13 November 2012

Problems with Simple Search

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 37.2, July 2012

Talking with a Summer Associate about Firm resources recently, I was surprised to learn that his school has completely switched to WestLaw Next and Lexis Advance.  Disturbingly, they no longer cover search techniques for the traditional interfaces in his legal research classes, meaning graduates from his school do not learn how to use terms and connectors or Boolean operations for construction a search, either.  The school is preparing students for the tools they will encounter at work—something increasingly important to the industry, if recent news like the new pro-bono requirement for bar admission is any indication.

Unfortunately, this does not teach them to think like lawyers.

The thought behind the new Wexis interface is clear: people like Google, so our product should be like Google.  Never mind that 1) Google attempts to organize the entirety of human knowledge, while Wexis provides access to a well-defined (and, presumably, well-known) finite corpus for specialized practitioners who are expected to know what resources are appropriate for which tasks, and 2) Google’s simple free-text search is great for providing possible answers to amorphous, general queries,  but doesn’t handle nuance particularly well.  From what I gather, nuance is pretty important to lawyers.

A lawyer is expected to be proficient in at least one area of law—to know and understand that law as an expert.  This requires, among other things, a knowledge of thinking about the law, as well—the commentary, analysis, and key figures discussing what the law means, and familiarity with the corpus, which includes knowing where to turn, specifically, for particular kinds of answers.  A simple search, returning all possible results, doesn’t provide this—it returns a long list of “possible” answers, which may provide the necessary information (if the searcher chooses well), or which may lead down a rabbit hole.  This chaos is compounded by what is my own greatest peeve with the systems: they return this mess of ten thousand results for any search, including a simple case or statute citation.  If I ask for a known item, I should not need to search through ten thousand results to retrieve it.  This is worse than useless, because it both wastes the searcher’s time and causes easily avoidable confusion, while suggesting that knowledge of individual resources is unnecessary.

More importantly, though, searching this way does not require, or lead to, precise thought.  We do not initially  provide New Wexis to our Summers because we think it is necessary for them to think about what they are trying to find before they go hunting.  We want them to suss out the subtleties in a question of law, learn who comments reliably on it, and how to locate material exactly on-point, rather than spend their time sifting through unrelated results.  It’s part of a belief that up-front effort reduces the total time spent on something by preparing to do the task, rather than jumping in and flailing in an unexpected mess.  And that a lawyer should be able to use the law, not just a database.

Since original publication, I have seen enhancements in the LexisAdvance interface that directly address these concerns; kudos to them for recognizing and responding to these concerns.  I certainly hope that WestlawNext has made, or plans, similar changes.

For further discussion of this topic, please see Sellers and Gragg, 104 Law Lib. J. 341.

This column was mentioned in the AALL Sectrum Blog.  Many thanks to Benjamin Keele for the kind words.

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