General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology & Practice Guide

Online LegalResearchTools

BY LOWELL WILSON

Legal research is one of the more promising uses of the Internet for lawyers. Think of it: No more trips to the library, no more having to rely on Westlaw and Lexis to get hold of court cases and other legal resources.

Making History

People first started writing around 3000 b.c. Libraries of some sort appeared shortly thereafter, but it wasn’t until the year 300 b.c. that the Library at Alexandria was built. The libraries that preceded the Alexandria library were fairly simple, containing mostly business texts and other texts that were of use to the people in the area immediately surrounding the library. By the year 300 b.c., the Greeks had built a library that held a vast collection of texts of various kinds, all of which were cataloged and cross-referenced so that they could easily be found.

The Internet is somewhat shy of the Library at Alexandria stage, but a lot further along than the stage at which writing began. The Internet has existed since 1969 in one form or another, but it did not become useful until about 1983—the year that the University of Illinois—Urbana/Champaign released a program called Mosaic. Mosaic makes it possible to use a portion of the Internet known as the World Wide Web.

A vast array of information is available on the Internet, ranging from court decisions to advertisements for law firms. But finding that information is not always easy. And once you find it, determining the reliability of the data is often problematic. The problem is that anyone with about $25 per month can become an Internet publisher. You simply acquire an account through an Internet Service Provider and you are in the Internet publishing business.

So the problem is both finding information and then determining its reliability. Finding it is getting easier all the time. A variety of entities are interested in cataloging Internet information related to the legal profession so that lawyers can find their way to it. Some are quite reliable and take their job very seriously, such as Cornell University and the Chicago-Kent School of Law, or bar associations such as the ABA. Others are in the business of cataloging for profit. They can be pretty reliable too, since they will only get ad sponsorships if advertisers believe they are reputable.

But as you move along through your explorations of the Internet as a research tool, remember—this is not a well-organized and maintained library system. Instead, it is an anarchy of sorts, and you need to find your way to reliable organizations bent on producing useful order out of this chaos. The nice thing is, development is proceeding at a very fast pace. Tools are in place that will make your explorations much easier by far than they were just a year or so ago, and new developments occur all the time.

Statutes

Statutory law is about the easiest thing to get online, and it shows up pretty quickly these days. There are all sorts of national and state constitutions available, codes of various kinds, uniform laws, etc. Some of these make good use of hypertext so that you can jump from one section to another based on references contained in the statutes, while others are simply straight text files that can be read online, thus saving you a trip to the library.

You can find the Internal Revenue Code online, as well as the U.S. Code and other statutes. Most of these can be found sorted by topic at various sites on the Internet. In your search for statutes, start with the Legal Information Institute and the American Bar Association’s Websites (see "Resources You Can Count On"). Both have an extensive list of statutes sorted by topic and by geographic region.

Court Decisions

The Internet is a mixed blessing when you go searching for court decisions. For example, Supreme Court cases are usually found on the Internet faster than just about any other source. However, until very recently Supreme Court cases prior to 1990 simply were not available. It is now possible to find cases dating back to 1937 by pointing your browser to http://www. findlaw.com. FindLaw is a private company that has created a fairly complete database of Supreme Court decisions and makes that database freely available to the public.

Unfortunately, no such company has decided to catalog old state supreme court cases. Consequently, while there are some states (New York and California, for example) whose highest court decisions are now being cataloged on the Internet, the approach has been to start cataloging now and not worry about the past. To find out which courts’ decisions are available, the best places to check are http:// www.fjc.gov/ or the ABA’s homepage, which can be found at http://www.abanet.org/. This is probably the direction in which the legal community is going to move, so it pays to get familiar with these resources now.

Law Reviews and Journals

In addition to court decisions, various law reviews are now being published online, either as an adjunct to or in lieu of a printed publication. A fairly complete listing of these can be found by pointing your browser to http://www.findlaw.com/lawreviews/. The journals currently listed include: American Journal of International Law, Bill of Rights Journal, Cardozo Electronic Law Bulletin, Congressional Quarterly, Cornell Law Review, East European Constitutional Review, Federal Communications Law Journal, Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, Hastings Women’s Law Journal, Law Office Technology, Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review, Stanford Law and Policy Review, Texas Intellectual Property Law Journal, and the Villanova Environmental Law Journal.

Government Agencies

The federal government has been quite active in delivering information to the public via the World Wide Web. This makes a lot of sense—who has more documents to deliver than the federal government? By delivering information over the Internet, federal agencies cut paper costs and mailing expenses, and users of the information can rest assured that the information they are getting is the very latest.

Currently, the availability of government information depends largely on the agency in question. For instance, the IRS has made all of its forms and many of its booklets available on its Website ( http:// www.irs.ustreas.gov/prod/).

This site shows just how useful the Internet can be when a government agency decides to make good use of it.

Instead of having to keep the IRS forms you use on file, you can simply go to the IRS site and get the forms you need when you need them. You do not have to drive to the nearest federal building, or ask the IRS to mail the forms to you, or worry that the form you happen to have in your file cabinet has gone stale.

Another agency that uses the Internet to disseminate information is the U.S. Patent and Trade Mark Office. Through the Patent Office’s site, you can do a preliminary patent search that will, at the least, get you to the right subcategory so that when you actually go to the office, you will not have to waste time categorizing your patent.

The Government Printing Office is also taking steps to make its information available on the Internet. They now have opened their ACCESS database to the general public. ACCESS contains an online version of the Congressional Record—the full text of bills introduced in either chamber of Congress, as well as the Federal Register.

This is just a taste of the information that is available. One way to find out what agencies have information that might be useful to you is to start at the Federal Judicial Center Web page ( http://www.fjc.gov/).

Factual Research

Many trial lawyers report that the vast majority of their cases are won or lost on facts rather than fancy legal theories. There is no overestimating the value of digging for facts in preparation for a case. The Internet is a vast repository of information of all kinds. As such, you may find it useful for finding factual information that will help you in your work.

To this end, there are a couple of general World Wide Web catalogs or search engines that you need to be aware of—Lycos and Yahoo. Both of these sites claim to catalog more than 90 percent of the offerings available on the Web. In addition to being useful for nonlegal research, they are often more useful than the legal-specific catalogs. Not everything you search for is going to be listed in the legal catalogs. For instance, I didn’t find the Internal Revenue Code in the legal-specific catalogs. Yet someone in Switzerland decided that the Internal Revenue Code would be a good thing to put online. A search of Yahoo or Lycos would reveal that the Internal Revenue Code can be found online at http://www.fourmilab.ch/ustax/ustax.html.

Both Yahoo ( http://www.yahoo. com) and Lycos ( http://www. lycos.com/) will find more than you could ever imagine, and their search engines are getting more and more sophisticated all the time, allowing you to narrow or broaden your search as you see fit. Of course, the problem you run into with these research tools is that search engines make no value distinctions. Lycos and Yahoo both try to catalog as much of the Web as possible, making no judgments regarding the usefulness of the information. So you will have to be careful of the information you receive.

There are also a variety of more specific resources available for factual research. For example, Dun and Bradstreet has made its business background reports available to download for a fee. The interesting thing about their approach to selling information on the Internet is that you can search their database and receive abstracts for free; it’s only when you actually decide to retrieve a particular report that you will incur a fee.

The same approach has been taken by a firm called KnowX, which makes available information such as UCC filings and other public information contained in the Information America database. The search is free; it’s only when you retrieve the detail report that you pay. Services such as these will no doubt pop up all over the Internet and be a low cost alternative to other information retrieval services. n

Lowell Wilson is a lawyer with the firm of Borinsky, Ramsey and Cook, LLC, in Columbia, Maryland. He is a regular speaker on the Internet and other technology topics at Maryland State Bar Association programs.

Back to Top

< /