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Staying Current

Resources for keeping up with new legal developments.

Introduction

Why keep up?

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.


sketch of newspapers or magazines

 

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

Researchers' Information Needs

Varied 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 trying to come up with a topic for a paper or journal comment. You want to learn about
    • recent and new developments in a couple of subject areas that interest you.
  • 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 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:
    • each judge's most recent opinions
  • 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,
    • interesting new law review articles in all three areas,
    • even minor developments in the sub-areas of Environmental Law where you plan to write articles.
  • 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?

Search Alerts vs. Edited Reports

Search alerts

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.

drawing of pointer (hunting dog)

Edited reports

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 Sentencing Law and Policy blog, you will read about the cases and news items that the blog's author, Prof. Douglas A. Berman, chooses to write about.

Pros and Cons

Each approach has advantages and disadvantages.

  • Setting up an alert
    • Plus: You have a lot of control.
    • Plus: Results can go right to your inbox where you'll see them.
    • Minus: It might be hard to construct a search that gives you exactly what you need.
    • Minus: You have to read and analyze everything yourself.
  • Following edited reports
    • Plus: You get the benefit of someone else's expertise.
    • Plus: You get summaries and analysis rather than having to sort through the primary material yourself.
    • Plus: You can have the newsletter, blog, etc. sent to your inbox.
    • Minus: The editor might give you too much or too little. 

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 vs. Pull

Zalce woodcut newspaper stand

Pushing and pulling

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

  • Push
    • Plus: Convenient.
    • Minus: Might come when you don't have time to deal with it.
    • Minus: Clutters your inbox.
  • Pull
    • Plus: You control when you sort through your updates.
    • Minus: You have to remember to do it.
    • Minus: might miss something important if you don't check regularly.

 

 

graphic: Alfredo Zalce, A group of men looking at a newspaper stand (woodcut, 1941), public domain image available from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Work Style

What's your 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

Social Networks (Old Style)

drawing of fashionable Europeans in French store 19th CTalk to people!

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 Torrent of Information

There's so much information!

Daumier drawing of man in storm of newspapers

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 are Zotero and Evernote.

See:

graphics:

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

Precious Time

clock on brick wall; clock has wings and a smiling faceWho has TIME to keep up?

Most researchers already have such full days that they can't imagine when they could read additional sources.

It's hard.

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.