General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

 
Volume 17, Number 4
June 2000

ONLINE LEGAL RESEARCH CLIENTS DEMAND A COST-EFFECTIVE APPROACH

BY Bruce Schulte

Profitability and cost containment-words that have guided the management of law firms and corporate legal departments for years. Now they have found their way into the lexicon of law librarians and law school legal research teachers. As the demand to contain legal costs continues to be felt in corporate legal departments and law firms across the country, lawyers and law firm administrators are responding by exploring new ways to contain costs and improve profitability.

Even that sacred cow of law practice, legal research, is now being scrutinized for ways to cut costs. "As with other areas of law practice, we are responding to our clients' demands that we be cost-conscious by looking at how to provide competent legal advice based upon quality legal research cost-efficiently," says John Maley of Barnes & Thornburg of Indianapolis, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. This includes the requirement that for primary research, only the most cost-effective of the legal research service providers to the firm, Loislaw.com, be used.

Client cost-consciousness has led major law firms like Sullivan and Worcester of Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., to take imaginative approaches to providing quality legal research more cheaply. "We are going to make only Loislaw plus either Westlaw or Lexis available to our attorneys at their desks," says Director of Library Services Leslie Peat. Bob Heartley of Loislaw subscriber Henderson, Daily, Withrow & DeVoe of Indianapolis adds, "Unless the client will pay for legal research costs, we do not use Westlaw or Lexis for legal research."

"Not surprising," says Professor Molly Lien, director of the nationally respected Legal Research and Writing Program at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Loislaw is used at Chicago-Kent, where students are taught not only how to perform legal research, but also how to do it cost-efficiently. "We require students to keep timesheets on their legal research assignments so that they become aware of how much they would have been charged for the time and search cost of their legal research in the real world," says Professor Lien.

The demand for cost-efficient legal research services is reflected in the teaching of legal research in other law schools across the country. At Brooklyn Law School the costs per unit of legal research using different legal research services have been posted in computer labs, so that students can know the actual cost of their research, according to the director of the school's Legal Writing Program, Professor Marilyn Walter.

As explained by Associate Professor Jan Levine, director of the Legal Research and Writing Program at Temple University School of Law, "Legal research services that offer access to their products to law students for free, but whose charges to practicing attorneys are pricey, are drug pushers who are giving law students their first hits for free."

Five Legal Research Tips

Many law firms and corporate legal departments across the country are implementing some or all of the following suggestions, offered by Chicago-Kent Professor Molly Lien and Cindy Chick, director of Library Services for Graham & James of Los Angeles, on how to provide quality, cost-effective legal research:

  • Identify the goal of your research. General or background knowledge about a topic? Current state of the law? If the former, use books, and if necessary, CD-ROMs. If the latter, gain a necessary overview from books and CD-ROMs before going online. That way you will quickly be able to identify what is relevant and what is not to the point of law you are researching.
  • Before you begin your online research, know the pricing of your online service(s). For example, you should take into consideration whether the service you intend to use is priced by transaction or by the hour.
  • Outline your research path before you go online, and stick to your outline.
  • Choose the databases you use for online research wisely. Try to avoid using more databases than necessary, because you may be charged for the number of databases used.
  • If you have access to multiple online research services, use the most cost-effective service to perform your primary research. Once you have obtained your results, you can check key cites and sources using a different online service.

Bruce Schulte is an ABA member and former small firm practitioner, corporate counsel, and assistant law school dean. He is vice president of Performance Communications Group, Inc., a marketing and public relations firm with offices in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

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