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Magazines > Online > Nov/Dec 2003
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Online Magazine
Vol. 27 No. 6 — Nov/Dec 2003
The Power 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 commonplace—resulting 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 nonjudgmental—it'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 in society.

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 returns.

Marydee Ojala [] is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to

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