A Legal Researcher’s Version of a Chilton Repair Manual

One of the trends that I’ve seen in the past 15 years or so of legal research is that the lawyer requesting the research has become more and more self-reliant. For legal research specialists, this is a mixed blessing at times. In many cases, it means that the lawyer has completed a major portion of the “grunt work” and is looking to either fine tune the results, or double-check the work to make sure nothing was missed in their research process. In other cases, however, it means that by the time the lawyer gets to the research specialist, the portion of work is so screwed up, that many times we must start the research all over… and, of course, the deadline for completing the research is now seriously constricted.

Think of it like the time you (or your Dad, or your spouse, brother, sister, etc.) tried to fix their own car, only to wind up bringing it (towing it) into the mechanic to fix what they had fixed. In order to save time and money, they tried to take on a project that ended up costing them more time and money than if they had taken it to the mechanic in the first place. Most of the time, the problem didn’t come from a lack of knowledge of what needed to be done, but rather the pitfalls came from a lack of experience in that particular subject area, or, more commonly, the lack of tools and resources needed to fix the problem correctly. Just as with your Dad or spouse, however, this usually doesn’t stop them from jumping right back in the next time the car’s breaks start squeaking and thinking that “this time” they’ll be able to get it right… usually with the same towing and mechanical expenses to follow.

In our personal lives, we try to fix these problems by buying them Christmas presents comprised of 250 piece socket sets, timing lights, and a Chilton 500+ page Repair Manual on how to fix a 1997 Ford Taurus. In other words, we know they are not going to give up on the belief that they can do it faster, cheaper and better, so we attempt to give them the tools they need do the job right. Legal research specialists can take this same approach as well. The major difference between the personal mechanic and the lawyer in this story is that there are a whole lot more tools available to the lawyer, but it is the research specialists that have to lay them out for the lawyer in a way that guides them to the right tool for the right research project.

Just like a wrench that is too big can strip a bolt… using the wrong research tool can cause a lawyer to go down the wrong path to the answer they seek. If the lawyer would talk with the researchers first, many times the right resources are laid out there for them. However, in a world where more and more “self-help” is conducted without consultation, then the researchers aren’t consultant until a couple of bolts have already been stripped. So what can we do to prevent this? The key seems to be anticipating the potential projects and devising our own version of the Chilton repair manual.

Although we can’t anticipate every potential research project, we generally know of a number of consistent issues that affect the firm’s lawyers, and we can start there. Whether it is a research guide, or a flow-chart of tools available for particular legal subject, the more tools we lay out there for the lawyers, the less likely they are going to use the wrong tool and create a bigger problem down the line. Many of the biggest problems start with small mistakes. If we can limit the mistakes up front, then we’re less likely to have to overhaul the whole project later down the line. Think of ways that you can put those instructions in front of the lawyer with that Do-It-Yourself attitude. You're not going to stop them from taking on those projects… but you can reduce those towing and extra repair charges if you can get them started in the right directions and make sure they have access to the right tools needed for the job.

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