Monday, June 29, 2015

A Victory for Thorough Research

An NPR librarian, Barbara Van Woerkom, did a little digging and located 1,200 more veterans exposed to mustard gas than the Veterans Administration located . . . and it took her a mere two months!

Two months may seem like an eternity to research something, but don't forget most attorneys get paid by the hour and attorneys spend quite a lot of their time engaged in research and writing. In other words, if it seems like it's taking you "forever" to research something, don't worry---that's in part how you earn your keep. Considering that in 2013 the median hourly billing rate in Ohio was $207, if we estimate Ms. Van Woerkom spent 30 hours per week for 8 weeks (this became her primary research project), she spent approximately 240 hours, which would total $49,680 in billing.

Ms. Van Woerkom's work highlights several foundational research principles any attorney should learn:
  1. Where possible, use free resources. "Van Woerkom says she had success right away, largely due to a free online database maintained by the National Archives that allows users to look up Army veterans by serial number."
  2. Use information you find in one location as a breadcrumb trail to lead you to the information you ultimately hope to find. "Th[e National Archives] database provided many of those key narrowing statistics — such as birth year, enlistment date and location. She used those details in other databases to hone in on individuals."
  3. Find corroborating information for your research. "Van Woerkom required verification with two or more sources before determining someone had been successfully located."
  4. When you can't find the answer, consider whether you need to change your search strategy rather than assuming the information does not exist. "When she ran into road blocks, she often turned to obituaries and other newspaper clippings for clues."
  5. Look for patterns that can tell you how the information you are looking for is organized. This is particularly helpful for those times when you are researching an unfamiliar area of law. "She also picked up on patterns that helped her along the way. For example, the first two numbers of a veteran's serial number identify the region where he enlisted. The place of enlistment was particularly useful in locating World War II veterans, most of whom were born in the 1920s or earlier, Van Woerkom says."
Ms. Van Woerkom's work highlights the need for really thoughtful, thorough research as well as the impact this kind of research can have on veterans' lives. If you're interested in helping veterans with your legal skills, consider registering for an Advanced Legal Research class and volunteering for the Captain Jonathan D. Grassbaugh Veterans Project at Moritz College of Law.