Legal Research “Junk Drawer,” or, Advanced Factual Research

by: Ashley Ahlbrand

No two legal research courses are exactly alike. Some focus on process, perhaps developed around one or two hypotheticals throughout the semester; others are junkdrawerbibliographic, with an aim to demonstrate a vast array of sources. Some flip the classroom; others embrace the traditional lecture method. Some teach legal research at a broad level; others are specialized to particular areas of law. Despite the many differences that can be found among these courses, it’s safe to say that they share the same goal: student mastery of key legal resources. That is, we all hope that, after taking our class, our students will be able to highlight the key legal issues in a client’s case, identify the appropriate sources to research those issues, and produce a well-reasoned, well-researched solution to the client’s situation. After all, the class is about legal research.

While law should undoubtedly be the focus of any legal research course, what about the other kinds of research attorneys must do? Who is tasked with teaching students those skills? Last fall, our Advanced Legal Research course added a lecture humbly referred to as the Legal Research Junk Drawer (or to be more seasonable at the time, Legal Research Cornucopia). Strictly informational (no assignment attached), this lecture covers a variety of topics that, while not answering the “What does the law say about…?” question, are still valuable research skills for any budding attorney. To try and maintain a bit of organization for the lecture, we grouped the topics into People, Places, and Things.

People

  • Public Records

In the fall, this lecture looked at public records in both Lexis Advance and WestlawNext; however by spring, WestlawNext had removed public records from its collection, so we focused exclusively on Lexis Advance. In this lecture, we discuss the variety of public records one might need—everything from criminal records to corporate filings— as well as more mundane tasks such as simply finding a record of your past addresses when applying for the bar.  A caveat: We are careful here to warn the students against abusing these tools to satisfy their own curiosities.

I like to add in here people searching on Bloomberg Law as well.  I emphasize this tool more for interview preparation, as students will often find here recent cases and news articles involving the searched person.

  • Directories

Here we focus on WestlawNext, Lexis Advance, and Martindale.com.  We discuss how to use directories to find attorneys who specialize in particular areas of law, to find expert witnesses, and even simply as a networking tool, to find, for instance, alumni practicing in specific jurisdictions or disciplines.

Places

Even though some students have already heard of and used the traffic feature on Google Maps, few have considered how this tool might be used in law.  We take the example of a personal injury suit, and discuss situations where the typical traffic conditions of a particular location might be persuasive evidence.

I haven’t met a student yet who has used this tool before, and it always yields a few questioning eyebrow-raises. This is definitely a tool that students will appreciate only when they find themselves in need of it. The NCDC allows you to look up historical weather patterns at various locations—everything from amount of precipitation to tornadoes. We usually use the example of a slip and fall case: if your client claims to have injured herself slipping in the snow on a particular date, you can look up the location to see what snowfall, if any, occurred on that date.

Things

This feature is useful for any consumer, but we discuss it in the context of products liability cases. On the main recall page, you can find recall information for the past 60 days, and you can use the archive to find recalls back to 1994.

  • Product Manuals

This is one of the rare instances where I promote starting with Google, but I’ve also come across Manualslib, a digital library of thousands of PDF manuals.  If a products liability case comes down to a question of proper warnings or warranties, being able to track down the manuals—especially those for older products that were not born digital—can be key.

We discuss the USPTO’s patent database, but I have often found Google Patents to be a little easier to use, so I recommend that students start there. Inevitably we have some budding patent attorneys who are already well-versed in these tools, but even those who don’t plan to spend their careers in patent law may find the need to access product patents at some point.

  • Transcripts

We show students the Trial Transcripts & Oral Arguments tool on WestlawNext, and discuss other places, such as a court’s website or the courthouse itself, where one might go to access or request court transcripts, oral arguments, and more.

  • Declassified Documents

Admittedly, most of our students are not likely to need declassified documents during their careers, but we highlight our library’s subscription to the Declassified Documents Reference System, show an agency website or two where declassified documents are posted, and direct students to the National Archives to learn more about the declassification process and how these documents can be requested.

In conclusion…

I won’t lie. Aspects of this lecture occasionally elicit an eye-roll or two (especially when I pull up Google Maps). Yet I like to think of this as a “They’ll thank me later” lecture. You don’t know you need these tools in your arsenal until you need them. The difficulty of a lecture like this—in addition to buy-in from the class—is knowing what to include and when to stop. Next semester, for instance, we’ll be adding a stand-alone lecture on IP research, so I’ll be removing patents from the Junk Drawer, and I’m planning to replace it with something that we haven’t yet covered but that’s becoming increasingly prevalent in attorney research: social media. Do any of you have other “junk drawer” topics that you cover? I’d love to hear about them.

[Image courtesy of The Junk Drawer Project.]
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About ashleyahlbrand

I am the Educational Technology Librarian at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law. I am deeply interested in exploring how emerging and existing technologies can be used to enhance library services and legal education.
This entry was posted in Factual & Investigative Research, Legal Research Instruction and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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