The elusive “perfect case”

In the June 2014 issue of AALL Spectrum, Hadas Livnat instructs law school librarians in how to assist law students who insist on finding the “perfect case” that addresses every point of law and fact they are assigned to address.  While I don’t work with law students, I do get frequent requests for “perfect cases,” both from paralegal students and from lawyers.

I agree with Paula Samuelson’s point, quoted by Livnat, that a researcher’s quest for the “perfect case” stems from anxiety. That anxiety can be contagious, spreading from the researcher to the librarian, unless the librarian is secure in knowing that the “perfect case” almost certainly doesn’t exist and can respond in a way that addresses the researcher’s underlying anxiety.

Livnat’s first recommendation is to redirect the law student to the call of the assignment. Instead of getting bogged down in highly specific and possibly irrelevant facts, see what legal terminology is used in the assignment itself (for example, “search and seizure” or “probable cause”). Then direct the student to secondary sources to provide background, and show the student how to argue by analogy using facts from imperfect cases. This answers the law student’s deeper concern about whether they are doing the assignment correctly.

My paralegal students are accustomed to assignments that are straightforward, with objectively right answers, so an open-ended legal research assignment understandably leaves them feeling like they are on shaky ground. One thing I’d add to Livnat’s list of recommendations when applying them to paralegals, is expressly reassuring them by saying something like “you found a good case,” or “you’re on the right track.”

Lawyers tend to know it’s highly unlikely that the “perfect case” is out there, but they are not immune to anxiety along the lines of: “what if today is the blue moon situation where the perfect case is out there, but I’m just not finding it?” For them, my approach is to run a series of searches that should retrieve the “perfect case” if it exists and email them a list of my queries and the results. Email evidence that I’ve searched here, here, and here reassures them that I’ve looked everywhere their opponent would look, and that there is a record of their having performed a reasonably adequate search in case someone later on ever claimed otherwise.