of Information Bumps into Diminishing Returns
By Marydee Ojala Editor
Not long ago I listened to an attorney
lecture a group of journalists about the power of information.
Specifically, he was talking about how knowing personal
information about potential jurors and witnesses could
substantially bolster a lawyer's case. This information,
gleaned from public records sources on LexisNexis,
substantially increases his ability to choose sympathetic
jurors and discredit witnesses.
It was a masterful performance and convinced me that,
when I want an eloquent address to a jury, this attorney
is my guy. I had a few problems with his basic premise.
Twenty years ago, when not every law firm had access
to online information, the information available online
truly gave lawyers, not to mention businesspeople,
a competitive advantage. Had I been listening two decades
ago, I would have been on my feet applauding.
Times have changed. Online is a fact of life for
most law firms, as it is for most businesses. Access
to information is commonplaceresulting in diminishing
returns to simply having information available in electronic
form. Google's ubiquity is but one indication that
electronic information is important, but not the differentiator
between success and failure, authority and weakness.
The balance of power has shifted from availability
and accessibility to competence and control. Boldly,
this attorney used his personal details to make his
point about information access. Up on the screen came
all his home addresses for the past few years. He pointed
out that one of the addresses really wasn't his, but
that of an associate for whom he had paid her home-based
business telephone bill. What he failed to recognize
was that no one other than himself would know this
wasn't his address. It could easily mislead an opposing
attorney to assume a familiarity between the lawyer
and his associate that didn't exist. If the question
was posed to a witness and the witness explained the
situation, it isn't the witness who's going to be discredited,
it's the lawyer.
Similar misleading information is rampant among even
the highest-quality databases. The data is correct
but interpretations can be faulty. Data, in and of
itself, is nonjudgmentalit's how the human looking
at the data adds meaning to it that can result in errors.
Take, as this lawyer also did, screening potential
jurors. Looking at demographics helps structure a jury
that meets those demographics. It doesn't insure their
thoughts meet the pre-determined profile. Individuals can have
opinions that don't mirror their age, sex, and status
Information professionals talk a lot about evaluating
sources. We did that even prior to the advent of online
information. What we shy away from is evaluating our
own proficiency in analyzing and interpreting what
we retrieve when we use online information. We need
to excel at the technicalities of searching, the intricacies
of source selection, and the understanding of
the information retrieved. The three intertwine to
create powerful information and to avoid diminishing
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