Researching Old School Style

Reminiscing about the days of legal research before the legal search engine took over despite being one of the very first to adopt such technology.

Quite honestly, I don’t quite like how I go about doing legal research these days. That’s because I use the search engines a fair bit these days, CLJ Online (which has a search engine I have never liked), Legal Workbench, AustLII, and BailII, which was recently introduced to me. I used to use LexisNexis too.

There is a cold, calculating and metallic feel to researching this way. I feel like a robot mechanically clinically homing in on my target. Once identified, I come swooping down from on high, grasping it in my digital talons and then swoosh back up to the mothership. Whilst all the while my butt is seated in the chair. Welcome to researching in the post-modern age.

It didn’t always used to be this way.

Laptop in classic library

In those moments when time is available for indulging, I prefer to carry out research like how I used to back when I started practise. That is by rolling up those sleeves and reading them off the books, with a pen and paper by my side to jot down notes. There is a vastly different feel in undertaking research this way. I often felt as if I was going on an intellectual voyage, the case index my compass, and the deadline the constant wind to my sail.

There is the delicious laborious act of pulling down the book off the shelves. Sometimes you have to work and strain your calves a little to get at the top shelves. Or you had to carry a stool and walk up a step. You piled a few books up and like bricks to a house, you began to build your argument. In contrast, sitting down in front of the screen is too sedate. There is no sense of movement, of requiring anything other than your fingers, eyes and mind. And you can easily pull up that unnecessary website to distract yourself.

That feel of a book as opposed to a freshly laser printed, and therefore hot-warm page, case is miles apart. With a journal, the weight of it gave that sense of authority. You could literally feel the heft of the law in your hands. It is that weight that shapes that sense of sacred sombreness about its contents. Rightly so as well. Each volume contained a catalogue of people who could not resolve their disputes without the intervention of a third party and of others who deprived or hurt others. The grim and macabre murder case could sit right next to a dry case about an interpretation of some legal point about the jurisdiction of a state legal authority. A case about a bitterly fought divorce could be reported right next to a case on an intellectual property dispute. You had the whole range of human disputes and relationships in each volume you held.

The tactile experience made that process of research feel more human, more organic. You could feel the sense of process, the gestation, the intellectual gears slowly grinding with each page flipped. With the piling of journals of relevant case law in one stack and those not relevant in another, you could assess more readily your sense of accomplishment as well as sense of relevant or supporting case law at a glance. I can never tell with all these clipped sheafs of paper. Whatever stacks I group them in, they all look so non-descript.

But what I love best about researching old school are those interesting legal cases and characters that I come across in my research that is often not relevant to the research at hand, but often relevant to other cases or essays that I am working on, or just for the pleasure of knowing. For example, when scouring the index for that particular topic, perhaps in flipping towards my destination my eye may catch an interesting phrase or word and I may alight and take down the citation for future pursuit.

Or sometimes you just happen to find a case of interest in the surrounding area of your research. Sometimes a case may deal with a few areas of law. Or perhaps after finish reading the last page, you happen to catch the first page of the next case and the catchwords draw your attention. Or maybe while taking a break you just randomly flip open the journal and read whatever case you happen to come across. I remember once coming across a case so interesting that I paused my on-going research just to pursue reading through a line of authorities about a particular point of law because it was of particular interest, not because I needed it for anything. And therein lay that sense of adventure and more importantly, that sense of discovery in research.

So often through old school research I find myself learning about more than that area of law I intended to research. The experience of research was made rich because of all the other areas of law I would stumble into or explore purposively. And because articles and textbooks are more readily accessible as well, I would more readily indulge in academia work on a particular area which may help develop a line of argument, if not inspire it. Sometimes these academic papers do a lot of legwork for you and help save a lot of research time, and the good ones provide a cogent explanation of a particular area of law, its present development, and appropriate criticism.

Over and above that, there is a sense of resonance in researching that way – by the book; bent over studiously over a book in a library instead of over a printed piece of paper in your office room. Because it is similar to how the common law was practised over the last few hundred years, without the favours of science; with just good old fashioned human effort.

That entire experience is lost with the legal search engine. It is quick and convenient, but offers a wholly less enjoyable experience. The whole process feels less human as a result. The only time you need to use the rest of your body is perhaps when you need to go to the toilet. But that quickness and convenience does not leave me an impression of thoroughness. I tend to feel a sense of lightness and uncertainty with my research perhaps stemming from the flimsy feel of a printed case law.

That is why for highly novel or important matters, I still resort to old school researching and use online research to corroborate or complement. It is within an environment of books that I feel that sense of thoroughness of research and feel that weight of authority upon my mind after a satisfying bout of research.

Search engines may make things more efficient and quicker but they also make the practise of law a whole lot less interesting and that much more robotic.

*Meep* *Moop* *Meep*

Fahri Azzat is reading books that can be found quite affordably pried at the Big Book Store, which has an excellent range if insane arrangement of books (they just strew it across the tables so its almost completely random). He strongly advises you to check that place out before hitting the retail priced stores like MPH, Borders and Kinokuniya. Save you many money mister, hai!


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Fahri Azzat practices the dark arts of the law. Although he enjoys writing and reading, he doesn't enjoy writing his own little biographies of himself. Like this one. He wished somebody else would do it for him. He has little taste in writing about himself in third person. He feels weird doing it. But the part he finds most tedious is having to pad up the lack of his accomplishments, or share some interesting facts about his rather uneventful life, as if there were some who found that oh-so-interesting; as if he were some famous person, like Michael Jackson. When he writes these biographies, the thought, 'Wei, Jangan Perasaan- ah!' lights up in his head. So he usually just lists what he got involved with, positions he held and blah, blah. But this time. Right here. Right this very moment. Uhuh. This one. This one right here. He's finally telling it like it is.

Posted on 29 November 2010. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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9 Responses to Researching Old School Style

  1. teo siew chin

    and now with the iPad, research can be done even when in the ‘thinking room’ :))))

  2. i came from a university with a library that leaves much to be desired, so online databases were all i had. plus, i’d rather hang myself than sift through years and years of medical journals in print!

    my father’s long been in academic work and while he still refers to textbooks, even he admits he would have been able to do a better job if the wealth of online resources we have now was available 30 years ago.

  3. Abdul Haleem

    Fahri. This piece of yours should not be limited to Legal profession. This digital world and gadget freak environment leads the mass to abandon the books and have massive non stop orgies on everything on soft copies. This also leave the younger generation lose the moral obligation towards any book(s). It is no longer sacred. No respect. My father would have slapped me hard if I have my books on the floor. The kids now days use books as part of their Lego Bricks. It might be too much for me to say this; but we Malaysians don’t read much. It is not a habit anymore. Exam oriented schema in entire education system; rotten libraries in schools all the way to the National one; ridiculous pricing on books ; KDN’s KPI to ban books and all this stupid reality shows on Pay TV’ channels rape the young minds and keep them away from books. The habit for reading needs to cultivated as early as possible. P/s: we must get rid of the stupid magazines and tabloids as well.

  4. @ladymissazira

    I did my entire legal degree in digitized form. Never had to set foot in the library unless it was for textbooks or items unrelated to the study of law. Or I just liked the smell of old books around me as I read. Priceless volumes of law journals from all over the world around me, and I preferred the quick and easy click with my mouse on my laptop. For my clumsy hands and fingers, the ease of technology allowed me to freely access information without jeapordizing my limbs (or people around me).

    Then I joined my firm which relies heavily on old school research skills. Manual research skills.

    DIE.

    I’m not the only one. I think many recent law grads who was spoiled by unlimited Lexis Nexis (when I say unlimited, I mean even Papua New Guinea law cases can also be found) felt completely at loss on how to research the old school way when they hit the job market.

    It won’t die off lah, but I feel that it’s an oft now erronously dismissed skill in law schools. Old school research at times is much, MUCH faster than online research and more accurate as well (a quick run to check it’s been overruled or not, and done).

    Oh, Mallal’s my favourite. So is Atkins. Halsbury’s alright but usually outdated and not very useful for specific odd researches.

  5. I know what you mean. I used to enjoy buying books, flipping the pages, sliding a hand-made bookmark in-between the pages, or just carrying a book around. But to save costs, I download books into my phone. Although I’m still reading, I feel as if something is missing.

  6. chong poh ken

    yea, Fahri, i totally agree. I prefer the old style research cos i invariably get more than i started out to find; i will find other cases which are relevant to my other stuff and that feels so nice and you go “Aha!”

  7. Nice one, Fahri. I feel the same about online vs printed books/magazines of any kind.

  8. Syahredzan Johan

    Wonderfully written, Fahri!

    I came to the profession when online research was the norm, but I still do research the ‘old-school’ way sometimes. But mostly confined to reading Malal’s and following up by reading cases cited in Malal’s.

    And I agree with you, CLJ’s search engine leaves a lot to be desired.

  9. Andrew Teh

    I just like the musty smells emanating from the WLRs and the King’s/Queen’s Bench & Chancery Reports in the firm’s library. Pity the MLJs and the CLJs don’t smell the same (yes, even the older ones). If there is a way for the PC to give out smells when researching, it will be a boon for my concentration…!