LawProse Lesson #107
What is the most underused research technique among lawyers? ANSWER: Undoubtedly it’s Google Books. It’s possible to perform extremely literal searches — word-for-word and character-for-character searches — on Google Books, and to have at your fingertips the entire corpus of major university libraries’ holdings. This means that you can scour all the legal treatises at Chicago, Stanford, Oxford, Columbia, and other major institutions in minutes — and without ever leaving your chair. For example, let’s say you wanted to learn the history of whether statutes can be repealed by disuse. You could first go to the main Google Books site and type in terms such as repeal statute disuse. A quick scan of the results would lead you to the term desuetude. You could then scroll to the bottom of the page and click on “advanced search,” where you’d find powerful options for refining your search. By crafting different searches using the terms desuetude, statute, repeal, disuse, American law, etc., you would find sources discussing desuetude in Scots, Roman, English, and American law. And as with any research project, the more you delve into the sources, the more nuances you’ll discover. (By the way, for a full discussion of the desuetude canon and its standing in current law, see Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 336-39 ). As with any electronic search, the quality of the results will depend on your research skills. But instead of paying for a legal-research service, as lawyers so commonly do, you have a compilation of answers in treatises with just a few strokes of your keyboard — and best of all: at no charge. Granted, for a full-text reading, Google Books is most useful when you’re researching historical matters found in works in the public domain (any book published before 1923 is not protected by copyright laws and has passed into the public domain). But even for books still in copyright, it can take you to sources you can purchase or consult in a library. An especially useful feature of Google Books is the advanced-search criterion by publication date. For example, you might ask for books published only from 1976 to 2000. Mind you, Google Books shouldn’t be your sole source for legal research. But you’ll be surprised at how handy it can be. So don’t let this valuable research tool go untapped. Lawyers everywhere ought to be using Google Books in addition to Westlaw, LexisNexis, and other electronic-search services.