Hindsight: Realizing the Importance of Legal Research

by Bret Christensen

Once upon a time, I taught legal research and writing at a local law school. One day, a former student came to me and told me that he hated the class so much that on the last day of class, he burned all his notes during a weenie roast at the beach.  When he finally graduated from law school and passed the bar, he landed a job with the District Attorney’s office. His assignment was to write briefs laying out the issues of cases so that attorneys would know what is going on. With little over an hour to write each brief, it was critical that his research and writing skills were tack-sharp. At about this point, he asks me, “Can you teach me what you taught in that legal research and writing class (you know, all those things that were in the notes that he burned at the weenie roast)?”  Yeah, no.  First, because I didn’t have the time and second, because karma. It’s really nasty when it wants to be.

In retrospect, I suspect that had he started with “as a law librarian (and former instructor), can you suggest some resources to help me review what we learned in class or, maybe even, just give me a quick refresher on the basics of legal research?” and then ended with the part about the weenie roast, things might have turned out different. The problem is that he got caught up with all the resentment of law school. I mean I get it; law students hate legal research and writing. It’s so, so, so….practical (whereas everything else in law school is theoretical). It’s like going 1,000 mph taking contracts, torts, property, crim law….and then having to slam on your breaks because you got stuck behind some old lady doing 20!

Take, for example, the newly minted attorney who came dragging into my office the other day. She recently passed the bar, decided to hang out her own shingle, accepted her first divorce case, and realized she didn’t have a clue where to start. She was telling me how much she hated legal research and writing and, yet, received the highest score in many of her other classes, was Ms. Wizard in trial practice, moot court was a breeze, flew through the bar, and slammed up against reality when she started practicing law and realized how important that one, single legal research class really was. Good thing she had sense enough to realize that if she didn’t have a clue how to do legal research, that someone at her local county law library could and would, at least, give her some pointers on how to get going.

Turns out, she was right. While I wasn’t about to do her research for her, I was able to point her to some helpful resources. Since one of the issues she was dealing with had to do with the valuation of a family business, I suggested she take a look at:

  • American Jurisprudence Proof of Facts TR; Vol. 137, 3d series, page 267.  What is great about the 3rd series of POF is that many of the proofs include sample complaints, discovery plans, and actual proofs (i.e. questions) attorneys can use to question witnesses in depositions or trials.
  • American Law Reports TR; 16 ALR6th 693. Traditionally, not my immediate go-to-resource, it so happened that the article in this ALR spoke directly to what newly minted was looking for, so, why not?
  • Business Succession Planning: strategies for California estate planners and business attorneys CEB; Chp. 18: Business Valuation.  When the new attorney saw the part in the title as “estate planners,” she started in that it had nothing to do with what she was dealing with. “Excuse me?” said the legal information professional (i.e. me).  If you don’t trust anyone else, trust the law Librarian – because we’re not here to waste our time wasting your time.
  • California Civil Practice: family law litigation TR; Vol. 1, Chp. 5: Character and Valuation of Property. The running theme, here, is to find something that will help with the valuation of a business. Most states have something on the topic; California has scads of resources about it.
  • California Forms of Pleading and Practice Lexis; Vol. 18, Chp. 222: Dissolution of Marriage: Property Division and Valuation.  If you practice law in California and you have avoided touching California Forms of Pleading and Practice, then maybe you should be a dentist or something other than a lawyer. It’s full of sample briefs, motions, discovery and other templates. Pleading and Practice is one of the best resources for the newly minted or thoroughly seasoned practicing attorneys.

And off she went to develop her case (and make money).

Moral of this story: if you happen to be in law school, and you happen to be taking legal research and writing, and you happen to be thinking that you are wasting your time and that you’re just going to have your secretary or paralegal write all your motions and briefs as soon as you pass the bar anyway. That, my friend, is a pipe dream. Best to pay attention and take copious notes because as omnipotent as your local county law librarian is, we’re not going to do your work for you.

Blog about you, yes.  Work for you, no.

About mrlibrarian7

I am a law Librarian. No, I don't have thick, black glasses, a bun in my hair or a pointy nose - but I do provide killer legal reference to anyone who walks, rides, crawls, or otherwise gets through the front doors.
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