by Erik Adams
In the movie “Edge of Tomorrow” Tom Cruise’s character is forced to re-live a horrible battle against space aliens over and over until he can master the timing and moves necessary to survive and win the day. It’s similar in concept to the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” and an experience familiar to anyone who plays video games: you try something, it doesn’t get you the result you want, so you reset, make a small change and try again. Eventually, you escape the cycle, advance to the next level, or (in Cruise’s case) defeat the enemy. But if you had been really clever right at the beginning, the repetition would not have happened, and you would have gotten it right on the first try. It wouldn’t have made for as interesting a movie, but it would have saved time and money.
This week I was reminded of this movie when reviewing a new associate’s online research. I think all law firm librarians have a story like mine: a new associate is confident they know how to do legal research, they get a task from a partner and attack it with gusto, but when the research is reviewed a multitude of inefficiencies are apparent. In my most recent example, the associate ran a search, spent a minute or two scanning the results, and then made a small change to the query and tried again. This repeated many times until the results were to their liking.
At my firm we call this “Google think,” and it is becoming more and more common. Our new class of associates graduated from high school in 2009. Since childhood they have lived in a world where much of the world’s information is just a Google search away, and there is no cost for refining a search over and over, Tom Cruise style, until they have exactly the right search phrase to yield exactly the right results. There is no need for efficiency with Google; it encourages experimentation as you type in the search (offering to help you finish entering Tom Cruise’s name, for example), and after a search suggests different queries to refine your search (i.e. “tom cruise upcoming movies”). There’s no per search cost, and the search results come so fast it feels as though there is no cost in time.
In a law school environment, where access to Lexis and Westlaw is given to students and the only pressure is to produce research results, Google think is a strategy that can work. Refine your search until you get the results that look right, and who cares about the cost?
But Google think searching is a huge disservice to law students because Google think is a problem in a law firm environment. Many firms bill clients for Lexis and Westlaw research, which generally means that there is incentive to limit the number of searches you run. No partner wants to bill the client for a huge Lexis or Westlaw bill, and no new associate wants to hear from a partner that they have logged too much in Lexis or Westlaw research charges.
It’s also a problem of time. Google think feels fast, but that feeling is deceptive. I’ve experienced this myself many times, after a strong cup of coffee. I entered a search phrase, the results displayed almost before I was done typing, I scanned with a glance and started refining my search. But that feeling is deceptive, and with legal research often 5 minutes of background research can save hours of blind poking about. That certainly was the case with my new associate: had they spent a little time reading secondary sources or just thinking about what they were researching, rather than Google-thinking their way through search after search of case law, they unquestionably would have saved time.
This is, of course, not a new problem, though there is a new wrinkle this year. Some associates are allowed to continue to use their law school IDs even after they have started at a law firm. With my associate, the associate thought the client wouldn’t see any charges. The associate knew there was a more efficient way but thought it didn’t matter. This leaves me worrying that the bad habits my associate has developed when working in a consequence free environment will continue once the client actually does start seeing the bill.
It’s good that we have associates who are comfortable with online research. But it would be better if they came to law firms with an awareness that not all research is free and that often the most efficient tool in a researcher’s arsenal is their brain and couple of minutes of quiet reflection.