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Features - A Review of Bob Berring's Legal Research for the 21st Century

By Sabrina I. Pacifici, Published on January 2, 2001

Sabrina I. Pacifici is the Editor, Publisher and Web Manager of LLRX.com.

Sabrina is a law library director and legal researcher. Since 1995, she has authored numerous articles and presented speeches around the country on legal-tech issues.

Are you looking for an effective, broadly applicable resource to train law students, paralegals summer associates or newer attorneys on successful legal research skills and methods using traditional resources, online commercial databases, and the Web? Well, there is such a resource available, and it is Bob Berring's Legal Research for the 21st Century, comprising five videotapes, available for sale through the WestGroup Store Web site for $499. Throughout the five tapes, Professor Berring uses a range of resources, both online, on the Web, and in hard copy, to illustrate the many elements comprising the legal research process. 

For those who are not familiar with Bob Berring, he is the Walter Perry Johnson Professor of Law and Law Librarian at the University of California (Boalt Hall) School of Law, where he has been since 1981. He is the author of numerous books, including Berring's Finding the Law 11th and Cohen, Berring and Olson's Hornbook on How to Find the Law, 9th and articles including How to Find the Law. He also has extensive experience as a lecturer on legal research. For those of us who were not fortunate enough to have had him as a professor, these tapes are the next best thing. Prof. Berring is passionate about spreading the gospel of developing and applying appropriate skills to conduct effective legal research. He compliments this passion with his considerable talent as a teacher, a one/two punch that guarantees the success of this video tape series. To provide some context to these tapes, it was in fact Prof. Berring who pioneered the use of videotapes to teach legal research in 1988, with his Commando Legal Research videotapes.

The Challenge of Providing Ongoing Legal Research Training

Law librarians have an excellent track record of developing and providing training programs on legal research for paralegals, summer associates and newer associates in law firms, as well as for law students in the academic setting. Let's face it, though, we can always use some help, as in-house training for legal research is often not a priority at law firms, be they large or small. As such training is not a one-shot deal, but rather an ongoing process, it requires a time commitment on the part of participants and support from the organization at-large. It also requires regularly scheduled follow-ups to keep abreast of the many new resources and methods that are an integral part of conducting expert legal research.

My enthusiastic review of Legal Research for the 21st Century is based on several factors. After 21 years as a legal researcher, I am well aware of the fact that although I find the topic challenging and often consuming, this is not necessarily the case for the legal profession at large.  Many look upon legal research as a necessary evil. What is more, many argue that legal research has become less efficient and comprehensive as a result of the addition of numerous fee-based Web resources, not withstanding the huge impact the Internet as a whole has had on this process. Professor Berring, however, has made the subject engrossing, informative, and far less intimidating than many would anticipate.  This is due in large measure to his skillful style of presentation, excellent command of the subject matter, and generous use of levity to keep the pace and tenor of the tapes from overwhelming the listener. The arrangement of the seminar into five, one hour programs provides a flexible format, and one that can easily be used to train various audiences at different levels of competence, from novice to expert.  

Although not to be viewed as a replacement for a professional in-house training program conducted by seasoned research experts, these videotapes can be a valuable adjunct to this important process.

Legal Research in Five Videotapes 

The five videotapes in this series, each approximately one hour in length, are titled as follows: The Basics; Citators and Secondary Resources; Statutes, Legislative History and Administrative Materials; and Legal Research on the Internet and Research Strategies.

The Basics 

In this tape, Professor Berring urges listeners to "think functionally about legal research." He explains the tools you have to use, the world of legal information that you have to master, and case books. Legal information is traditional and conservative, and yet this is juxtaposed to the free-for-all environment of the Web, to which newer researchers are increasingly exposed as a the sole basis for the entire research process.

He reviews the four levels of tools you will encounter as a novice researcher or student: casebooks, hornbooks, nutshells (general background information); outlines (simple and straightforward statements of the law), prompts (laminated cards); tapes on areas such as contracts; legal dictionaries; and 'hot house tools' (compilations of statutes; codes; supplements).

Prof. Berring advocates the use of these tools based upon each individual students review of value. He emphasizes the ladder of authority; cases, commentary on them, and more simplified commentary, and the need to put all these tools in context.  He also provides models and forms to help you understand this information while highlighting the following facts: 

  1. We live in a federal system.
  2. Jargon (understand everything you read...the precise terms used by court, legislature, administrative agency).
  3. We live in a common law jurisdiction; put a case in the context of what cases came before it. Once a principle is established, it travels through time.
  4. Legislation is the center of most legal research enterprises these days.

He explains the nature of authority, the research spectrum of cases, statutes, administrative law, and the importance of knowing where you are on the spectrum of authority. 

Case Finding and the Future of Case Publishing

Prof. Berring states that if you can intelligently use context to find one good case, you can then use the many resources and tools provided by the state and federal reporter system to engage in a successful research process.

In this tape, Prof. Berring reviews the model for organizing, publishing and accessing case law.  He discusses the development and structure of the National Reporter System, the American Digest System of Topics and Key Numbers, and Westlaw.  For those unfamiliar with this information, it certainly merits inclusion in a training program, as a means of clarifying the organizational system that is the foundation of caselaw research using West publications.

He details the importance of the human editorial interface that is an integral part of the creation and maintenance of the headnote, topic and key number system.  He acknowledges both the power and limitations of this system.

An important area covered on this tape is a description and review of Boolean connectors (and, or and proximity); the importance of relevance and precision in the online searching; and natural language searching using WIN (Westlaw is Natural) and Freestyle (Lexis-Nexis).

Citators and Secondary Sources

On this tape, Prof. Berring covers what he calls "the information universe of citators."  He states that citators are a cognitive authority that everyone believes, and how they are a principle point in the legal research process. 

Examples include self contained citators (such as tables in advance sheets and looseleaf sets), using legal databases as citators by formulating a Boolean search to locate every case in which your specific case is cited, and the most familiar citator, Shepard's. 

The process of citing cases has been revolutionized by the electronic universe, which has added the powerful dimension of hypertext linking to create an integrated system that gives you warnings about each case, the history of the case, and citations. Prof. Berring illustrates this process using Shepard's in hard copy, and also demonstrates its online counterpart, offered exclusively through Lexis.  He then describes and demonstrates the comprehensive rival to Shepard's, KeyCite, available exclusively through Westlaw.  He talks functionally about how this system works, and its unique  advantages, including the ability to leverage the proprietary structure of topics, key numbers and headnotes.

This video also covers secondary source materials, including Restatements, Uniform Laws and Model Acts, law school materials, annotated codes, law reviews, bar journals, practice books, subject literatures, and what Prof. Berring calls the best resource available on legal research, the law librarian!

Statutes, Legislative History and Administrative Materials

This area of legal research is often overlooked in law school, but it plays a tremendous role in legal research in all areas of the practice of law.  It can also be the most daunting type of research, as it is inherently hierarchical, complicated, and best conducted using hard copy resources. 

Statutes not as voluminous as caselaw in terms of database content, but can be an intimidating area for the non-seasoned researcher.  Prof. Berring diagrams the organization of this body of materials, and clearly identifies the key resources: session laws, state codes, and commercially produced annotated state codes (one of his favorite resources).  

On the federal level, he reviews the Statutes at Large, USCCAN, the U.S. Code, USCA and the USCS.  

Legislative history is believed to be the most difficult area of legal research, and it is used a great deal.  Prof. Berring advises once again to consult a law librarian, as well as sources of compiled legislative histories which may have the materials you require. He describes the document trail of a legislative history, which includes the bill, hearings and the report.  He highlights the important indexes produced by the Congressional Information Service (CIS), and the Congressional web site, Thomas. He also identifies two subscription based periodicals that provide important context to legislative issues, the National Journal and the Congressional Quarterly (CQ).

In terms of the administrative law stream of resources, Prof. Berring includes the Federal Register, agency web sites, and subject sources such as the U.S. Government Manual.

Legal Research on the Internet and Research Strategies

As a caveat, this tape was recorded on March 31, 2000. This is important to note in light of the fact that the focus is on web sites for legal research. As we are all aware, web sites have a way of coming, and going. However, the sites that Prof. Berring reviews are all still around today. He identifies important issues to consider when using any web site; who owns it, what is their agenda, how current is the content, is it a dependable provider of this content, etc.  Among the sites he demonstrates are the two giants of the legal database industry, Lexis.com and Westlaw.com.  He also reviews judicial and legislative sites (Thomas), volunteer sites hosted by law schools such as the  Legal Information Institute (LII) from Cornell University, and a site that is produced by two professional law librarians and legal researchers, LLRX.com.