Context, Part 1

When I worked for the Nasdaq Stock Market, I would often meet with people who asked me a very basic question: “Is [this number] good?”  They didn’t mean, “Is this number correct?” they were asking for a qualitative answer.  They wanted me to evaluate the number they were handing me.

I always wanted to say something flip like, “Yeah – three is a very good number.  But five – look out for five.  Five will cut you.”

I kept my flippancy to myself and instead asked, “Compared to what?”  An earnings per share ratio that is phenomenal in one industry is anemic in another.  Context is key.

Likewise, the iterative and narrow way many people are used to searching for information in their daily lives tends to strip away the idea of context.  Looking for a phone number is not particularly complex.  Finding a restaurant review is fairly mechanical.  But the answer to a client’s question in the real world is not “Section 401(k) of the Internal Revenue Code.”  It is going to be application of that code section to a specific fact pattern.  It is going to be contextual.

I have read a great deal about how students (in general – not just law students) frequently have a much higher opinion of their ability to find things then their ability actually warrants.  Some blame the “Google-ization” of finding tools: plug in a few keywords, get an answer.  This piece of our current landscape probably does shift thinking: much of the “data in/data out” searching we do on a daily basis might as well be context-free.

Considering a fact pattern in law is not a matter of placing code or regulations or case law on top of the facts, but a complex and sometimes lengthy matter of analysis.  How does this law here relate to and intersect with that fact there?  If this fact changes, how does that affect the whole?  If the law changes, how will it shape the facts of behavior moving forward?

How does this type of analysis change and shape searching strategies and behaviors?  How do other forces (availability of resources, cost, time) shape those behaviors?  Just as in legal analysis, there really is no one answer.  It depends on the context.

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