Anna E. Casey, a research consultant with LexisNexis, delivers remarks during a continuing legal education ethics session sponsored by the Nebraska State Bar Association at the Scott Conference Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. Casey cautioned attendees about the pitfalls of using the open internet for legal research. (Photo by Scott Stewart)
Expert Urges Caution When Conducting Legal Research Online
By Scott Stewart
The Daily Record
Most people know how to use Google to pull up showtimes for the latest Marvel movie, but digging deeper online to find information on clients can be dicey.
Anna E. Casey, a research consultant with LexisNexis and an Illinois attorney, told participants at a Nebraska State Bar Association continuing legal education ethics event last Wednesday that using the internet for legal research is necessary but not sufficient to meet competency requirements expected of legal professionals.
Casey said lawyers need to know how to use the publicly accessible internet, as well as deeper web resources like online databases, when they’re conducting legal research.
“Ignorance is not a defense,” Casey said. “If you’re going to use these resources, you have to know how to use them and you have to know how they work.”
Simply searching Google isn’t a one-stop-shop, Casey said, nothing that the top 0.1% of websites draws more than half the world’s web traffic. Worse, search engines like Google look at your settings, browsing history, location information and other data to tailor results, which creates a biased result that might be influenced by political leanings or other factors.
“There’s no plain vanilla search,” Casey said. “If you stop on the first page, and they’ve already filtered your results to what they think you want to see, you’re never going to see anything else.”
Casey recommends using Duck Duck Go, a search engine at duckduckgo.com, to include a different mix of results in your research. Duck Duck Go doesn’t collect user data, which can make it a more private search option.
Regardless of the source of information, though, Casey said it’s important to try to verify the information and to be skeptical – especially of sources like Wikipedia or Zillow that allow anyone to edit what is posted on the website.
“When we do run searches, we need to look at everything with a critical eye,” Casey said.
Casey encouraged lawyers to save anything they find online that they want to reference, because content often becomes unavailable or changes online.
She said university researchers estimate that between a third and half of website references made by the U.S. Supreme Court had disappeared or changed before efforts were started to preserve those digital records.
“Always make sure to preserve that information,” Casey said. “Information fluctuates.”
Similar concerns extend to legal research tools like Google Scholar, where Casey said she’s found cases will sometimes be pulled down and may not update in a timely fashion, including when edits are made to court opinions after it was initially filed. She said withdrawn or sealed opinions could sometimes turn up on public sources, too.
“Humans are the ones programming these things, and humans are not perfect,” Casey said. “Do not blindly rely on technology.”