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Why You Should Never Rely on Wikipedia for Legal Research

We've all been there before. Caught, like a deer in headlights, with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever about a particular legal concept. So rather than diving into real legal research, we jump on Google to run a basic search. Then, viola! A page pops up.

We read it over, surprised with how in-depth the wiki-page went, and how authoritatively it was footnoted. But, relying on Wikipedia for a legal citation, or as the authority for a legal issue, is like going to England for a beach vacation in January. It's technically possible, but also just a really bad idea. Printing up a page from Wikipedia for your client file, or billing a client for Wikipedia research, is definitely something to avoid, or risk being publicly skewered.

Wikipedia Research

While it may come as a surprise to some lawyers, Wikipedia actually has several pages that can serve as a basic free online legal encyclopedia, in a pinch, or if you've forgotten everything you ever learned. For the most part, the general concepts are well explained, and many times the articles may actually have some citations to worthwhile cases. In fact, some cases, particularly the more historical ones, will have their own Wikipedia pages with summaries and sometimes even historical details. Additionally, areas of law, like constitutional law, have special categories for pages associated to the topic.

Using Wikipedia is okay to give yourself a quick reminder, just don't stop there, or tell the court to go there. Find the actual statute, case, or a more authoritative source, like a law review, white paper, or official or peer reviewed publication.

Wikipedia at Your Own Risk

Before you go gallivanting off into wiki-based-legal-research-land, know this: many Wikipedia pages can be edited with little to no oversight. Wikipedia relies on users to update the information on their site. And if the internet has taught us anything at all, it's that the Internet is not to be trusted.

Wikipedia's setup means that someone can maliciously, accidentally, negligently, or as a stupid prank, go through certain pages and delete or add whatever they want. Although the edits are tracked, many times, a user bent on getting a Wikipedia page edited will find a way to be successful.

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