Using the Internet to Save on Legal Research CostsBy Lisa R. Bliss, Litigation News Associate Editor – July 10, 2009
As more legal content becomes freely available on the web, many lawyers find that the Internet provides a cost-effective alternative to traditional computer-based legal research services. Using common search engines, lawyers can access all kinds of free content, including cases, background information, media coverage, and blog entries about cases and parties. Free Internet services can also be used to keep lawyers advised of breaking developments in their area of practice.
Several states, bar associations, law schools, and others have published or posted links to statutes and cases online. Such resources can be used for research purposes, “but if you need to cite to a case in a brief, you may need to use Lexis or Westlaw to obtain the official cite,” cautions Kim R. Jessum, Philadelphia, PA, cochair of the ABA Section of Litigation’s Technology for the Litigator Committee.
The New Products subcommittee of the Section’s Technology for the Litigator Committee is currently compiling a list of free and low-cost online legal research resources to post on its website, says Justine M. Phillips, San Diego, cochair of that subcommittee. “In the age of Google, providing this benefit to our members will hopefully cause costly legal research providers to rethink their business approach and provide competitive products,” she says.
Start Your Research Using the Internet
“Internet search engines should be the first stop for legal research,” advises Priya Prakash Royal, Florham Park, NJ, coeditor of the Section’s Technology for the Litigator Committee website. “Younger attorneys commonly use the Internet to do background research, so they are comfortable starting with a search engine to get an overview of a topic,” Royal says.
Royal encourages all lawyers to use free tools. “Google and Yahoo are effective cross-search tools that allow users to search terms and link the search results to resources such as “Findlaw” or news articles,” she says.
Reviewing free content on the Internet can help put a researcher on the right track before consulting online legal research services, which charge fees. Royal finds conducting Internet searches at the beginning of a legal research project more efficient than looking in the key word indexes using an online legal research tool.
“Where you have a term of art or a specific topic in mind, an Internet search can get you to articles or books on point, relevant cases, and even public records that can be of use,” says Erica L. Calderas, Cleveland, OH, cochair of the Section’s Pretrial Practice and Discovery Committee. In addition, one can sometimes find compilations of cases on topics such as electronic discovery or niche areas of the law, notes Calderas. “These can be great resources for information on an emerging area of law,” she observes.
Trust but Verify
“Any resource you find using a search engine ultimately has to be verified,” advises Royal. “If you are reviewing secondary materials online, such as an article or someone’s summary of the case, you should review the primary materials to make sure you are getting an accurate view of the law,” says Calderas.
“While some quick Internet searching can help to refine and make more efficient your approach to further legal research, don’t let it be a substitute for book research or official sources of online research” recommends Calderas. “When you really need an in-depth, comprehensive, ‘turn over every stone’ understanding of the law, there is just no substitute for hitting the books and electronic research services,” she says.
Because the web does not guarantee the same reliability as established legal research providers, “litigators should second-guess the fruits of their online research and confirm the law remains precedential,” advises Phillips.
In addition to reliability, there may be other disadvantages to free Internet research tools. Litigators may recall the old maxim “nothing in life is free” when researching on the web, observes Phillips. “Oftentimes, the “free” content leads you down a cyber-path into “for-pay” research tools. This process can be frustrating and time-consuming,” she says.
Your Clients Have Access to the Same Information
Unfettered access to free legal information means that your clients have the same access as you do, which can pose some challenges for lawyers, says Royal. Clients may read a blog or article and misinterpret its application to their own legal matters. “While this can create potential for disagreement, it also provides an opportunity for a lawyer to demonstrate her value to the client by verifying and interpreting information gathered by the client,” she says.
The value-added element of the Internet is that it is a tool that provides access to breaking developments, and may give lawyers access to information that provides insight into a case, suggests Royal. For example, reading blogs or reader comments on a particular case gives lawyers a window to opinions on the subject, and may generate ideas for legal arguments.
Enhancing Client Relationships
Royal also uses Internet resources as a client development tool. If there is a decision or change in the law affecting her clients’ business, she will send an email forwarding a news article to her client network. “It is another thing to put into your bag of goods,” advises Royal. “Clients are more receptive to reading a news article about a case than they are to reading the case itself,” she observes.
Keywords: Legal research
- » ABA Section of Litigation, Technology for the Litigator Committee web links page.
- » Pretrial Practice & Discovery Committee resource page.
- » Google Alerts provides regular email updates of google searches on the topics of your choice.
- » Findlaw.com provides access to resources and links for both state and federal laws, including resources pertaining to constitutions, statutes and cases.
- » Loislaw.com provides flexible subscription rates for periods lasting from one day to one year.
- » Megalaw.com provides links to many free legal research sources, including state laws, law school websites, law reviews, and other legal resources.
- » American Law Sources Online (ALSO) provides a comprehensive compilation of links to free online law sources.
- » Georgetown University Law Library’s compilation and description of free and low-cost law sources.
- » Discoveryresources.org provides resources and news about electronic discovery.
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