It was fairly common to find me in the early 1980s sitting at the big library table in old Milt Rosenberg’s office with a few stacks of books in front of me. Trying to find a case on point often began with Corpus Juris Secundum, which separated headnotes by West’s key system. The trick to finding something spectacular was to always check a few key notes before and after the one that should be on point. Don’t trust whomever categorized the headnotes, but check cases that were close because you never knew what you would find.
But that doesn’t happen anymore. That’s not how one researches law today. Instead, we frame Boolean searches to zero in on precisely what we’re looking for, and nothing more. There’s no leafing through the pages before and after, just because. There’s no way to do so on a computer.
In yet another article about how Boomers hate Millennials because they’re ruining everything, the writer begins with the inane compulsion of the young to be special by imposing their will on their own children.
Take, for instance, the cover story that Time magazine had a few months back about how millennials are raising their children. I didn’t read the article. I couldn’t, because the very first paragraph stopped me cold. Here it is, reproduced in full:
On a playground in San Francisco, 4-year-old Astral Defiance Hayes takes a stick and writes his name in the sand. His twin brother Defy Aster Hayes whizzes around their father.
The fact is, I don’t need to know anything more about how millennials are parenting than that two of them thought it was a great idea to name their twin boys Astral Defiance and Defy Aster.
I mean: Who does that?
Well, sure. So their children will hate them some day for giving them moronic names and have to go through a few million dollars of therapy to get over their PTSD, all so the parents can feel that they’ve done something unique. Special people must do unique things.
But then, the article struck a chord that raised a very different issue, one untethered to sensibilities and sound judgment.
I was sitting just the other day at what we call, here in our office, “the newspaper table.” We call it that because it’s where, since time immemorial, our copies of the daily papers get placed each morning. I was paging through the New York Times when a passing intern paused. “What are you looking for?” she asked.
What was I looking for? “I’m reading the newspaper,” I told her.
“Oh,” she said.
It dawned on me, reading this exchange, the disparate approaches to information gathering that separates the generations, not out of any malice or incompetence, but merely as an approach. My parents had a newspaper appear at the front door every morning, and read through it. Whatever was in there, they read, or at the very least, saw the headline and, if it was of absolutely no interest, deliberately decided not to read. But they knew it was in there.
That was my experience as well, to a point. I used to get two newspapers delivered to my home. Then one, the New York Times, after Newsday gave up any hope of being a real newspaper. But my Times reading is now done almost exclusively online. And I read the stories that interest me, because I look for certain subjects. I miss everything else. It’s in there, I supposed, but unlike the hard copy, I no longer leaf through page after page, see articles I would have never expected or anticipated, and say to myself, “this looks interesting.”
Digital native lawyers will never know the joys of sitting at a table surrounded by books, sifting through things they didn’t know they might need to know. They will take pride in their laser-like focus on how quickly and deftly they can find a particular case, and they will never feel badly about missing the dozen others they might have found had they not been so exacting in their search terms.
And they will call me dinosaur or gray beard for bemoaning the law they never know about. They will explain to me that the problem isn’t that they don’t use books, but that I don’t use computers well enough to be as fabulous at it as them. If I suggest otherwise, they will inform me that I’m being “condescending,” which would facially defy logic given my experience, but not in a world where the least experienced is the inherent equal of the most experienced.
You know what’s awkward from an elder’s standpoint? Being expected to listen to and appreciate people who haven’t earned that right. Consider, for example, John Lim, a senior at Swarthmore College and, until this past fall, a member of its baseball team. A recent article in the independent student newspaper the Phoenix noted that before Lim left the team, baseball was his life. Yet he quit playing the sport for Swarthmore because he reached this sad conclusion: “I think athletics is really bad for this campus. I really do.” And what, pray tell, has convinced him of this? Why, it’s the unfairness of the athlete-coach dialectic: “[T]he relationship on the field between the player and the coach,” he told the Phoenix, “is very much whatever the coach says, you do.”
Various platitudes run through my head, “an old fool is worse than a young fool” is one I keep repeating to remind myself that kids didn’t invent the concept that experience alone isn’t enough. And it isn’t. But a smart young person plus experience is going to have far, far more to offer than a smart young person without experience.
Yet, it occurs to me that the nature of the experience young people will gain when they only see, read, learn that which they’re specifically looking for, is not the same experience that we enjoyed. They may accept a baseball coach who tells them they’re doing great, but they refuse to play when the “dialectic” is that you do what the coach says. After all, why would the coach have any right to tell a player what to do?
And if you happen to go to a law library, the kind where they still have books on shelves, leaf through CJS and see the remnants of caselaw that your Boolean search failed to find. You may be surprised to find that there is an awful lot of law that you want and need, but weren’t looking for.