Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Google

What is it ye would see?
If aught of woe or wonder, cease your search.

Horatio to the conquering Prince Fortinbras, Hamlet, V.2 

Google recently celebrated its 15th birthday.  To honor the occasion, Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me!, quoted a survey finding that something like 46% of Americans admit to having Googled themselves; in response to this factoid, Sagal quipped, “That means the other 64% are lying!”
I admit to having Googled myself, sometimes with embarrassing frequency.  This started a few years back after I attended a rather alarming CLE (continuing legal education) program about all the horrors that can befall lawyers in the social-media age.  The CLE presenter suggested that all lawyers make a habit of Googling themselves to see what kind of oddities surface that could prove detrimental to one’s professional reputation.  Upon Googling myself, I get hits that suggest I am still employed by certain institutions, although that is no longer the case.  A Google search will also suggest that I have a Facebook page (which I don’t) and a LinkedIn Profile (never got around to finishing it).  Worse still, a Google search continues to produce evidence of some rather embarrassing relics from my professional past.  A search will reveal, for instance, that, years ago, when I was young person who fashioned herself a writer, I wrote a couple of books for a chunk of change to help put myself through graduate school.  These books were reputedly “co-authored” by a fictitious Belgian—because the real Belgian who hired me to write these books thought a co-author would make them “more marketable.”  The subject matter of these books is embarrassing enough.  Additionally, it is embarrassing that a person can now buy these books for about $.15 through Internet merchants.  Yet more embarrassing still is that a publisher did indeed buy these books from the enterprising Belgian, and they remained in print for years, yet I have no idea who got all the royalties, as I had agreed to write them for a flat fee, fearing that my Belgian friend’s get-rich-quick scheme would never amount to anything.  In short: every time I Google myself, I am humiliated anew—because Googling unearths some accurate, some stale, and some decidedly embarrassing material about which I can do nothing.
These results are fairly analogous to what happens when one Googles “Shakespeare.”  If the search is not tailored narrowly enough—and even if it is—you will get many hits that include a great deal of rubbish.
This is also the problem with using Google as a means to conduct legal research.  Yet I admit to using Google on a daily basis as a point of departure for legal research. 
Because it is the sensible, not just the senseless, think to do. 
The trick is to frame one’s searches in Boolean terms, without the connectors, to improve the odds that the first two pages of hits will produce something relevant, recent, and reliable; and if the Google search does that, then you will have saved your client a pot of money.  Because after doing such a search and arming yourself with a hook—some relevant, recent, reliable legal authorities that you can use to get yourself oriented—you can then turn to the pricey, law-specific, proprietary databases upon which most American lawyers rely.  By turning to those pricey, proprietary databases only after you have educated yourself a bit using free source materials improves the odds  that you will frame better searches in those fancy databases instead of floundering around while the meter is running.  In other words, using Google for initial legal research is a swell idea—as long as you resist the urge to search in a Googley kind of way.  
Perhaps a specific example might “turn them to shapes, and give to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name.”  [A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.1]  Let’s say you need to research what kinds of circumstances permit a person to rescind a contract under Texas law.  But you have never really dealt with a situation where someone is trying to undo a contract; you are more accustomed to fights where the allegedly injured party wants to recover its benefit-of-the-bargain damages, including lost profits—which are generally much greater than the sum associated with just unwinding the clock and putting the unhappy litigant back at square one.  To find stuff that is useful from a legal perspective, you have to craft a search that reads something like this: “Texas law rescission remedy available.”  Even without knowing much, if you know to frame the search in this way you are more likely to capture the answer to a question that someone—a legal scholar or a court—might have addressed in a useful, thoughtfully developed text (as opposed to some blawg post generated by someone rambling on at odd hours of the night).  You are more likely to get useful hits than if you type “Is rescission a cause of action or remedy?”  While the latter exemplifies better grammar and may better approximate what you want to ask of the world, it is just too broad.  Worse still would be simply typing “rescission” or “rescind a contract.”
Nowadays, using Google (and other Internet search engines) is a fact of daily life for virtually everyone.  But using Google as an effective tool to conduct professional research requires employing artful and slightly unnatural constructions. 
Which seems to define what a lot of people think of as “Shakespearean.” 
Which means that an obsession with Shakespeare is indeed the secret to professional success.
“The ‘why’ is plain as way to parish church.”  (As You Like It, II.7).

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