Time to Search the Legal Swamp

Overwhelmed by alligators or legal research? Here's what to do.
Overwhelmed by alligators or legal research? Here's what to do.

 

Early in my career, managers used to talk about how it’s time to drain the swamp if you’re up to your neck in alligators. The statement never entirely made sense to me, but had something to do with being diverted from the original mission of swamp drainage. Frankly, the saying still seems a little convoluted to me.

Yet mention of being overwhelmed by alligators reminds me of my days as a law student when I was overwhelmed by legal research, namely how to do it successfully. Lexis and Westlaw were exhausting. Searching using physical texts seemed like a royal waste of time. I was annoyed and frustrated.

It’s unfortunate that no professor or teaching assistant ever pulled me aside and told me that eventually, it would get easier. It would, in fact, get so much easier that it would become fun. Legal research to me today is a little adventure between me and a database. When looking for stuff today, I mostly win.

Instructors can make legal research much more engaging for newbies. Make assignments fun. Wouldn’t looking up laws on feeding alligators be much more interesting than figuring out liability in a two-car collision?

Is the citation to that alligator law in correct Bluebook format? Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Is the citation to that alligator law in correct Bluebook format? Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Instructors can also give problems to students that become increasingly more challenging. Start, for instance, with a photograph and a sign. Think about finding a copy of that alligator statute. What files in which databases might be searched? If you didn’t have a section, how might you locate the provision anyway? What does that language actually say? When was that law enacted? How many times has it been revised? Is enforcement authority mentioned? What’s the penalty for feeding them? Does the statute also apply to crocodiles?

Then broaden the search. Has anyone been prosecuted for feeding the alligators? Has there been media coverage of alligator-statute violators? How many other states proscribe alligator feeding by humans? Is alligator feeding prohibited in all circumstances, or are there exceptions for zoos or park rangers? How might one escape liability for feeding an alligator if caught doing so? What does the caselaw say?

Make a legal search an adventure, whether it involves alligators or wallabies or man-in-the-moon marigolds. Reassure students along the way. They might just be inspired to stick with it.

—Lori Tripoli

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