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Staying Current

Resources for keeping up with new legal developments.

Introduction

Legal researchers always need to be aware of the possibility of change. Legislatures pass new statutes or amend existing ones, courts decide new cases, new social and technological developments create new legal issues. For generations, lawyers kept up with new cases by skimming the advance sheets of case reports and followed other developments by reading the newspaper. Those techniques are still useful, but changes in technology offer today's researchers many more tools for keeping up with new developments and staying current in one's area of specialization.


sketch of newspapers or magazines

 

graphic: drawing of newspapers or magazines from British Library's photostream on Flickr

Researchers' Information Needs

Researchers' needs for updating information vary by type of information needed as well as its depth and breadth. Even one law student or lawyer will have different needs depending on the reason he or she wants to get updates. Adjust your updating techniques to your needs.

Consider the following examples:drawing of 2 terriers looking up

  • You are writing a comment about a recent ninth circuit case. You want to know:
    • whether the Supreme Court grants cert.
    • whether other cases cite it.
    • whether some other law student manages to publish a comment about it before you do.
  • You are trying to get the Washington State legislature to adopt a particular bill. You want to know:
    • when it is assigned to committee, when the committee schedules hearings, and so on.
    • what's happening to other bills on related topics.
  • You are trying to come up with a topic for a comment. You want to learn about
    • recent and new developments in a couple of subject areas.
  • You have submitted your appellate brief and are preparing for oral argument. You want to see:
    • whether any of the cases you rely on have been affected by later cases.
  • You hope to practice real estate and land use law. You want to get:
    • a general sense of what's happening in your jurisdiction.
  • You have applied to twenty different judges for clerkships. If you get an interview, you'd like to know:
    • what each judge's most recent opinions were.
  • You are writing a dissertation that looks at a subject in two jurisdictions, using three different theoretical frameworks to analyze it. You want to:
    • follow new developments in those jurisdictions, and
    • keep up with new papers applying and critiquing the theoretical frameworks.
  • You are applying for teaching jobs and you've said you'd like to teach Administrative Law, Environmental Law, or Civil Procedure. You want to keep up with:
    • major developments in all three areas.
  • You would like to increase your profile as a scholar, so you want to find out:
    • calls for papers and upcoming conferences.
       

graphic:drawing of two terriers, from a children's book (Our Friends and All About Them, 1893), available in British Library's photostream on Flickr. It has nothing to do with researchers' needs for current information, but the dogs do look curious, don't they?

Work Style

woman at low table with scrolls of paper

Individuals' work styles affect what current awareness approaches will work for them. Think about:

  • how much time you have available
  • how you organize your time
  • how you take in information
  • how you organize information
  • whether you prefer to sort through lots of information yourself or have someone hand it to you in a nice package

For example:

  • Would you rather look through several e-newsletters each Friday afternoon or as they come in?
  • Do you like to start each day with a newspaper (print or online)?
  • Do you listen to podcasts while walking the dog?
  • Do you like to scroll through your Twitter feed when you're riding the bus or would you rather relax with a book that's not related to your work?
  • Do you get what you want by skimming headlines or do you feel a need to read more deeply?
  • Does it make you crazy to have more messages in your email inbox than you can handle?

Graphic: Kubo Shunman, Court Woman at her Desk with Poem Cards (1795), public domain image available from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Comprehensiveness

Japanese painting squirrels gathering chestnuts

When do you need to be comprehensive?

If you're working on a brief to the Supreme Court, maybe you want to know every Supreme Court case that has addressed your issue. If you're writing a case note, you might want to know every subsequent case and law review article that cites it.

But much of the time, you want less than comprehensive coverage. No one has the time to read everything about everything, even within a limited practice area.

Be aware that there is a lot of redundancy in the information world. A major development will be covered in different newsletters—as well as on NPR, PBS NewsHour, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. For many projects, you can choose one or two good sources and trust that you will hear about the important developments. For other projects, you will use more sources to reduce the risk of missing something.

Graphic: Kawanabe Kyōsai, Squirrels Gathering Chestnuts (ca. 1887), public domain images available from Metropolitan Museum of Art