Call Off the Search
Good Organization Can Make a Digital Hunt Unnecessary
Posted May 28, 2005 9:05 AM CDT
By David Beckman and David Hirsch
Trying cases is likened to a search for the truth, and the practice of law is frequently a search for information.
Getting information efficiently is a joy; spinning wheels in an unsuccessful search is a frustration. That is particularly true of your own office’s information.
A search should be your last resort, not your first; that is just common sense. Going directly to what you want is always preferable to looking for it. And even if you can quickly digitally search your entire haystack (which may or may not be true depending on how skilled you are at constructing your searches), not needing to search is better. When searching for needles in a haystack, the only thing visible at first is a lot of hay. After the search, you just see a few needles. But if you are truly organized, you see the haystack in a different way. You find the needles right where you’d expect them to be.
An electronic search has the advantage of going through everything quickly, but it carries with it the disadvantage of lots of false strikes. It is better to have sorted views, like file cabinets with organized paper files. Sorted, organized digital views should be viewable by client, by database title, by case type and by issue (with direct links to the specific database).
The haystack issue goes to the heart of the problem with digital document managers. While they can work wonders for some firms, they tend to be overly restrictive from an access standpoint (some would argue that is an advantage) and facilitate broad searches rather than narrow organization. The problem is similar with the data mining concept of information management. Maybe in a huge organization it has to be that way. But for most law firms, organizing digital data as it is created is more effective.
When using your knowledge base, go forward, not backward. Don’t worry about categorizing old information except on an as needed basis. Focus on active matters, not dead files. And within active matters, focus on new cases, going backward only as necessary.
When you search, search on focused views, not on everything. As with electronic legal research, limit your search to a specific topic, such as dissolutions or, better yet, child custody or, even better, alcoholism affecting child custody. The more organized your digital data, the easier it is to focus a search and the more likely there will be successful, useful strikes.
Ideally, searches should be both narrow and simple.
Yet, there are times a broad search is the right tool. For instance, David Hirsch first used Lexis when, in a murder trial, the prosecution kept referring to Charles Manson, a hot current event back then. Hirsch objected every time, but the objection was only sustained part of the time. Hirsch searched Lexis for “Charles Manson.” There were about seven strikes, at least three of which ruled the reference was improperly prejudicial. Notice the simple search.
In the same research session, Hirsch researched two issues in civil matters using complex Boolean searches. In the one matter, previously researched the old fashioned way, all the pertinent cases turned up, and nearly all strikes were on point. In the new matter, hundreds of cases turned up, nearly all of which were garbage. Lesson: Complex searches are difficult to get right unless you already know the answer.
If you have to search your whole office for a piece of paper, you’d better know where to look. We even have a database of databases. But much of the time no search is needed. When searching is necessary, a simple, focused search usually suffices.
David Beckman and David Hirsch practice in the law firm of Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa. Contact Beckman by e mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or Hirsch at email@example.com.