Students search, destroy


Legal research options today include Lexis-Nexis, Westlaw, a variety of free Internet… Legal research options today include Lexis-Nexis, Westlaw, a variety of free Internet databases and … books?

A component of Pitt Law’s foundations of legal research class sends first-year students flipping through the wood pulp for legal information.

Called “scavenger hunts” or “search and destroy” for their effect on the library stacks, this exercise requires law students to learn cross-referencing methods in the profession’s most antiquated medium.

“This is a fundamental part of legal writing,” said Ann Sinsheimer, who teaches the foundations class, which is required for all first-year students.

First-year student Yvonne Messeih added, “If you are working for someone who is old-fashioned, they may not trust the Internet.”

Messeih plans on primarily using Internet research in practice.

The scavenger hunts take the form of questionnaires that follow what Sinsheimer calls a “fact pattern.”

Law librarian Linda Tashbook recalled one that began with, “Whose phone number is this?” and led to a case about a “based on a true story” TV movie.

“You try to make them intriguing questions,” Tashbook said.

First-year student Dan Vitek said, “This is probably the only practical course we have our first semester. It’s really hard, especially for someone who doesn’t come from a law background.”

Impressions are mixed on how important practicing book research is for legal practice. Vitek said the teaching assistants expect it not to be important, but he disagrees.

“That’s assuming you’ll be working at a big firm or for the government,” he said.

Some small firms cannot afford the high cost of subscribing to online legal databases.

David Burton, a 2000 Pitt Law graduate, recalled that his first-year scavenger hunt followed a hypothetical dog bite case. Now he relies heavily on Internet research.

“I think the books do help some,” he said. “It’s sometimes a lot easier to look at the book.”

Burton practices at Reed Smith, a firm with “a fairly big library.” He said he tends to turn to the books when dealing with issues of procedure or with which he is unfamiliar.

Brian Mancos, a 2001 Pitt Law graduate who practices in Washington County, Pa., disagreed.

“I do the majority of legal research for the partners at [Bassi, McCune ‘ Vreeland] and the only time I am not using Westlaw for my research is when our Internet connection is down,” he said by e-mail.

For those without access to expensive Internet services like Lexis and Westlaw, Mancos recommended free Web sites like

At Pitt, students frequently form small groups to tackle the assignment.

“A certain percentage get together and divide the problems,” Sinsheimer said.

Vitek joined with other students to do his research, but then repeated the work on his own.

“You want to make sure you can do it yourself,” he said.

Students who do not make sure of this can run into problems.

“Sometimes students come back in the second year in a panic after working,” Tashbook said.

Students have the option to take further research classes in their second or third years.

Burton said the exercises were ultimately necessary.

“You got to figure out what the best ways were to [find information],” he said. “I don’t know of any other way to teach it.”