Yes, but how do I Shepardize?

What is a citator good for?

Citators have been a part of the American legal research landscape for about as long as any type of product. First appearing in the early 1820s, citators showed up around the same time as the first case law digests (and naturally, after the first reporters and treatises). Why lawyers wanted them was fairly straightforward — they sought to avoid the type of “Oh, sh*t” moment I wrote about last week in my post about false negatives and false positives. But in an era featuring a veritable buffet of case law authority for attorneys to find and choose from, combined with new technological tools to access and query that authority, one wonders how relevant the traditional “updating” function of case law citators really is.

Beyond the Terms

Let’s say you don’t subscribe to one of the three major services (Westlaw, Lexis, or Bloomberg Law) with an editorial citator (KeyCite, Shepard’s, or BCite) — how do you update your case law? That is, in the parlance of only two or three decades ago, when many lawyers were educated, how do you Shepardize? There is a vocabulary problem here, of course, when an action has been subsumed by a product name. Hasn’t the function of “doing citation analysis” or “finding out what cases cite my case” been locked in to Shepard’s promised backstopping model? (“Shepardize” is a trademarked term, naturally. I’ll leave dilution or “genericide” analysis to you.)

My point is that by asking “how do I Shepardize?” you are asking the wrong question. The question really should be “how do I situate the legal doctrine I’m relying upon within the context of the cases that follow it?” Once you make the leap beyond equating all citators with the way you have used Shepard’s, KeyCite, etc., in the past, it’s possible to think of other ways of verifying the authority you’ve found. Why, for instance, should Shepardizing come at the end of the research process and not closer to the beginning? (Certainly citators are more powerful than serving as the means by which to check boxes at the end of a demanding intellectual task.) This step is essential for lawyers demanding real choices from their legal information vendors in the citator space and, frankly, for conducting more thoughtful legal analysis.

Further Reading:

The excellent article by Patti Ogden, “‘Mastering the Lawless Science of Our Law’: A Story of Legal Citation Indexes,” 85 Law Libr. J. 1, 39 (1993), for a fascinating history.

Of course, you can also read my paper, Yellow Flag Fever, 108 Law Libr. J. 77 (2016) here.