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Finding the Law, R.I. P.

When I went to work for Professor Morris Cohen at Harvard Law School in 1978 to serve as Deputy Director of the Library, he talked with me about joining him as co-author of How to Find the Law, the West Hornbook on legal bibliography and legal research that had already passed through seven editions. It was a standard work. Edition seven had a variety of authors writing individual chapters, with Morris both writing and serving as general editor. Now he wished a more cohesive approach, with the two of us as principal authors, relying on others to check us, but rethinking and rewriting the work. With ill-concealed delight I agreed to be his junior author. The book that we produced, How to Find the Law, 8th edition came out in 1983. It was almost eight hundred pages long, attempting to cover every aspect of legal bibliography, with special chapters on English and Canadian materials and even a chapter on New Media that included LEXIS and WESTLAW in their toddler years. Four years later, the Ninth edition came out in 1989. Having put almost every original thought that I had into the writing of the Eighth edition, I saw only incremental changes but Morris introduced new blood by adding Kent Olson to the team of authors. Kent may be the most skilled researcher whom I have known. He had been my student, but in name only. Kent always knew more about any topic than I did, and he possessed a finely edged wit. He was the perfect new person to add to the team. Much of his energy went into the ninth edition, just as mine had gone into the eighth. The book came out in 1989, one hundred pages shorter, and that counts some appendices that had been added. The book had it all.

Indeed, I thought that it had too much. The main competing text at that time was Fundamentals of Legal Research by Professor Jacobstein and Mersky. They had been clever enough to see that there was a market for a paperbound abridged edition of the book. They titled it Legal Research Illustrated. In the cheaper format the book could be sold as a text for shorter courses, perhaps used in paralegal schools or even undergraduate courses. This made sense to me. I reworked our text a bit and took the idea of making an abridged copy of How to Find the Law called, Finding the Law. Morris read over my work and felt it to be less than a book should be. How could we leave out details? But we persuaded him and Finding the Law published in 1989. The complexity of the title demonstrates the mixed emotions of the times. But the book did well. How to Find the Law was becoming a reference book, a book to be kept at the Reference Desk. Finding the Law a textbook. When I proposed a revision of Finding the Law, one that stood as an independent tool and less a true abridgement, Morris told me that he believed that there was value in what I suggested but that I was writing for law students that he did not understand, in a style that he could never embrace. As a sidebar, Morris is a painstaking stylist who writes pellucid prose. I have always festooned my work with pop culture references, puns and humor. Nor could I ever write with the simple grace of Morris or Kent. Morris told me that I should take Finding the Law as my own, and that he and Kent would carry on with a revision of the big book. This is all greatly simplified, but I believe it to be accurate.

After that Finding the Law stood on its own. West had trouble deciding what designation the book should carry as a matter of bibliographic record. They wanted to retain a connection to its noble roots in the old book, but the connection was hard to capture. The edition ended up as Finding the Law, 10th edition. It was only the second edition of Finding the Law, and there was no 10th edition of How to Find the Law, so the edition statement was arbitrary. I tried to explain all of this in a Foreword. But who reads the Foreword?

For what was called the 11th edition of Finding the Law, I asked Beth Edinger of the Boalt Hall Law School reference staff to work with me. I wanted a co-author who was young enough to be part of the digital age, someone for whom online searching was natural. Beth fit the bill. She was both savvy and had a caustic wit that I enjoyed. Together she and I produced both the 10th and 11th editions. We tried to make the text readable and relevant. Adoptions were healthy and we faced the 21st century with optimism.

But students stopped reading books on research. All law schools had programs in Research and Writing, but the writing aspect waxed while the research component waned. If there are only going to be a few lectures on research, and the LEXIS and WESTLAW representatives are introducing the freely available Audis of research to each student, who is going to read a four hundred page book on building an engine? Would I have done so as a law student?

Beth and I agonized over this problem. I did not see the point in anything but a total rewrite for the next edition. Beth agreed but neither of us could bring ourself to do it. Morris and Kent had continued publishing the Nutshell on Legal Research and, notably, Kent finished a rewrite of the old, How to Find the Law, when he published Principles of Legal Research: Successor to How to Find the Law. Kent’s thorough, careful work won the Joseph P. Andrews Award from the American Association of Law Libraries as outstanding contribution to bibliography that year. It was almost as if period were being placed at the end of the great old book’s sentences.

After much thought, Beth and I are letting Finding the Law go. The world of textbooks in general is in flux, but I do not see a role for a standard textbook on legal research in it. I continue to believe in the value of research instruction, but it will not come via the standard printed textbook. That day is gone. Working with Morris was an honor. Watching Kent become a major figure in the field has been a delight. Writing with Beth was a treat. I wish that there were an honorable way to send Finding the Law off with a better salute, but let this column serve as its eulogy.

Sisyphean though it may prove, I am working on a new, totally different book on legal research. It will not truly be a book in the traditional sense, but it will look like one. If it works, it will come at things in an entirely different way. If it does not work, I plan to have fun trying. But for now, farewell Finding the Law. You were a grand adventure.

 

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