February 22, 2005
Review of Where the Law Is
Every so often, something comes along to shake things up. Where the Law Is: An Introduction to Advanced Legal Research by J.D.S. Armstrong and Christopher A. Knott (Thomson-West 2004) definitely stirs up trouble for proponents of the toolbox method of teaching legal research. It takes a problem-solving approach to answering legal research questions that emphasizes research principles rather than specific resources.
This text is intended for those researchers who have already mastered “the nuts and bolts of legal information,” and conveys the research wisdom of someone who knows what goes on behind the scenes when primary and secondary legal resources are produced. Its responses to the perennial questions “Where do I begin?” and “How will I know when I’m done?” are genuinely insightful.
Authors Armstrong and Knott put considerable effort into teaching the researcher how to find the information needed for the task at hand. They do not attempt to “shotgun” the process of finding legal information. Rather, they guide the more sophisticated researcher in devising a heuristic approach that is quite likely to solve the problem, as opposed to a making a needlessly time-consuming algorithmic sweep of the literature that guarantees an answer.
The authors also carry us beyond description, beyond how things work, to how things work together. Their book integrates form, process and meaning in legal literature. Chapter 2, "Statutes" illustrates this point. Here, in the context of a format-neutral discussion of statutory compilations and codes, the authors discuss why some laws never make it into the code, and how to find those laws. They also discuss a number of phenomena that can be vexing for the legal researcher, such as “monster session laws” and session law nomenclature vs. code nomenclature.
Where the Law Is is remarkably brief (221 pages) and lacks painstakingly detailed descriptions of specific legal resources – but for good reason. These already exist in exhaustive legal research texts written by some of the giants of law librarianship such as Cohen & Berring, Jacobstein & Mersky (& Dunn), and Price & Bitner. Their approach was appropriate at the time (i.e., 1950’s to 1990’s), in part because the legal literature of the period stood still long enough to become portraiture on the printed page. Armstrong and Knott recognize that there is no need to reproduce another dissection of the U.S. Code in its official and commercially produced permutations.
I admire the authors’ use of plain, unstilted language throughout the text. They are not afraid to use the term “currency” (as opposed to “currentness) in discussing the “up-to-date-ness” of information. Though their plain talk is not prescriptive, it exposes assumptions and helps the researcher avoid making some really wrong choices. As a result, it helps the researcher understand how to maneuver within the sometimes complex structure of legal literature.
I never came across a textbook I would require my students to buy for my Advanced Legal Research course until now. I highly recommend Where the Law Is as a text for legal research instructors who want to leave the toolbox in the garage, and explore a new approach.
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