The Internet is a great place to find the law, but it is not necessarily a great place to research “the law.” Search engines help immensely in locating specific, useful materials for a research problem. If a researcher looks for a specific document using related keywords and it appears on an official or other site, a search engine will almost always return a result for that document within the first page of results. On the other hand, searching a concept, such as the use of parol evidence in interpreting a contract, and the results will be more random and general. Case law and statutes appear on the web, though these relevant legal sources hardly ever appear in results from concept searches in any search engine. Rather, they are typically found in searches for specific opinions and legislation on sites dedicated to those collections.
Researchers can use the local search feature at specific legislative and court sites, though the quality of local search varies widely from site to site. Another method is to use a general search engine’s advanced search feature and limit search to specific web sites (more on this below). Sometimes a search engine does a better job at indexing a site and organizing search results compared to the local search feature. All the major search engines have an advanced search option. Even with advanced search, however, the results are likely to appear somewhat general for a researcher, limited by date range, and most likely not directly citable. Lexis and Westlaw have the advantage of organizing legal material jurisdictionally and topically; by including all available publication dates and citations; accessible using precise search syntax; and linked to an extensive library of scholarly secondary material. The free web has never duplicated these features with one or two major exceptions. More details on that will appear below.
A researcher is usually successful at searching and less so at researching in these circumstances. For example, if a researcher wanted a copy of the United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual, placing those words in a search engine will return links to the manual from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The specific document will almost always appear at the top of the first page of results. Search the more generalized phrase “sentencing guidelines” in a search engine will return results for the U.S. Sentencing Commission and related sentencing manuals within the first few results. However, the results can also include pages related to juvenile sentencing, a Wikipedia entry, sentencing guidelines randomly from Michigan, Minnesota, and other states, and a paper on the evolution of sentencing from the Department of Justice.
Add the word “robbery” to the search and the results drill down to materials that include the term, but are just as generalized in the type and range of documents. Add a jurisdictional element such as “Illinois” and the results include advertisements for Illinois attorneys, materials from the United Kingdom, and other random results that match the search terms. These technical but useless hits are essentially noise and they take time to sort through to more useful pages. The added terms do not focus the search. Rather, they broaden the results.
One of the immediate hits from this broader search will point to a page from the Illinois Legislative Research Unit (an agency of the legislature) that has links to a survey of sentences for crimes in Illinois. The actual statement of the law which defines the mandated penalty for crimes is in the Illinois Compiled Statutes, available online at the Illinois General Assembly web site. As noted, case law and statutes interpreting or affecting sentencing guidelines for robbery in Illinois are not represented in the first several pages of results, if at all. These may be the kinds of materials sought. The document from the Illinois Legislative Research Unit may be useful for the information it contains, but it is not the law.
An individual will have to have a detailed understanding of how law is organized and how it’s represented on the web to be an efficient and effective researcher. This understanding comes with experience. One way to make using a search engine more efficient is to anticipate where specific information is likely to be found. A document produced by the Department of Justice is most likely going to be available at the DOJ web site. That source listed as a search hit should be easy to pick out from the others. It’s possible that the document could be available at other sites acting as a mirror. However, it’s best to get the document from a site maintained by the entity responsible for generating it. In any event, the more accurate information a researcher knows about a document, the easier it will be to construct a search that will locate it online.
Note that search engines do not index every page on the web or in real time. As good as search engines may be, their crawlers and robots that contribute to the index are not monitoring the entire web at every possible moment. A web site may have deliberately blocked a search engine’s automatic indexing mechanisms through a code placed on a web page. Content may not be necessarily available in a form that lends itself to easy indexing or searching. Information contained in a database is an example. It is important to check all likely sources for an item and not assume that if an item is not in a search engine result list that it is not available. The next step would be to browse likely or predictable sites.
Another technique in searching for specific documents is to use search engines to cross-reference information about an item. For example, if a researcher is looking for a specific report by a federal agency and doesn’t have a lot of detailed information about the report, he or she could run a series of successive searches that accumulates information, such as the specific name of the issuing agency, the specific name of the report, the date it was issued, and so on. Once armed with that information a researcher can locate a copy of the report with confidence either online or in print.