For example, if you had a research question dealing with conservation easements in California, I’d suggest heading to Witkin’s Summary of California Law. There you can find a summary of the topic as well as citations to relevant code sections and cases. That’s much better than sorting through a long list of cases or statutes on your own.

Your employer also likely has a database of prior work that can be used to point you to relevant information. It’s possible someone has already done some of that research on conservation easements. No need to do it again. And don’t forget fellow attorneys and law librarians who can act as walking secondary sources, helping cut through some of the irrelevant clutter you’d like to avoid.

Terms AND Connectors

Terms and connectors searching still lives! Sure, law students prefer plain language searching, but terms and connectors still has a place in legal research. In fact, a recent study showed that nearly two-thirds of attorneys surveyed used terms and connectors searching “frequently” or “very frequently” in their practices. When dealing with large amounts of data, terms and connectors can be quite helpful in limiting search results.

Say, for example, we are looking for federal cases dealing with affirmative action in higher education. If I use a plain language search for affirmative action higher education I get 428 hits in WestlawNext and 95,704 in Lexis Advance (talk about information overload!). Using a terms and connectors search of “affirmative action” /p “higher education” will bring those results down to 92 and 85 respectively. Even if you start with a plain language search, you can still narrow by a terms and connectors search to get more control over your search and to limit your search results.

Organization

One of the most helpful ways to deal with a ton of information is to find a good way to organize your research and to take notes on what you’ve found. As you learned after one week of law school, law students and lawyers read a lot of law. It doesn’t take long for one case to blend into the next. If you haven’t jotted down the holding in a case you want to remember or kept track of where that great quote was, you’ll be doing that research again. Trust me, I’ve been there.

There are many ways to keep track of your research, but no one-size-fits-all solution. The key is finding something that works for you and using it. Nowadays most legal research systems offer ways to save research and annotate legal materials. Another option is to create spreadsheets or other documents detailing what you’re finding, including citations, case holdings, and relevant quotations. You could also use a commercial product like Lexis’s CaseMap, which is a legal spreadsheet of sorts. You may prefer printing out cases and highlighting them or simply jotting down notes on a legal pad. Whatever your method, staying organized as you research will help you tame legal information overload.

The rising sea of legal information is a reality every legal researcher confronts. Jump on in. You’re ready to float. 

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