Faculty Post: The Law Is Not All Out There for Free on the Internet

by Professor Sarah Hooke Lee

Contrary to a popular canard, the law is NOT all easily found – and for free! – on the Internet. Paradoxically, the explosion of plentiful on-line legal information is making it more important, not less, for law students and lawyers to become skilled legal researchers and continually update their research skills.

The law permeates everything and changes constantly. Legal research remains a bedrock experiential skill for anyone working in the law. The 2013 National Conference of Bar ExaminersNCBE Job Analysis: A Study of the Newly Licensed Lawyer confirmed earlier studies showing that legal research is a crucial experiential skill in practice. 98% of newly licensed lawyers reported performing electronic research, and 91% performed print research. Surveys done last summer at two law schools showed that 66 – 76% of law students reported spending at least half of their time conducting research while on work externships.

If legal research is so important and the Internet so ubiquitous, then why isn’t it easy to rely on law and legal information found on-line?

Just as searchers readily turn up junk science and crackpot “facts” on the Internet, it’s easy to find personal opinions or misinformed advocacy published as statements of “the law” on the Web. Also, Google still retrieves incorrect law left posted for years without updating as old sites are abandoned or government funding ends for upkeep. Until recently, court decisions cited to permanent sources, typically books. Lawyers and scholars could readily find and understand a court’s reasoning, and determine if the law still stands. Online sources are more ephemeral. Even the most respected sources aiming for on-line source accuracy have severe link rot problems: a Harvard Law School report released in September found the over 70% of the URLs found in the Harvard Law Review and other journals do not link to original cited information. Ditto for 50% of the URLs found in U.S. Supreme Court opinions.[1] Even working links can lead to inaccurate information, as many web sites are routinely altered to contain different information than was cited to originally.

Most authenticated, accurate, continually updated law and legal commentary comes with a subscription price to pay those doing the upkeep. Lawyers at a recent conference pleaded with law school librarians to force students to learn the vetted subscription legal databases well, rather than relying on free Internet searching. They cited examples of young lawyers, sure that Google was enough, who had disastrously relied on out-of-date free caselaw found via Google.

It is certainly possible to do sound legal research without full reliance on expensive legal databases such as Westlaw, Lexis or Bloomberg Law. There are definitely good government and academic online sources, once one learns what to rely on. One would think that an affluent, technologically savvy state like Massachusetts would publish its state regulations on the Web. But some Massachusetts agencies publish updated state regulations in their subject areas on the state website – others do not. All citizens must adhere to the law, yet Massachusetts does not publish a comprehensive code of regulations.

Students and lawyers must learn to assess online sources carefully and determine which are best under differing circumstances, to use print and electronic sources cost-effectively, and to use different methods and sources flexibly. Products and interfaces change constantly. It’s hard to predict what will be available on-the-job. Rather than teaching students mechanically how to use online platforms, today law librarians have a responsibility to teach students to locate alternatives, plan their research rather than rely on web serendipity, and critically analyze the strengths and weaknesses of various methods and sources.

A research problem is like solving a puzzle. It seldom gets delivered to you all assembled by Google, but smart people can learn to solve the puzzles adroitly with thought and practice. It’s more interesting that way, anyway!

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[1] Jonathan Zittrain & Kendra Albert, Perma: Scoping and Addressing the Problem of Link and Reference Rot in Legal Citations, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2329161; Raizel Liebler & June Liebert, Something Rotten in the State of Legal Citation: The Life Span of a United States Supreme Court Citation Containing an Internet Link (1996-2010), 15 Yale J.L. & Tech. 273 (2013)

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