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, scholars write new articles and books.
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.
graphic: drawing of newspapers or magazines from British Library's photostream on Flickr
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:
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?
Many databases enable you to set up a search to be run for you automatically. For example, if you want to see any new case mentioning "Myriad Genetics," you could run a search in an online service (e.g., Bloomberg Law, LexisNexis, or Westlaw), then create an alert to run the search periodically (e.g., once a week) and email results to you.
You can subscribe to a newsletter or a blog produced by someone who will choose the important stories in an area. For instance, if you subscribe to IP Law News from Bloomberg Law, you will see the stories selected and produced by Bloomberg's reporters and editors. If you follow the , you will read about the cases and news items that the blog's author,
Each approach has advantages and disadvantages.
The answer? Use more than one approach.
graphic: drawing of an English Pointer from Woodland Wild: A Selection of Descriptive Poetry (1868), available in British Library's photostream on Flickr
Push technology sends you updates, automatically ("pushing" them into your email inbox). Pull technology requires you to go and look for something—for instance, when you look to see whether any new announcements are posted on the website of an organization. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages
graphic: Alfredo Zalce, A group of men looking at a newspaper stand (woodcut, 1941), public domain image available from Metropolitan Museum of Art
Individuals' work styles affect what current awareness approaches will work for them. Think about:
Graphic: Kubo Shunman, Court Woman at her Desk with Poem Cards (1795), public domain image available from Metropolitan Museum of Art
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
Talk to your friends, classmates, and professors about your interests. That way, if they come across an article or news story that will be really helpful for you, they might let you know about it.
If nobody knows that you are passionately concerned about poverty law or immigration reform or comparative approaches to privacy protection, you won't get that friendly note telling you about a fascinating interview or impressive new book on the topic.
For your part, be a good colleague. If you read a news item, blog post, or journal article that relates to the paper your friend is working on, send a quick note.
graphic: illustration from Round the World with General Grant (1879), available in British Library's photostream on Flickr
Managing the mass of information you get through alerts, blogs, and newsletters is a challenge.
Sometimes, you will want to skim, delete, and move on, because all you wanted was a general awareness of the news. Other times, you will want to read more carefully. Maybe you will want to able to find and use the information later.
Suppose you get a lot of updates via email. It won't work simply to leave everything in your inbox. Moving it to a folder named "Interesting Stuff" also isn't efficient. Consider creating separate folders for the different topics you are following.
Some researchers find it helpful to save notes and documents to folders in their computer. Some people keep one or more documents with notes about resources (e.g., "Articles to read for planned paper on X").
You might want to use an app for organizing your notes and citations. A couple of tools to consider areand .
Honoré Daumier, The spring-tide of 1868, from 'News of the day,' published in Le Charivari, December 19, 1868, public domain image from Metropolitan Museum of Art
Most researchers already have such full days that they can't imagine when they could read additional sources.
Some of the tips in this guide might help you gain some time by being more efficient. For instance, instead of floundering around looking for new developments each time you think of a case you need for a project, you could set up alerts in KeyCite or Shepard's and feel confident that you will get the information when you need it.
But it's foolish to imagine that you can add information to your daily diet without changing how you spend your time. Maybe while you are working on a major project, you'll cut back on reading about basketball or movies. Maybe I should pull myself away from Facebook or Spider Solitaire to look at some interesting updates. Maybe you'll decide to unsubscribe to a couple of listservs that you don't find useful to make time to read a newsletter that you do.
You might wish that we could make keeping up with your field totally frictionless. But then everyone would do it, and your expertise wouldn't be special. You do have to invest time to develop and maintain your knowledge.
You can't read every newsletter or every new case. Consider the mix that will work for you—perhaps some broad coverage of current events and law generally with deeper coverage in your special area of interest.
Graphic: Clock art on a wall of the Old Brick Store in Charlotte, Vermont, by Carol Highsmith (2017), Library of Congress.