Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Mystery Box

Google, Bing, and other search sites make finding information online look easy. You put a few words into a search box, like “chicken curry recipes” or “vacuum cleaner review” and one of the first few results is likely to be good enough. But the standard for “good enough” is quite a bit higher when you need legal information. So let’s think a little deeper about the search process.

As a researcher starting a search electronically, you need to know what you want to find, and how to ask for it.

“What you want to find,” in its broadest sense, is just information about a particular legal concept – your information need. For instance, you may want to find the elements of larceny in Vermont. Sometimes you may want to find the concept in a particular format, like a statute or regulation, and legal databases generally let you specify which of these formats you are searching (or to use post-search filters to pick a format). All of this is important, and could should be developed much further, but in the interests of blog post length we’ll let that lie to focus on “how to ask for it.” 1

Natural Language searching

One way to ask a database for something is to do a natural language search. In natural language searching, you put in keywords that characterize the type of information you are looking for. Think of it as the same as doing a basic search in Google.

The goal of a natural language search is to return responses to your query that the database thinks you will find useful, or relevant to your search. It makes this determination by looking at your query, and trying to find documents about2 the issue, based on an algorithm. The ones it calculates as most useful will be at the top of the results list, unless you choose to sort them differently. Westlaw and Lexis both have natural language options, and both WestlawNext and Lexis Advance default to natural language search, each using a complex proprietary algorithm. When you are putting in your keywords, try to use three to six, at least on your first search. Having too few keywords will make it hard for the database to judge relevance in the search results, and having too many might make each individual word less important in your results. You can phrase your search as a question, but there is no real benefit to doing so.

This process of finding and sorting relevant documents can lead to some interesting consequences. For instance:

  • The top ten or so search results could easily be just about the same, in terms of projected relevance.
  • None of the results could be particularly relevant. The system is going to give you a certain number of results, no matter what. As an example, try searching for case law on a dog flying an airplane without a pilot’s license.
  • One of the words you put into your search may not be in some of the results.
All of this highlights the importance of closely reading many of your results, not just the top one or two on your results list.

Natural language is a good way to start your research in areas with which you are unfamiliar, or when you are looking for broad concepts. Next time, I’ll focus on how to take more control of your search with “terms and connectors” searching.

Legal databases are moving toward allowing users to put a citation in the same box they use for search. However, that is really just a [welcome] nod to user convenience, and I do not include retrieving a document from a known citation as “search.”

This is rather simplified. To learn more than you would ever want to about information retrieval, see the online textbook Introduction to Information Retreival.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Doing Case Law Research? Try Using West's Topic and Key Numbers!

You may have heard about the "one good case” method, but have you ever tried it?

A problem often encountered when searching online is that the courts may express a particular concept in a variety of ways.
One effective and efficient strategy to try is the West topic and key number system. 

West has divided all American law into more than 400 broad subject categories called “topics.”  Each topic is subdivided into “key numbers,” which allow you to focus specifically on the precise issue you are researching. The system relies on headnotes that identify and briefly state each legal issue in a case. Every headnote within a case is identified with a topic and key number.

Here's an example of a headnote, as it appears on WestlawNext, from Lewis v. Lewis, 370 Mass. 619, 351 N.E.2d 526 (1976).

What does the headnote above tell us? This headnote is the 6th issue of law addressed in  Lewis v. Lewis. “Husband and Wife” is the topic name (also identified as topic number 205) and the key number is “Rights of Action in General” (also identified as key number 205(2)). The value in using West's system is that it allows you to take an on-point topic and key number and use it to locate ALL cases digested by West in ALL jurisdictions.

For instance, let’s assume you have been an attorney in Massachusetts for a number of years and are very familiar with the holding of the Lewis case and know that it was the first Massachusetts decision to hold that spouses could sue each other for injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident. You have now moved to Hawaii and you need to know whether or not spouses in Hawaii can sue each other for injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident.  You can use the information you already have about Massachusetts law and the West topic and key number system to find that answer.

Look at the headnotes in Lewis and identify the one that is most relevant to your issue. Click on the link to the most specific topic and key number in headnote 6: 205k205(2).

This brings you to a screen where you can change your jurisdiction to Hawaii.

Doing this will retrieve all cases digested under this headnote in Hawaii. The first result you retrieve is Peters v. Peters, 63 Haw. 653, 634 P.2d 586 (1981).

The researcher will see that in Hawaii the Supreme Court would not modify interspousal tort immunity rule so as to permit interspousal liability in regard to claims arising out of motor vehicle accident. This is the opposite result as found in Massachusetts in the Lewis case.

Try this method the next time you find one relevant case from any jurisdiction. You just might be amazed at how effective this strategy is!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Judicial Statistics

Whether you are a student clerking for a judge, a practitioner, or a scholar requiring statistical information for empirical inquiry, gathering judicial statistics can definitely be to your advantage. This type of research can be an exercise in frustration, unless you are familiar with some key websites or databases. Unfortunately, this topic often goes ignored in legal research texts.

Federal Courts
If you are searching for federal statistics, check out United States Courts Statistics. You can find numerous statistics, including judicial caseload and court management statistics.

For instance, if you are interested in finding out how long it may take from filing a notice of appeal to the final disposition of a case in the First Circuit, you may view the median time by clicking on the following links:  Federal Court Management Statistics>Courts of Appeals>Select "First Circuit" under "Select a Court to View Profile."

State Courts
The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) provides the most complete source for locating aggregated state data up to 2009 at the Court Statistics Project page.  If you are searching for individual state figures, you can Browse by State under "Information Resources" and click on your state. This will lead you to a link to the particular state's official site. Please note that available judicial statistics for individual states vary widely. Most provide data and statistics only broken down to the jurisdictional level.

Another option to locate individual state judicial statistics is to go directly to the state's official website. For example, take a look at what Massachusetts has to offer.

If you have access to WestlawNext, take a look at Judicial Reversal Reports and Judicial Motion Reports under "Tools." The Judicial Reversal Reports examine a judge's appellate record.

The Judicial Motion Reports may be helpful in scrutinizing a judge's motion history. The information allows you to see how long it takes a judge to rule on a motion and the judge's propensity to grant or deny a motion. The information available varies by court.

This is just a brief glimpse at some of the judicial statistics available to aid in your research. If you find yourself frustrated after spending much time researching, remember that even though these types of statistics are becoming more readily available, there is still the possibility that the statistics you need have not been recorded.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Google: Not All Bad for Legal Research

While the Law Library provides many fantastic legal databases for our patrons, we know that sometimes people start their research on Google.

It isn’t hard to see why. For non-legal searches, Google usually finds good enough information. It is fast, and you don’t have to bother with logging in. Starting your legal research with Westlaw or Lexis will yield better results than Google while still saving time in the long run, especially if you start with a secondary source. But, if you are starting your legal research with Google, perhaps consider the section of Google where you can search through legal opinions and law journals specifically: Google Scholar.


Google Scholar started as a way to search all kinds of academic literature. Since its inception, it has added patents and court opinions. The basic search interface is just like the main Google page. Enter your key words and the search engine uses its algorithm to [hopefully] return the most relevant cases. Like any search engine, it is not perfect. The results are usually good, but just as with Westlaw and Lexis you will need to look at many of the cases in your results to be confident in your research, and not all of the cases in your results will turn out to be useful.

You can specify jurisdiction using the drop-down boxes on the bottom of the advanced search page. This is highly recommended as Google Scholar provides no way to find a good case in one jurisdiction, and then easily find a similar case in another jurisdiction. (More on that in a future post....)

Google Scholar has full-text cases. Even though the case is on Google, most cases include the pagination you would find in a West Reporter, or numbered paragraphs where appropriate. There are also hyperlinks to the cases cited in the opinion, if those cases are also on Google.

Citation Analysis

In addition to the text of a case, there is a “How cited” tab with three distinct citation analyses. First, there are excerpts from the text of documents, usually cases, that cited your original case. It is a somewhat useful feature for seeing the points of law for which a case is most cited, though it is limited by the lack of a legal ontology such as West's Key Number System.

Second, there is a “Cited by” section that shows the citing cases that talk most about the case in question, and includes a link to all of the cases and articles that cite to it. Google has recently added an icon to citing cases showing the depth with which a case is discussed. There is a three-level scale: “discusses cited case at length,” “discusses cited case,” and “discusses cited case briefly.” If there is no discussion of the case, then there is no graphic. This is particularly useful in trying to validate your research. Google Scholar does not have signals like Shepard's and KeyCite. You are on your own for making sure a case is still good law. While there is no guarantee that a court will discuss a case at length before overruling it, looking for that type of discussion is the best you will be able to do for validation in Google Scholar.

The final section on the page is a list of “Related Documents.” These can be from any jurisdiction, but the majority seem to come from the same one as the original case. One quirk in Google’s algorithm is that it puts weight on the fact that two cases are in the same reporter, which means that Illinois cases come up as related to Massachusetts ones, for both being in the North Eastern Reporter.


There are some major caveats to doing legal research on Google Scholar besides the lack of case validation. Google does not disclose the source of its opinions, and there have been no large-scale tests of their accuracy. It is also not clear how quickly the database is updated, which is another strike in trying to use it for validating research. The cases are definitely not official versions, and shouldn't be cited in a brief. While you can search for federal cases or state cases, the state cases only go back to 1950, and federal appeals court cases go back to 1923. There is a full run of Supreme Court cases.1 More importantly, Google Scholar does not include statutes or regulations. You may have much better luck with some topics by starting in the statutes (for instance, the freely available Massachusetts General Laws) and then searching for cases that discuss that statute. It won’t be as quick or easy as starting in an annotated statute, though.

So, is it OK to use Google Scholar?

Yes, situationally. Overall, Google does a good job of finding cases related to your search terms. It does not do much to help you if you have bad search terms. Also, it is very easy to get bogged down in clicking through all of the cases that cite those initial cases. Google Scholar is a place where you can quickly pull up a case, or begin researching a topic when a secondary source is not available / too costly. It is not the place that you complete your research.