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The evolution of legal research

· 6 minute read

· 6 minute read

Legal research has always been a constant element of the practice of law. However, the definition of “legal research” has been anything but static over time, especially over the past decade or two. What has changed, and what does it mean for attorneys? 

Legal research then 

The long timeline that is the history of legal research can be summed up in one word: books. 

Lots of books. Rows and rows of books. Until relatively recently, that’s what “legal research” meant. 

While the digitization of legal research was a monumental advancement, the basic routine remained largely the same, at least initially: important legal questions are identified, and relevant authorities researched and analyzed. 

Books have been traded for computers, but lawyers are doing the same thing – albeit faster and with fewer headaches. 

Legal research now 

The transition to digital has not marked the end of evolution for legal research. As technology continues to advance, so does legal research. And those advancements have spurned changes to the nature of legal research itself. 

Legal research has transformed from combing through online databases to pertinent information being delivered to you. And because of additional analyses and editorial enhancements, the information available now is better than before. 

Today’s legal research offers you more 

Even after you’ve completed the “official” research, today’s legal research technology has more to offer. 

How do you know how thorough you’ve been? How do you know that the authorities on which your argument relies are reliable? 

 When researching, you often know the case you are looking for – it addresses a particular legal issue, fact pattern, motion type, and/or outcome. There may be thousands of potentially relevant cases to sort through, many of which turn out to be decided under a different law, with different facts, or come out the wrong way. 

 Today, new capabilities offer a more efficient way to conduct research and find on-point cases, providing you with greater confidence in your research.  

For example, with Precision Research on Westlaw Precision, you can find legally and factually similar cases with unparalleled speed and accuracy. Run a search that gathers all the potentially relevant cases, then filter your results to find exactly what you need. 

Sometimes you know what you’re looking for, but also know there are multiple, relevant issues or rules that can change over time. Traditional research methods help build out your understanding of how a specific case fits together with others or how an issue or rule has changed over time, but those methods can be tedious and time-consuming. 

Westlaw Precision includes expanded KeyCite functionalities that can help you with the heavy lifting. KeyCite Cited With displays related cases that have a pattern of being cited together, even if neither cites the other so you can better understand their relationship to each other and locate additional relevant authority. KeyCite Overruled in Part indicates a case has been overruled in part and enables you to navigate directly to the language in the case discussing the point of law that has been overruled. 

Westlaw Precision is the fastest way to find what you need. See how it can help your firm. 

The expanding legal research bubble 

Because of the sheer amount of raw data that can now be analyzed by AI, the scope of legal research has grown beyond its traditional boundaries. In other words, there’s more to legal research than laws and court rulings. 

For instance, through an analysis of a judge’s past rulings, AI can generate insight into patterns in a judge’s behavior. 

How often does a judge side with a plaintiff in your type of case? In your specific type of motion? What kind of arguments resonate with your judge? What kinds of authority does the judge prefer? 

Knowing your judge’s propensities helps in crafting the strongest argument possible, and helps you identify authority you may have missed or that may be advantageous to showcase. 

Outside of the courtroom, knowing your judge’s habits can help you set client expectations regarding the cost, timing, and possible outcomes of the matter. As much as clients dislike bad news from their lawyers, they hate it even more when that bad news is a surprise. 

What can you learn about opposing counsel? 

This kind of insight isn’t only available on your judge. If your opposing counsel or their law firm has any history in the court system, you may be able to get data-driven analytics about them. 

How much experience does your opposing counsel have on a particular issue? How successful are they on certain types of motions? Do they have any history with your judge? 

Legal research now provides the answers to these questions and more, giving you the ability to prepare like never before. 

It’s available to you – and them 

While we’ve focused on the benefits that these advancements in legal research have for you, they aren’t exclusive to you. 

That is, your opponents have access to the same enhancements and analytics. They can find every relevant authority and root out the bad ones; they can get insights into the habits of their judges and those of their opposing counsel – i.e., you. 

The potential for your opposing counsel to review an AI-generated profile of your litigation history is just one way an opponent can gather insight on you. And tools like Quick Check can also be used to analyze another party’s brief or memo for weaknesses. 

What that means for you 

While this means that you can use Quick Check to find flaws in your opponent’s arguments, the reverse is also true. Your opponents now have an easy-to-use tool to find any authority you missed, or to find out whether an authority that your argument relies on is no longer valid. 

Imagine sitting in the courtroom and having opposing counsel inform the judge about a ruling that wasn’t included in your brief. It can be difficult to recover from that major blow to your credibility. 

Move to the next generation of legal research 

In the end, you can’t stay in the legal research of the past indefinitely. The sooner you step into the future, the better the benefits.  

Learn more about the evolution of legal research capabilities. 

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