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Thursday, October 24, 2002

Modern Taxonomies For The Digital Banquet

Tomorrow, as part of my firm's associate training program, I talk to the Southern California contingent of our new lawyers about legal research. I've been doing this for a few years now. (The firm figures -- hopes? -- we appellate types have picked up a thing or two about legal research along the way.) The poor summer associates get my spiel too, so I try to keep the material fresh in order to avoid delivering the same harangue to the same people twice. My spirit guide in these efforts continues to be my old legal research and writing prof from Boalt Hall, Bob Berring, who knows well where legal research has been:
Eventually classification decisions that were once based on the banal realities of constructing a workable sorting process transform that very process. Now this early decision becomes the only possible outcome; the result appears to be natural. Indeed, those using the system see no decision at all. Because those who use the system tend to conceptualize in terms of the system and, as a system matures, it becomes authoritative, the classification system simply describes the universe. Researchers mature using it, organize their thoughts around it, and it then defines the world of "thinkable thoughts."
and where it has arrived:
A simple click on the computer screen can take today's researcher from the text of a United States Supreme Court decision to the pages of a news magazine, a trade association publication, or a political journal. It is commonplace to complain about the proliferation of judicial decisions, but the far larger universe of information that is available to the online legal researcher today is not primary source legal material. It is all of the world's information that lies at the other end of a hypertext link. Legal researchers are awash in judicial reports, but that is only a drop in the ocean of information that lies a keypad away.
[From Legal Research And The World Of Thinkable Thoughts, 2 J. App. Prac. & Process 305] The above article is a couple of years old, but listen closely to where it winds up:
Most likely, our Blackstone will come in many pieces. I envision a return to individual authority. As the law grows more complex, individuals who can make sense of discrete parts of it will be increasingly valuable. Just as individual judges assembled the early nominative reports, new experts will arise. The opinions that they offer will arrive over one's e-mail system, not in leather bindings. Perhaps they will be available for interactive conversation. When there is such a glut of available information, the need for guides becomes more important. Twenty-first century researchers will yearn for guidance and the reliability of individual expertise. More personal, more interactive, and more specialized, such information systems can hold things together. [Para.] Our challenge is to find a mechanism for helping these authorities to develop...We need authorities that can create a new world of thinkable thoughts. It need not be a perfect model, but it has to be one that meets the characteristics of a good classification system. This is especially urgent because there are other possibilities. [Links and emphasis added.]
The other possibilities Berring goes on to consider are "authority via common denominator" (e.g., Google; I wonder whether this is quite as pernicious as Professor Berring seems to assert) and authority via mass media-controlled "infotainment" (e.g., Rupert Murdoch). So, by now you've figured out a couple of things my talk tomorrow will suggest: (1) weblogs, ezines and "bottom up" legal Web sites already are building the new "Blackstone" Professor Berring points out we need in order to winnow the digital resources at our disposal, and (2) the savvy legal researcher knows how to include them in his or her arsenal.

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