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Monday, March 31, 2008

Jack McCoy uses Westlaw

I am of the mistaken opinion that Westlaw, the online database for legal materials, is magical. My law-schooled friends and roommates tell me things like they get free things just for doing database searches. Or they can call up the service and have people give them advice on how to do the best search. I spend quite a bit of time fooling around on all sorts of databases and trying to figure out the best ways to use them. I'm interested in how the online database search service became normative for law students and lawyers in a way that, say, literature students have resisted to some extent. Most literature students know how to use JSTOR or ProQuest, but many people are resistant to other forms of searching other than retrieval of individual items. I guess I extrapolate from "normative" to "magical" when I say things like, "you don't think your consciousness is changing because you see connections in terms of hyperlinks instead of linear progressions...?"

And then my long-suffering friends and roommates are like, "Alice, that's so 1997."

Actually, they don't say that... because maybe it's a little abstract to ask people if their consciousness is changing. (But how would they know?!) Nevertheless, the change in the ways people think about research methods, links between sources, and retrieval of materials seems like a big deal for students in any field. Some of the differences in legal scholarship are represented in this split-screen, frame-designed article from 2000 about the differences between legal research in books and online--it's like a little time warp to web page design with clunky frames, but the distinctions are still relevant. There's clip art of a linear progression from LIBRARY to STACKS to INDEX TO DIGEST to KEY NUMBER to CASES on the book-based information side; the new method is represented by a dartboard. I started thinking about this subject last year when I read Adam Liptak's Sidebar article from last year about the function of law review articles an age of hyperlinks. I think that dartboard mode is relevant to fields other than law; I'm just interested in why legal studies embraced the online search in ways that others haven't--lots of money for those search services may be one of the reasons for the widespread adoption.

All of this is a long lead-up to my revelation from a few weeks ago: for the first time that I've ever noticed, Jack McCoy used Westlaw to retrieve something on Law & Order. Watching the re-runs of Law & Order is a real treat for seeing how New York has changed, and when they show older and newer episodes back to back in marathons, you can see the ways in which police work (the Order side) has changed with the advent of cell phones and the Internet. On the final episode of Jerry Orbach's long tenure as Lenny Briscoe, he shakes his head sadly about his partner's use of a department-issued Blackberry. The Law side of the equation pays some attention to web sites; there's a great scene in one episode where the otherwise worthless Serena Cantrememberherlastnamebecauseshewassoannoying informs McCoy that there's lots of information about him available on Google, including his love for the Clash.

So why no mentions of Lexis Nexis or Westlaw? They look up cases all the time, but they always seem to pull them out of thin air, or file folders. On a recent episode, McCoy made his paradigm shift when he needed a recent law review article and turned to his bookshelves to look for the volume. His new ADA, Josh Cutter (played by the magnificently morally ambivalent Linus Roache, who can't quite handle the accent), smirked at him and said Westlaw would be quicker. It was a small moment, but I was rapt. I should also note that this season has introduced a new stock camera angle into the L&O set of conventions: the shot of Cutter's white board, on which they make lists and plan strategies. McCoy never diagrammed his thought processes in this way in previous seasons, but this new convention is very interesting from the point of view of how their thought processes are telegraphed to the audience. The plots of L&O maintain the same conventions of splitting the hour and having significant twists at predictable places, only to have some sort of (perhaps ambivalent) resolution of law and order at the end. But have they added at least one more twist to each episode, which perhaps necessitates at least the gesture of diagramming for explanation? I could be reading too much here, but it seems like they're doing something interesting by foregrounding how one sorts out information in a highly conventional narrative mode.

You know what show doesn't do that? In the most frustrating and insanely convoluted way? Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. If Law & Order's best episodes are the ones where the methods of evidence retrieval or processing or legal presentation are put under pressure, SVU has no sense of skepticism about how the detectives know what they know. They use lie detector tests like they're valid forms of "detecting" truth and falsehood; they do all sorts of questionable uses of DNA- and brain-imaging testing and if there's ever any question about its applicability, it's for moral reasons, not actual evidentiary or epistemological ones. These tests are never done in the service of questioning the conventions of investigation--the raison d'etre of the crime procedural--and instead use the investigative procedures to go crazy with illogical twists and turns. I cannot watch the show anymore.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Mar 31, 08:27:00 PM:
As I recall, you were too disturbed by SVU to watch (or be allowed to watch) anyway. So good riddance. Hey, did you ever get the second chapter I sent?
Blogger mark on Tue Apr 01, 12:06:00 PM:
Alice, your last paragraph reminds me of this great piece on David Fincher's Zodiac:

Key quote:
"It's a Hollywood movie that champions due process. The movie meticulously depicts the exasperating rigamarole of a real-world investigation: Evidence and procedure trump gut feelings and brute force; suspects are hauled in and let go because the case isn't there. Zodiac emerges as a rebuke to the shoot-from-the-hip heroics of a show like 24. In a year of didactic, ripped-from-the-headlines movies, Zodiac's political critique was the most relevant of all, and hardly anybody noticed."

Also, Joey Slaughter once went on a long rant in a postcolonial lit seminar about how much he hates shows like CSI, where experts discuss DNA as if they're explaining it for the first time. Does an episodic detective show get to have a learning curve, or is there a presumption that an audience will never learn anything new?
Blogger Ben on Tue Apr 01, 04:27:00 PM:
It's fascinating how similar SVU is to the original L&O, but how much worse it is. It always feels clunky, artificial, overacted, overscripted, uninvolving and unconvincing. I gather it was an attempt to stake out some broadcast space as an effort at CSI containment... but is CSI as bad as SVU?
Blogger Katy on Wed Apr 02, 09:44:00 AM:
I wonder if the absence of Westlaw and other databases from L&O has to do with the writers' knowledge of how lawyers conduct research. Doesn't the show have legal advisers? Even so, I suspect it would be difficult to convey the complexity of legal research without that subsuming the show, no matter how interesting it would be to certain nerdy segments of the viewing population. Ahem. Legal reference is a really interesting field within librarianship. The people who do it are reallllly knowledgeable about the sources. You pretty much have to be, since it's such a specialized and complicated field.

I suspect that the embrace of databases by the legal profession has a lot to do with the kind of research that lawyers and legal scholars conduct, as well as the high cost of those databases. You can index a lot of the primary sources (cases, laws, etc.) in the legal profession, but you can't index the primary sources in history or literature quite as easily, and even if you could, there isn't the support or the funding for ridiculously expensive databases outside academia, whereas in the legal world, that kind of money is small potatoes for a lot of big law firms.
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Apr 02, 01:13:00 PM:
I was totally super excited by that moment as well and I also totally liked the moment when Serena googled McCoy and brought up his information in that scene. I've also noticed the use of the board, I think your ideas about it are interesting, and no, I don't personally think that you're reading too much into them. I've been thinking about it as a way to differentiate McCoy from Cutter, a way to create character. But I have to say that one disturbing element they've added which has a similar function is that stupid bat. I don't know why he has to use it every time he's thinking about something difficult. It seems especially disturbing when he's using it in front of Alana de la Garza who is a nice female character, although I think they could give her a little more depth. Not that these characters are meant to have depth, although as you say, Cutter is ambivalent and his character certainly feels a little deeper. So, bat + board = ? The bat bothers me because it seems like such a cliche: the tough, hyper-rational lawyer who uses a bat to feel strong when he's thinking? Or am I over-reading now?
I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this.
By the way, I would like to add to the list of scenes the recent episode (last season or this season?) when Lupo uses his cellphone to download the Pyschoanalysts calendar from his blackberry. Remember how that led to a discussion about whether he infringed upon the doctor's privacy or not by downlaoding the calendar which was at plain site. I thought that was also a cool tecky moment.

And now to continue the discussion of who uses technology and how doesn't in research (that is, other than the laptop), I've noticed that in our field, using databases and using them beyond the google-search mode is something that can also be considered in terms of period. I think that eighteenth-century peeps are less resistant to use technology. I may be generalizing from my experience of our program and NYU folks but I think that maybe our subject matter alerts us to the advantages of exploiting these databases? Someone recently suggested in discussing this that 20th-C literary folks do not have as much material as we do on their databases because of copyright that brings another interesting issue to the fold. Thanks for this post, very exciting.
p.s. I detest SVU and I don't agree with Ben that it's like the original Law & Order or the old one (is that what you said?). I thin the first seasons of Law & Order are quite rich in terms of the discussions and the ambivalence that some characters like Chris Noth's showed in dealing with some issues whereas SVU is like soap opera attempting to be a crime drama.