Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 386-2865.
We’re on the cusp of a new era for legal research. I’m not talking about the change from book-based research to electronic research. (We’re well into the electronic era.) And I’m not talking about the wide availability of free Internet sources. (We’re well into the free era, too.) I’m talking about a change from traditional logic- and Boolean-based research to more natural way of researching. I’m talking about replacing the old rigid searches and compartmentalized results with searches that sound like how real people talk and with results that are wide-ranging and all inclusive.
In short, I’m talking about Google-ized legal research. But there’s an important twist: Legal research in this new era is really good.
The new platforms that mark this new era, WestlawNext and Lexis Advance, bring all the benefits of a relaxed Google search while dodging the drawbacks—most notably, the kind of indiscriminate results that internet search engines so often display. These platforms are highly refined, in their searches and in their results.
This new era should be a welcome one in legal education. It means that our students can move more naturally from their accustomed ways of researching to legal research. And it thus means that we in legal education need to spend less time helping students bridge the gap between their accustomed ways of researching to the new and mysterious legal research.
But more: The new platforms, by moving legal research closer to those more general research skills that our incoming students already bring to law school, help to smooth the transition to law school and to that most alien skill, “thinking like a lawyer.” In other words, these platforms help to make law school and legal thinking more accessible, more comfortable—more like a natural extension of what our incoming students already can do. These platforms do this in just one area, to be sure. But that area, legal research, is a key skill in its own right and an important foundation for so many other lawyering capabilities. Given the importance of legal research skills, the more natural bridge for our incoming students in legal research will inevitably lead to a more natural bridge for our incoming students in legal learning.
We ought to pay attention to this in legal education, whether we teach legal research as such or not. It means that our important partners in legal education are taking significant steps to reach our incoming students’ skills as they come to us, easing the transition to legal research and easing the transition to legal thinking. This means that students will be more comfortable and competent in a critical area of first-year legal education, and that this may translate into comfort (or at least a demand for comfort) in other areas of first-year legal education. Maybe it also means that we should all work in our own areas to reach our students’ skills and capabilities as they come to use, to bridge the gap between what students bring and what law school demands, and thus to ease the transition as our students struggle to develop from lay thinkers into lawyers.