As Basic Legal Research by Amy Sloan turns twenty-one and enters its eighth edition, it seems like as good a time as any to check in with one of the classic research textbooks and reevaluate its usefulness and relevance for today’s crop of law students. This review is aimed primarily at teachers of legal research, with the goal of helping this audience think through the question of whether to assign Basic Legal Research to their students, and if so, in what classes and in what format. The answer, like everything in law school, is that it depends: legal research and writing programs vary quite a bit from institution to institution; depending on how your program is structured, assigning Basic Legal Research might make a lot of sense, or not much sense at all.
In the following paragraphs, I first offer a few observations on how Basic Legal Research has evolved over the past few decades–an especially interesting exercise, given how much the research environment has changed since the year 2000. Then, I describe some of the features and strengths of this latest edition. Finally, I consider how this textbook stacks up against open source options and other resources that law students can likely access at no charge, ultimately concluding that Basic Legal Research is still particularly well-suited for research instruction aimed at first-year law students.
I. 20 Years of Basic Legal Research: The More Things Change…
It’s tempting to provide a laundry list of major world events that occurred over the past few decades to illustrate just how much the world has changed since the year 2000–but I’ll spare you from that rhetorical cliché. Suffice it to say, twenty years is a long time, and it seems even longer from the perspective of technological change.
So, unsurprisingly, we can spot many differences between the first and eighth editions of Basic Legal Research. Some of these changes are basically cosmetic—LexisNexis becomes Lexis Advance becomes Lexis Plus—though the increasing pace of these rebranding efforts might tell us something about just how competitive the legal information marketplace has become. Some changes, on the other hand, are more substantive: e.g., the new edition spends forty pages on search techniques, divided among three chapters, whereas the first edition devoted two chapters totaling thirty pages.
The deletions are perhaps even more illuminating of trends in legal research. Where once there were twelve pages devoted to Shepard’s in print, now we get a paragraph mentioning it glancingly for historical context (good luck even finding a print copy of Shepard’s nowadays!). Likewise, discussion of the digest system for case law research has shrunk from sixteen pages to five. Although libraries typically do subscribe to the digest system, or some chunk of it, new researchers overwhelmingly gravitate toward its digital counterpart.
The basic structure of Basic Legal Research, however, has stayed fairly consistent over the past decades. The first edition covers research planning, search strategies, secondary sources, case law research, statutory research, legislative history, and administrative law research, just like the current edition does. This makes sense: the U.S. Code is still the U.S. Code, regardless of whether you search for a code section on Google or grab it from the library stacks. Similarly, the rules governing whether a court opinion would be binding or persuasive authority are largely the same today as they were then, though we do have much more unpublished, but citable, case law to contend with now. Overall, almost everything in the first edition is still applicable to research conducted today–even the section on search strategies contains helpful Boolean search advice that could be applied in contemporary research databases.
II. Highlights of Current Edition
So, what’s new in the eighth edition, as compared with the seventh? It seems like incremental improvements, mostly. (Students would likely be able to get by just fine with the seventh edition, if they found a good deal on it.) But, the new edition does incorporate the shift from Lexis Advance to Lexis Plus, and reorganizes some chapters to prioritize online sources. Some changes are more substantive: e.g., the new edition mentions brief analysis tools (Quick Check, Brief Check, Brief Analyzer) for the first time. In sum, if you didn’t like the seventh edition, you won’t like the eighth; on the other hand, if you’ve been happy using the seventh edition, there’s no reason you wouldn’t be happy with the new one.
However, future editions of Basic Legal Research may need to address some of the newer research tools that the legal profession is still figuring out how to use effectively. Litigation analytics comes first to mind, though this is a topic probably best reserved for upper-division research classes, at least for the time being. Brief analyzing tools, on the other hand, which are marketed to law students and lawyers as a means of automating the research process to some degree, will need to be addressed in more detail—and from a more critical stance—given their wide availability and the real danger of overreliance and misuse. Likewise, the eighth edition was not the right place to discuss the more advanced, more mysterious, and less literal natural language search provided by tools like Casetext’s Parallel Search, but the time will be ripe when the ninth edition hits the presses. And what about tools that attempt to integrate the research and writing process, like Casetext Compose? For now, such tools seem to be limited to specific jurisdictions and relatively simple legal issues involving rote motions, but what if they start covering topics commonly tested by legal writing hypotheticals?
Potentially, these technological changes may require a fundamental rethinking of the research process, and thus warrant a major rewrite of Basic Legal Research for its next edition. But I doubt it. If you disagree, find a first edition copy of Basic Legal Research in the law library stacks and give it a skim. Delete a section on Shepard’s in print, “Find and Replace” Westlaw with Westlaw Edge (sorry, “Westlaw Precision”), add a little bit more detail on searching and database navigation, and the advice contained within it is perfectly sound and still applicable today. It could be that imminent technological advancements will alter the research process in some fundamental way, but it’s hard to imagine what that would look like. Students today, just like students twenty years ago, need to understand the importance of updating case law. Whether they do it through Shepard’s in print, Shepard’s on Lexis, or Shepard’s as integrated within a brief analyzing tool are just transitory details.
III. To Assign, or Not to Assign?
Legal research textbooks designed for in-class use not only need to compete with each other; they also need to compete with options that are free, or free to students. For example, many law libraries subscribe to West Academic Study Aids, giving students “free” access to a variety of introductory texts on legal research. While the purposes of these works might be a little bit different than the purpose of Basic Legal Research–for example, Legal Research in a Nutshell is more of an introductory reference work aimed at anyone in need of research advice, not just 1L students in a legal writing class–all of the basic topics addressed in Basic Legal Research are addressed in Legal Research in a Nutshell. CALI even hosts an excellent, open source research textbook designed for in-class use–Sources of American Law by Beau Steenken and Tina Brooks, the sixth edition of which was published in July 2022. I can say from experience that it is certainly possible to piece together a solid set of legal research readings suitable for a 1L audience from these and other free or free-to-many-law-student sources.
In fact, you might be aware that there is a pan-law-school movement to make casebooks and other varieties of textbooks more affordable–or totally free. As Connie Lenz argues persuasively in her article Affordable Content in Legal Education, instructors ought to consider the impact that assigned textbooks could have on a student’s finances. I might prefer to assign Basic Legal Research over Legal Research in a Nutshell to students in a first-year legal writing course, but how much is this preference worth in terms of cold, hard cash?
Ultimately, I do think that Basic Legal Research earns its price tag. Sloan assumes that her readers have little to no prior knowledge on any of the topics it covers, making it an ideal textbook to support the “research” element of a first-year legal writing course. For example, the first chapter introduces students to the basic structure of the legal system, with much use of helpful visual aids that make the information stick.
In fact, Sloan’s heavy use of visual aids has been a strength of this book since its first edition. Hardly a page goes by without a handy chart, table, or graph of some sort. Sloan walks students through the online platforms using screenshots, instead of just describing the steps that one would need to take. When it comes to the words on the page themselves, Sloan paints vivid mental images using metaphor and concrete examples, both of which help keep the discussion from becoming abstract.
Perhaps the biggest strength of Basic Legal Research, however, has always been its narrowly tailored purpose and audience: it is meant to give first-year students the tools they need to research the sorts of problems they commonly encounter in first-year writing courses. This means that students are unlikely to come across content that, while helpful in other legal research contexts, would only serve as a source of distraction and confusion for students just starting out. So, no discussion of, e.g., fifty state surveys, competitive intelligence, form books, international legal research, etc.
Basic Legal Research seems particularly well-suited for legal writing programs where research is taught as a distinct subject, but in less depth than the writing component. There is something to be said for a physical research textbook to help emphasize the importance of research skills in and of themselves. And, hopefully, students would hold onto the book and refer to it to refresh their understanding of various research topics or to teach themselves what was not covered or not covered sufficiently during their first-year legal research and writing classes.
Where teachers of legal research have more time with first-year students, it might be less necessary to rely on Basic Legal Research for support. There, it would be more feasible to piece together a curriculum of “free” readings, given that teachers would have more opportunities to fill in the gaps left by these readings and students would have more opportunities to ask questions. On the flipside, in programs where legal research is fully integrated into the writing aspects of the class–e.g., where the students’ legal writing instructor covers legal research skills insofar as these skills are necessary to complete writing assignments (maybe with the support of a one-off presentation by a librarian)—assigning an entire, dedicated textbook on legal research might be an odd choice.
And, of course, Basic Legal Research would be a poor fit in upper-division research classes, probably across the board. This isn’t the book’s designed purpose, after all, and the cognitive dissonance generated by assigning Basic Legal Research in a class titled something like “Advanced Legal Research” might be reason enough to avoid it in these circumstances.
Tracing the evolution of Basic Legal Research from its first edition to its current, eighth edition helps show that, although many of the details have changed, the basic process of legal research has stayed remarkably stable over the past twenty years (of course, whether that stability will endure into the future, and for how long, is anyone’s guess given the pace of technological change in the 2020s.). Regardless, given its clarity of purpose and focused scope, Basic Legal Research continues to be an excellent companion to first-year research and writing courses.
Amy E Sloan, Basic Legal Research: Tools and Strategies (8th ed. 2021).
Id. at 27-45, 223-242.
Amy E Sloan, Basic Legal Research: Tools and Strategies 15-17, 291-317 (1st ed. 2000).
Id. at 118-129.
Sloan, supra note 1, at 120.
Id. at 108-112.
Sloan, supra note 3, at 298-306.
Sloan, supra note 1, at 101, 104, 106, 129, 134.
Casetext Compose relies in part on GPT-3, the same technology that powers the much discussed ChatGPT. Casetext Using GPT-3 To Aid Compose Brief Creator, Artificial Lawyer, (July 30, 2020), https://www.artificiallawyer.com/2020/07/30/casetext-using-gpt-3-for-compose-brief-creator/
See generally Nancy P. Johnson, Should You Use a Textbook to Teach Legal Research?, 103 Law Libr. J. 415 (2011) (providing a more detailed discussion of this issue).
See generally Kent C. Olson, Legal Research in a Nutshell (14th ed. 2021).
See generally Beau B. Steenken & Tina M. Brooks, Sources of American Law: An Introduction to Legal Research (6th ed. 2022) (e-book).
Connie Lenz, Affordable Content in Legal Education, 112 Law Libr. J. 301, 302-303 (2020).
Though, it’s worth considering that assigning the bundled online quizzes would force students to purchase a new copy of the textbook, instead of a used copy or prior edition.