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Legal Practice Tip: Don't Just Rely on Computer Research

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 02, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you come across a stack of legal reporters in a law firm today, you know they're largely for show. The vast majority of our legal research takes place online, through services like Westlaw. And thank God! Searching through the Federal Reporter (600 volumes and counting in the current series) is hardly a joy.

But, if you are relying exclusively on computer research, you may be missing out.

A Few Books Aren't Just for Show

There's more to effective legal research and writing than simply finding the most relevant caselaw. Legal treatises, practice guides, and encyclopedias can provide a wealth of information to inform or guide your writing.

While these resources are often available electronically, there are certain benefits to having a physical copy on hand. Take it from Bryan Garner, one of the foremost names in legal writing. Tip two of his "10 Tips for Better Legal Writing" is to turn off the screen every so often and turn to a book.

Combine book research with computer research. Don't overlook such obvious resources as Corpus Juris Secundum and American Jurisprudence. Look at indexes, digests and treatises to round out your understanding of the subject matter. And when it comes to computer research, don't forget Google Books (especially the advanced-search function): It can open up a great variety of fresh resources in addition to what you find with Westlaw or Lexis.

More Benefits From Books

Besides the benefits of Am. Jur., simply working with the printed page can have important advantages. Some studies show that reading speed and comprehension are higher when dealing with paper rather than digital documents. We'd guess that the same may not be true for today's "digital natives," but for most lawyers who grew up reading actual books, rather than tablets, you may want to turn to paper when dealing with a long, difficult read.

Secondly, paper allows you to spread out in a way digital documents don't. You may have two screens, but a clutter of open windows and tabs will never let you organize files as well as you can when you, say, lay out your research across a large conference table, or organize files into a nicely tabbed binder. There's something satisfying about such organization that you won't be able to get on a computer.

Of course, we'd never suggest giving up computer resources when it comes to legal research and writing. But you might benefit from supplementing them with a bit of old-fashioned paper every now and then.

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