In a number of posts, we’ve talked about the fact that first years tend to start at firms not really knowing much about their new jobs. (We hope that, in the long term, the advice of our “Best Training” and other posts will help propel juniors up the learning curve.) So how does a first year, being asked to lend a hand with something new, get up to speed quickly on an unfamiliar topic? By learning to love secondary sources.
(A quick TIL plug: As noted below, we’re going to begin a topic in TIL for the community to share its favorite secondary sources for different practice areas. Hopefully, over time, we can crowdsource a great collection for everyone’s reference. Add yours to the list and “like” the suggestions of others that you agree with.)
Secondary sources can provide you with a critical jumpstart on unfamiliar topics so that you’re familiar enough with the relevant legal principles, vocabulary, etc., to begin the heavy lifting of creating your work product or conducting your own legal analysis of a question. I wanted to write this post because, when I began my career, I shied away from using many secondary sources—particularly ones I didn’t think were authoritative. One of the reasons, I think, was that I didn’t want to somehow infect my own learning and nascent understanding of the relevant law with information that might not be completely accurate or come from a thoroughly vetted source. But I didn’t realize that the practice of law isn’t about cultivating a pristine understanding of static legal rules that can be applied formulaically to facts. The reality is messy. Rules are often unclear. Facts are complicated. Laws change. And it tends to be the case that the more information you can get your hands on—even, in some cases (as discussed below), bad information—the better position you’re in to render the clear and tailored advice to your clients. So I’ve become a zealous advocate of consulting secondary sources early and often when working on something new.
Internal Firm Resources
Your firm is likely to have its own suite of internal reference materials or training resources on a number of key topics (although, the quality of such materials may vary widely by firm or by topic).
The reality is messy. Rules are often unclear. Facts are complicated. Laws change.
Click around the entirety of your firm’s intranet early on to know what’s available and, critically, where to find it, so that you’re not wasting time spinning your wheels when you’re under the gun on an actual project. The types of resources will vary by practice, but do things like (a) find the standard/model forms and—just as importantly—any commentary that accompanies them (b) explore any pre-fab starter kits or training modules and (c) see if there’s an archive of all group training materials (from past CLE lunches, etc.) available. And juniors don’t often do it, but it’s a great idea to know what’s available on the intranet pages of other groups.
You’re going to be doing a whole lot of learning in your Biglaw job—an almost endless amount, if you want to be great at it—and you’re going to need to do it quickly. The firm’s resources are a great start, but you need a whole lot more. So what’s next?
If you’re like me, your first instinct might be to avoid the unruly and unregulated sandbox that is the internet when searching for information at your Biglaw desk. But I promise: Google is your friend.
As you experience every day in your personal life, Google puts an almost limitless amount of information at your fingertips with the touch of button. Don’t ignore such a powerful resource; just manage how you use it. By that I mean, embrace what Google provides (i.e., access to information—not necessarily correct information, and not necessarily complete information.) and rely on other resources and yourself for the rest.
I think it’s helpful to think of it this way: when you’re searching the web at work, you’re not searching for “answers”. You’re searching for information—information that will equip you to come up with your own answer. To be helpful, the information doesn’t even need to be right. Reacting to bad information or erroneous analysis can be one of the most effective ways to clarify your own understanding of a topic and sort out what you know from what you don’t. (This is one of the reasons why, in our “Best Training” post, we say that it’s helpful for you to go ahead deliver fully formed drafts to your seniors, even if they’re not quite on point.) As long as you approach everything you find on the internet with a healthy dose of skepticism, Google can be one of the most powerful tools in your research arsenal. And, as an added bonus, searching the web can also provide you with shortcuts to some of the other valuable secondary sources you should be using (as described below).
Pro tip: As a first step, always run a search with the topic you’re researching plus your firm’s name. It’s a great way to quickly find the firm’s own resources that have been published or made publicly available, such as client memos/updates (addressed below). Even though it’s hard to believe in this day and age, as those of you who are currently, or have been, in Biglaw practice know, tracking down the firm’s own internal resources on a particular topic (among the millions of other documents maintained by the firm) can be an excruciatingly difficult task. (I’m actually working on a project to design tools to fix this problem and improve internal knowledge management at large law firms, so it’s an issue I’m very sensitive to. If anyone out there is particularly interested in thinking through these sorts of problems, please reach out. It’s always incredibly helpful to hear about others’ experiences and perspectives.) Few firms have internal search capabilities that can rival the effectiveness of a Google search, and there were literally dozens of times in my practice where I found great Davis Polk-drafted resources through Google search results without wasting precious time digging for them internally.
Law Firm Memos
When you’re Googling legal topics, some of the top search results are likely to be law firm memos. These memos are a great way for you to get a quick overview of a particular topic. You know where the information is coming from (and, hopefully, that the folks writing it have a decent handle on subject). You know when the memos were written. And, because they’ve generally been written for client consumption, they tend to be written in a style and at a level that makes them easily accessible and digestible, regardless of your prior knowledge.
To maximize the number of memos in your web searches results, simply tack “law firm memo”, “client memo”, “client update”, etc., on to your query. Alternatively, as noted below, there are services (noted below) that collect these sorts of law firm memos and keep them in searchable databases, so if you’re having difficulty tracking a good one down, you can always look there.
As every year goes by, there are more and more third-party databases collecting reference materials and information and making it available in easily searchable ways.
…when you’re searching the web at work, you’re not searching for “answers”. You’re searching for information—information that will equip you to come up with your own answer.
For example, Practical Law (formerly Practical Law Company, which was acquired by Thompson Reuters) has blossomed into an impressively comprehensive body of model forms, practice notes, and other resources that help juniors get up to speed on a huge number of topics. Practising Law Institute (or PLI, which some of you, who—like me—have left your CLE requirements to the last minute, will know) has a massive archive of helpful training/CLE videos, many of which come with downloadable materials and guides that are great for future/quick reference. And other databases, such as Intelligize or Lexis’s Securities Mosaic (both of which also provide an additional avenue for tracking down law firm memos) for securities law, or Merger Metrics and Shark Repellent for M&A, provide additional resources for particular areas of law.
When you’re familiarizing yourself with your firm’s internal training resources, also figure out which services and online databases your firm subscribes to and get all of your login information established and ready to go. (Don’t wait until you need it for the first time! Inevitably, that will be at 11:00 p.m. when the librarian or tech person that is the gatekeeper for first-time users is gone for the night.) Spend some time poking around in each of these resources to get used to the interface and learn what lives where.
Hornbooks and Other Published Reference Materials
And before there were the Practical Laws and Intelligizes of the world, there were physical libraries full of good, old fashioned reference guides and hornbooks published on dead trees (although most of these are now also available electronically). I may be showing my age here, but I really feel like I learn best when I’m reading off a page, not a computer screen. It’s something that juniors are doing less and less frequently as each year goes by, but absolutely take the time to familiarize yourself with the firm’s physical library and meet the reference librarians in person. They are great resources and have been helping lawyers get up to speed since long before you arrived and will likely continue to do so long after you’ve left.
Pro tip: Make sure the books/binders have been kept up to date. Meaning, confirm that the supplemental pages that are sent periodically to update the guides for changes in law or practice have actually made their way into the books. (That’s why most of these things are housed in three-ring binders.) If there’s not a log on the front or back cover, check with the reference librarian.
Finally, your firm is full of other lawyers, many of whom will have already gone through the exact same get-up-to-speed exercise on the exact same topic that you’re attacking now. And while I think it’s always helpful to do a good bit of the research on your own right off the bat, your peers can be a great resource for quick overviews, specific questions, or simply pointing in the right direction of good resources to consult. (Just try not to become overly reliant on peer support. The benefits of the quick short-cut are outweighed in the long term by the improved understanding and increased retention that come with figuring things out on your own.)
A few very important global health warnings to keep in mind when researching using secondary sources.
First of all, use secondary sources to help jumpstart your understanding of a new area of law, but never stop there. In law, the devil is always in the details. When it comes to a specific question that you’re trying to answer, for example, the dispositive bit of relevant law may not be the general rule, but rather the narrow exception that the author of a two-page article didn’t address because it was too “in the weeds.” (Or maybe it was relegated to the footnotes or endnotes. ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS read the footnotes/endnotes!) And you’re not going to find it unless you drill down beyond the secondary overview and do your own primary-source analysis. If you’re researching a regulatory question, for example, secondary sources can give you a great general understanding of the legal framework and help you develop a working hypothesis to test. But you then need to go prove or disprove that hypothesis by reading the relevant portions of the actual rule or statute. Same principle in litigation. Someone else’s analysis or citations can provide an initial analytical boost, but you can’t simply rely on another’s gloss on the law. You have to have to pull those underlying cases and read them yourself.
Relatedly, for obvious reasons, we mention it explicitly when discussing web searching, but all secondary-source research needs to be conducted with a critical eye. Make sure you understand exactly what the author is saying and decide for yourself whether you agree with the analysis or whether there’s room for debate. If something doesn’t make sense to you, figure out why. If you feel like there’s a leap in the logic, examine it. This holds true for even the most authoritative sources. For example, I think Practical Law does a great job of providing very high quality resources. But in my practice, I encountered a couple cases where the rules/analysis set forth in one of their articles—articles written by well qualified authors—were just plain wrong. It happens. Moreover, no one has ever encountered the exact facts underlying your current research task. Don’t take anything for granted.
Finally, always pay very close attention to the date on which a source was created/published. This is particularly true for internal resources where there’s no outside vendor whose job it is to pay close attention to the freshness of the database. A presentation from 2006 might be just as good a presentation from 2016 if there hasn’t been a change in law or market practice, but that’s going to be hard for you to assess in an unfamiliar area of law. Therefore, when you’re working through a set of resources, keep an eye on the dates, start with the most recent, and work backwards.
Secondary Sources Poll
There are a ton of great secondary sources out there—many that only practitioners in a specific area of law will know. Therefore, I’m creating a new topic in the “General Tricks of the Trade” forum of TIL for folks to chip in with their personal favorites. To get the ball rolling, later today, I’m going to post about one of my favorite M&A resources and the capital markets reference guide that saved my life when I was flung head-first into those types of deals whilst in London.
Please take a second and add your favorite secondary source to the list or upvote/like the suggestions of others that you agree with.