Extras - Book Review: Law of the Super Searchers: The Online Secrets of Top Legal Researchers by T.R. Halvorson

Michelle Ayers is the Head of Research Services at Jenkins Law Library in Philadelphia, PA.

“They are having an argument” begins The Law of the Super Searchers, the latest in the Super Searchers series originated by Reva Basch. Here, author T. R. Halvorson, lawyer, Montana farmer, researcher, programmer and deep thinker, sheds light on the specialized world of legal researchers with one-on-one interviews of 8 top legal researchers. In keeping with the Super Searcher genre, these legal researchers, tell in their own words how they ply their craft in the very specialized and computerized world of legal information hunting and gathering.

As author Halvorson rightly observes, the legal setting in which one researches can influence the thinking of any legal researcher. One of the most blatant differences in legal settings is the "24-7" fast paced world of law firm life as compared with the more intellectual slower pace of the law school library. While they may use the same tools, legal researchers in these worlds approach their research methodology differently.

One difference that reveals itself in this book which is not expected is the diversity of the strategies of researchers in the same setting. Case in point is the "argument" between two of the field's best-known legal researchers. Interestingly, they collaborate on an award winning Web site, The Law Library Resource Xchange. Cindy Chick and Sabrina Pacifici are private law firm librarians with blue chip law firms. Yet, their approach to beginning, building, and executing a search differs.

Obvious differences between Cindy and Sabrina are how each begins a research project. Sabrina has a very formal intake procedure; Cindy, however, "scribbles it on a piece of paper and get[s] to work". Cindy is in favor of receiving email requests and will only follow up if there are any questions. Sabrina, on the other hand, never begins an email research project without first making voice contact with the requester.

While their approaches differ, it doesn’t seem to affect the final results, that being the satisfied customers in the law firms in which they work. Indeed, this book is about how the culture of the legal setting dictates a researchers' approach to conducting the research - not in the results obtained.

Despite the differences, some universal approaches prevail. For example, most of the experts interviewed in this book agree on the general weakness of Internet search engines as compared with the power Lexis and Westlaw gives a searcher. The Internet is not the first place they turn to when conducting legal research. There is general consensus that the Internet is only one tool in the arsenal. To different degrees, all the experts continue to rely on commercial databases, print and CD-ROM sources.

The other law firm librarians interviewed, Genie Tyburski, Roberta I. Shaffer and Catherine P. Best think along these lines as well. The Internet is only part of the equation to conducting good legal research, especially, as Genie points out, when attorneys are more interested in “answers” not just information. This is particularly true for the law firm librarians who often trade the cost of getting the information for the time to supply it.

The experts from academia, George R. Jackson, Diana Botluk, and Leigh C. Webber (who provides insight on teaching Internet legal research) seem to give the Internet more benefit of the doubt. But not too much. They also agree that the Internet is only part of the equation. However, because they may have more time to conduct the research they seem more apt to use the Internet to experiment with search strategies.

This book is for novice and veteran legal researchers alike. How can it be all things to all people? Novices will appreciate reading how the pro's do it. It should be required reading for anyone – lawyers, paralegals and law librarians--embarking on legal research in the age of the Internet.

Halvorson's excellent summation of the expert’s observations in the "Trends and Themes" section of his introduction will be of most benefit to the veterans. Here are some of his observations: product delivered varies widely; research requests come via every medium; turnaround times are very rapid; informality reigns during intake of projects; checklists and pathfinders are rarely used; budget have a significant impact on how research is done; experts start their searches narrowly. These observations can act to verify how a veteran researcher may conduct their own research. Often, there is only one legal research professional per setting and it is always useful to see how others do it.

Also useful to the veteran and novice searcher alike are the "Super Searcher Secrets" listed after each interview. These highlight unique points made by each interviewee.

If you only have time to read these and the ‘Trends and Themes’, you stand to gain useful perspective on the complexities of legal research in the Internet age.

There were only a couple of weak areas with this book. One of these areas has been observed in the other Super Searcher books as well. The chapters consist of answers an expert gives to questions asked by an interviewer. However, these interviews tend to turn into unstructured conversations or discussions that all go off into different directions. One wishes for more structure, perhaps that the same questions were asked of each interviewee so that one can better compare the answers. This works both ways, though. The free flowing structure allows the experts to better feature the diversity of their research styles.

Also some follow up questions could have been asked of some of the interviewees and were lacking here. For example, a more experienced searcher may want to know what services Sabrina uses instead of calling the clerk of courts for dockets (page 37). One might also have liked some follow up to another mention of public records research about which resources were used for skip tracing, company research, patent searching, and expert witness identification (page 50). Actually, in the age of email, it would not be difficult to find the answer to this as Halvorson provides the email address to each person interviewed!

Finally, it is not clear why a Canadian researcher was added to an otherwise American group of experts. This leads to speculation that perhaps another Super Searcher book is on the horizon, possibly entitled, The Law of the Foreign and International Law Super Searchers!

Despite these minor weaknesses, Law of the Super Searchers: The Online Secrets of Top Legal Researchers, accurately depicts the diversity of style between legal researchers in different settings. Recommended to legal and business collections alike.


Law of the Super Searchers

Law of the Super Searchers: The Online Secrets of Top Legal Researchers
by T.R. Halvorson, CyberAge Books, 1999

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