#TweetSearch: Using Twitter for Legal Research

Twitter We’ve written about the importance of technology and social media in our profession, and how social media has enabled the Commission to promote our mission of increased civility, professionalism and inclusion. We have also explored how social media, Facebook in particular, poses new ethical issues for lawyers using the tools in their practice. Because many writers and CLE programs focus on the ethical issues involved in using social media, we’d like to redirect our focus to the benefits of social media. Today, we look to the Twittersphere.

Since exploring the interplay between social media and lawyers I have often heard comments such as, “What is Twitter, anyway?” and “ I just don’t get it.”  According to one of its creators, Evan Williams, not even its developers fully understood what Twitter was in its early development:

With Twitter, it wasn’t clear what it was. They called it a social network, they called it microblogging, but it was hard to define, because it didn’t replace anything. There was this path of discovery with something like that, where over time you figure out what it is. Twitter actually changed from what we thought it was in the beginning, which we described as status updates and a social utility. It is that, in part, but the insight we eventually came to was Twitter was really more of an information network than it is a social network.”

When we look at Twitter this way, as an information network, it becomes not just a platform for marketing and promotion, but for research.

Importance Of Using Twitter For Research

Research is one of the most important aspects of a lawyer’s job. A lawyer who doesn’t take advantage of available research tools is at a disadvantage. We all know about Westlaw and LexisNexis, but these tools are expensive and can be inaccessible for many people seeking legal information. Recently, the ABA published an article highlighting ways to conduct legal research on a budget. In addition to the conventional online resources, like Justia and Findlaw, the ABA article also points to Twitter as providing a useful search function. Using the search tool or the advanced search tool will yield tailored results in any practice area or area of legal interest. For example, you can search for “Supreme Court” or #SCOTUS and the results will range from articles about recent decisions to conversations about those decisions, or even live reporting of the decisions. A search for “intellectual property” yields articles about the recent Redskins trademark decision, a discussion between users over “tweet theft,” law firms promoting their firms, and much more. But there’s more to Twitter than searching.

Twitter is an excellent news source: you can get real-time updates on virtually anything that’s happening in the legal world, or the world at large. Further, you can tailor your timeline to include only the news sources or industry leaders that interest you – this cuts down on the noise. But if you’re only using Twitter to aggregate news updates and keep abreast of current events, then you’re missing out on a vital service that Twitter, unlike any other social media conduit, provides: interaction.

Traditional media has always been a one-way street: TV, radio, and other media outlets are the providers of information, and we, the people, are the receivers of that information. Then social media came along and rocked the boat, making media a two-way street by allowing communication between users. Now, everyone who is participating can share information, receive information, and then engage in a dialogue about the information exchanged.

While this is all well and good in theory, can Twitter actually work for legal research? A 3L at Michigan State University College of Law seems to think it can. An associate editor of the Michigan State Law Review, Patrick Ellis, conducted research for his Note almost exclusively through Twitter. Ellis’ explains that his experimental note serves to “demonstrate social media’s potential as an emerging and legitimate source of legal information.” Ellis goes on: “By perceiving and using social media as something more than a marketing tool, lawyers, law schools, and, most importantly, clients, may be able to tap into a more diverse and more accessible well of information. This redistribution of information accessibility may not only solve some of the problems facing the legal industry, but also has the capability to improve society at large.”

As Twitter and the other social media platforms enter into the world of scholarly research, it’s important to remain prudent in evaluating your sources. Twitter itself is not a source of legal information, but a vehicle that can deliver access to legal information. When following links to outside articles, we have to be as discriminating as we would have had we arrived there via a Google search, as we would when following a link from @BarackObama. Twitter as a resource may have its drawbacks in that it’s difficult to verify that a Twitter user is who they say they are, and many search results will lead to blogs and news sources, rather than academic or scholarly sources.

Despite the above limits, Twitter still has the potential to be an invaluable research tool in the legal profession. If you’ve been apprehensive about signing up for Twitter, or have entered the Twittersphere but aren’t using it to its full potential, Mashable has put together a useful guide for Twitter beginners. I urge you to get on board, and if you do, you can find us tweeting Commission updates, thought-provoking legal news articles, asking questions, and more @2Civility.


Brittany Hubbard, our intern from Kent Law School, contributed to this post.

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