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What to do when you don’t know what to do

Liz’s Top 10 Suggestions for Summer Success

#10: Become familiar with legal research options at your location.  Each firm and agencies may subscribe to different venders, from Westlaw and Lexis to Casemaker (sign up for free with a student account) and Fastcase (Free to WFU students).  Know what each vender offers and the pricing models employed.  By asking a librarian about this, you will show your employers you are genuinely interested in conducting cost-effective legal research.

Think about when using print resources may be more effective than using online.  For example, you may want to use print resources if you are searching for material that isn’t available online – duh!  Some materials, such as CLEs and treatises, may not be available online through your subscription or generally.  Often it is better to start with a print resource when you need general information on a topic about which are unfamiliar, or when your search terms are general or the subject of your research involves broad concepts.  Additionally, I have found using print resources for statutory research much easier than trying to navigate them online.  That being said, online research is most effective when the material you need is not available in print – duh!  Some firms have quit updating print materials, you may need to head directly to online research when you begin.  Also, if you are searching with unique terms or for proper names, online searching is quicker than browsing through the voluminous print materials.

#9: Use “free” internet sites but be aware of their limitations.   What type of research do you think would warrant using free internet over a fee-based services?  My suggestion is to use these site for research statutes, legislative history/tracking, cases, regulations, some case law and policy considerations. But before you use a “free” site, please take the time to evaluate it just as you would a print source.  Consider:

  • whether the publisher of the site is reputable and knowledgeable?
  • whether the content of the site is accurate, authentic and objective?
  • whether the content can be retrieved via keyword, author, or title searching?
  • whether the information is current?
  • the frequency with which the information is updated.

#8:  The Mean Green — Know how much things cost. There are two basic models for pricing: (1) Transactional or per-search pricing charges you for every search you run, or (2) Hourly pricing charges you for the amount of time spent on a research service.  Transactional is best when you plan to spend time going through documents and is good for locating different types of databases in your interest area (before you search them). On the other hand, Hourly is best when you need to find something quickly, and is good when you want to run many searches in a row.

A good rule of thumb is that it takes about 7 minutes of hourly searching to equal a single transactional search.  Because of differences in vendor contracts, database costs, and other factors this is not always the case.

#7: Check database pricing & choose wisely. Lexis & Westlaw will often tell you the price of the database. Click the “i” information button after the database name.  Keep in mind that differences in vendor contracts may make the cost inexact, but it will give you an idea of how expensive it is.  WestlawNext and LexisAdvance throw a whole new piece to the puzzle with pricing guidelines?!?!

#6: Start Broad and narrow later.  Lexis and Westlaw allow you to narrow search results without incurring additional  charges when charged per Transaction.  Start with a broad search to get many documents and narrow down as needed.  Focus Terms v. Locate in Results = No extra charge to filter through results.

#5:  Browse the Table of Contents online.  Locating a document in the table of contents is cheaper than searching for it (although more expensive than getting by citation).  Often searching the table of contents is also cheaper than searching the database content itself.

#4: Tailor the search to the problem. Choose wisely between the key word search strategies: natural language and terms and connectors. The natural language (or proximity) search is often the default search option for search engines, and it retrieves a fixed number of documents (i.e. you may always get 100 documents regardless what your search is).  This technique may be helpful to search an area of law you are unfamiliar with (some good terms but not enough for a terms/connectors search).  Terms and Connectors searching, however, searches based on relationships between words (Precision search), and is often referred to as boolean searching.  In order to construct an effective search, you need to:

  • Develop initial search terms
  • Expand the breadth and depth by adding wildcard symbols
  • Add connectors and parentheses to clarify relationships among words
#3:  Familiarize yourself with finding tools. Make sure you having a working knowledge of West’s Topic and Key number system because using the digest in print will help you to be more efficient searchers online!  Statutory Finding Aids (Popular Names Table/Index) and headnote searching on Lexis are the “added value” that you are paying for when you use these big commercial databases.  Make sure you utilize the extra features.  And last but not least, update and expand your research by using Keycite and Shepards online.  It is worth the cost!
#2: Plan — Start slow to go Fast.  I highly suggest reading and thinking about the questions one by one before starting your research so that you feel comfortable before you start using any materials.  The 20 minutes it takes to answer these questions will save you exponentially more time in the long run. Once you have gathered some preliminary information you’re ready to start writing out a plan of attack for your research.  There are three components to a research plan: (1) An initial issue statement; (2) A list of potential search terms,  and (3) An outline of the sources you plan to consult.
Your initial issue statement does not need to be a formal statement that you normally write for a formal legal memorandum, but it should be a preliminary assessment of the problem that helps to define the scope of your research.  An example: “Can the plaintiff recover from the defendant for stealing her goat?”  This would be an incomplete issue statement for a brief or memo, but at this beginning point in your research it helps you direct your research to all the possible claims that would support or oppose recovery.  If you aren’t able to write a preliminary issue statement, that might be an indication that you are not sure about the scope of the assignment or that you may need to ask more questions about the problem.

Your potential search terms are generated by looking at the preliminary issue statement and using the TARP (from LP I) method of coming up with key words and topics.After you have performed a preliminary overview of the problem, you’ll want to outline the sources you plan to use and the order in which you plan to consult them.  First, you will need to determine which research sources are likely to contain relevant information, such as Strong’s North Carolina Index (a legal encyclopedia) if the problem deals with North Carolina law.  Next, you will need to determine the order in which you want to research these sources.

Lastly, get to know your librarians, at the firm or at the school, they’re the best resource you can have to learn how to start your research.  Also, both Westlaw and LexisNexis provide 24-7 research assistance to you as a student, as an intern, and as an attorney.  Use these resources, there are people out there that are ready and able to help you.  Remember you don’t have to re-invent the wheel.

#1: Just Ask.

  • Jurisdiction
  • Useful Tips
  • Sources
  • Terms of Art
  • Ask
  • Sources
  • Key Cost Constraints

Key to success in your internship and in practicing law is asking questions, whether it be in the courtroom, to your client, or of your supervisor.  Be comfortable to approaching these people with questions, because the more information you have up front the more concise and efficient your research will be.  Make sure you understand what you are being asked to do, such as which jurisdiction you are applying, what is the scope of the assignment, and are there any key cost constraints that may constrict where you locate the information.  You might also consider asking about terms of art. Terms of art abound in the law, and often become automatic language for an expert attorney in that area of law.  For example, the phrase double jeopardy can be used in common parlance to describe any situation that poses two risks. In the law, double jeopardy refers specifically to an impermissible second trial of a defendant for the same offense that gave rise to the first trial.  Make sure you are clear on the context of particular, or unique, words before starting your research.

Just as a caveat, asking questions will be crucial to you conducting comprehensive and thorough research; however you need to still use good judgment in deciding how many questions to ask and who to ask the questions to. (Adapted from Georgetown Law Library)

Oh… and have a little fun too! If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, here are 5 tips for better work-life balance.

Last minute gift ideas? Book Recommendations from the PCL.

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

As you are running around this holiday season, you may want to pick up one or two last-minute gifts.  Or maybe you want to snuggle up and enjoy a good book while it rains over the course of this week.  Here are the last of our suggestions for reading over the holiday break.

Professor Kate Irwin-Smiler recommends two authors for students and faculty to pick up and read for entertainment over the holidays.

  • James Patterson’s Alex Cross books. I cruised through these when I was on break in law school and there are a ton. Very short chapters & they go quickly. (18 so far!)
  • Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War books – The author of The Other Boleyn Girl has a historical fiction series based in England’s War of Roses (15th century). These books focus on the women involved in the English dynastic struggle between the Lancastrian and York houses. So far, there are three books – The White Queen [Available at ZSR], The Red Queen [Available at ZSR], and The Lady of the Rivers [Brand new, but already available at ZSR}, with more to come.

As a recent read, Dan Freehling recommends, Tangled Webs by James B. Stewart [Available at the High Point Public Library or through Interlibrary Loan (ILL)]. In an interview with Stewart published in  the New Yorker,  writes that “‘the broad public commitment to telling the truth under oath has been breaking down.’ Drawing on new interviews, full court transcripts, and hundreds of investigative notes that have remained private until now, Stewart meticulously and startlingly reconstructs the cases of Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, Barry Bonds, and Bernard Madoff—and scrutinizes how lying by each of these figures affects the American justice system, and society as a whole.” For the full interview, see The Book Bench column from April 2011.

Professor Barbara Lentz also shares some favorites from her family.  Her husband recommends the title, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History [Available at ZSR]. And, Professor Lentz enjoyed reading cookbooks and essays after oneL exams, and along those lines strongly recommend Heat by Bill Buford [Available at ZSR], and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential [Available at ZSR], which reminds Professor Lentz of being a line cook, kitchen serf and bartender in college. See the other titles Professor Lentz recommended in an earlier blog post, “More Wintery Reads: Recommendations from WFU Faculty.”

If you think we missed one of the most crucial books of the season, please drop us a line in the comments!

More Wintery Reads: Recommendations from WFU Faculty

December 5, 2011 1 comment

Ever wonder what your professors read outside of school?  Check out their recommendations for what to read over break to gain some insight in their personal choices.

First up is a book recommendation from Dean Ann Gibbs, and a possibility for the 1L book read for next Fall, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo.  One of the authors, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino lives in North Carolina and often speaks on judicial reform as a member of the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission, the advisory committee for Active Voices, the Constitution Project, and Mothers for Justice.   The story behind the book begins with a man breaking into Jennifer’s apartment and raping her at knife point.  That man was later identified as Ronald Cotton.  Picking Cotton takes the reader from start to finish of Jennifer and Ronald’s story.  According to the book description, “in their own words, Jennifer and Ronald unfold the harrowing details of their tragedy, and challenge our ideas of memory and judgment while demonstrating the profound nature of human grace and the healing power of forgiveness.” [Available at ZSR] Please leave us a comment on your thoughts on the book, including whether it should be our 1L pick for the fall.

Next we have a list of suggestions from Professor Kate Mewhinney, at the Elder Law Clinic.  She recommends a few titles:

  • The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal. [Available at the Forsyth Public Library]  “In striking detail, and at a rapid clip, the writer unravels the complex and fantastically bizarre tale of a man aspiring to the American Dream by any means necessary.”  – NPR.org
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. “Lucky Mr. Hosokawa. The well-connected Japanese businessman, now in an unnamed South American country on yet another job, is having a very special birthday party. At the home of the country’s vice president, opera singer Roxane Cos will be performing for him and his guests. But what’s this? Armed men invading the premises? These ragtag revolutionaries are looking for the president and disappointed that he is not there, but that doesn’t stop them from holding the party goers hostage. What happens after that was, for this reviewer, a story that failed to ignite. Patchett (The Patron Saint of Liars) generates little tension as she moves her players around the board, and one is disappointed that there is little reflection about the head-on clash of art and life. This book is getting a big promotional pitch, however, so libraries may want to consider.” – Barbara Hoffert, “Library Journal” [Available at ZSR]
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett. [Available at ZSR] In his book review of The Help, Bess Newman wrote “The Help is told in the alternating narratives of the various women. The story is powerful because it doesn’t get lost in big, sweeping points about the era but rather focuses on a nuanced portrait of individual characters, and of the horrors and blessings that come from these complicated racial relationships.”

On our list is an author recommendation from Professor Ron Wright.  Professor Wright recommends Scott Turow’s collection by saying that “Scott Turow’s fiction is actually quite realistic — closer to reality, I think, than John Grisham’s novels.”  The PCL has an entire Scott Turow collection available to students for a 28 day check out, which is plenty of time to travel home and read a few before returning to school.  Additionally, Professor Wright recommends “the David Heilbroner memoir [which] is a fun holiday read for those who want a picture of work as a prosecutor.” David Heilbroner, in Rough Justice, details his fall from idealism as he worked as a prosecutor in New York City from 1985 to 1988.

Wrapping up this list of faculty recommendations, Professor Barbara Lentz recommends Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill. [Available at the PCL] Professor Lentz stated that once you’ve read this book, “you’ll never shop the same” again.  And the New York Times reviewed this title by stating “at last, here is a book that gives this underrated skill the respect it deserves.” More recommendations from Professor Lentz in a forthcoming blog post.

Can you think of any titles we’ve left out?