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It’s easier than ever to research on a dime and access content that in the past resided only on paper or in costly electronic databases. The key is using the Web’s amazing resources to find and check your information and stretch your research dollar.
The current economic climate makes pinching pennies more important than ever—a fact that applies to the often costly area of legal research. Fortunately, today the Web puts amazing research resources at your fingertips— and many of them are low-to-no cost. Here are some ideas for keeping your research overhead as low as possible by doing it the online way.
1. Enjoy the Open Bar
There’s a phenomenal amount of law from around the world freely accessible online. LexisONE has the past 10 years of case law from all 50 states and the federal courts, as well as U.S. Supreme Court cases from 1781 to the present—and you get to use some of LexisNexis’s advanced search options to search the cases for free. The Fastcase-backed Public Library of Law (www.plol.org) has more than 50 years of federal case law, as well as recent state cases from all 50 states.
Also, your state bar association may offer members-only access to case law and other materials. Many states have either joined the Casemaker consortium or licensed Fastcase as a benefit for their members. Depending on your bar’s participation, your access may include state or national case coverage, CLE materials, and even practice rules and jury instructions.
2. Ordering à Law Carte
Many lawyers subscribe to LexisNexis or Thomson Westlaw content only for their states. If you need information on cases outside your state, don’t forget to try the state supreme court Web sites. A number of them provide public access to their cases, even though some are hosted by LexisNexis (e.g., California) or Westlaw (e.g., Alaska).
Many states also make appellate opinions and federal court cases available through their respective court sites. The National Center for State Courts has a list of judicial branch links for each state.
3. Fast-Paced Research
N eed to follow a federal civil case? To find all case filings in a given U.S. district court, use Justia’s docket search. You can search by party name, state or even the type of case. Once you’ve found your case, access the federal courts’ PACER system to find additional information. Registration for PACER accounts is free, although there is a user fee and minimal charges apply to some transactions. You can print out written opinions for free.
4. Pay-As-You-Go Access
You don’t need to subscribe to a major law publisher’s service to be able to check your cases, or to find cases not included in your subscription package. Instead, with a credit card, you can pay on an “as you need it” basis to get documents and check citations using Westlaw’s Keycite or LexisNexis Shepard’s. Remember, too, that sometimes a court opinion will appear in only one of the two major legal research databases, so pay-as-you-go access is nice for retrieving a case by its proprietary Lexis or Westlaw citation as needed.
5. Think Globally
International law is available through the growing number of providers known as Legal Information Institutes (LIIs). To search global case law, use the World LII, or you can visit a specific LII for a more focused experience.
The United States is served by the LII of Cornell Law School, which offers quick access to popular names tables and other U.S. legal information. The Canadian LII has a powerful search and citator (or note-up) tool. You can also compare Canadian statutes side by side, or “point-intime,” to see what differences were made in specific pieces of legislation.
Looking for a more exotic locale or something a bit more unusual than case law or statutes? Use the Law Library of Congress’s Global Legal Information Network, or GLIN. The GLIN database has official laws as well as complementary government documents contributed by over 30 countries and available for free download.
6. Advance Your Search
So you’re trying to do a quick Web search using a search engine like Google or Microsoft Live, but you’re not getting the results you want. Using the engine’s Advanced Search feature can get you to relevant results faster. Google Advanced Search can restrict a search to exact wordings; to a specific site, such as the Internal Revenue Service for IRS forms; or to a specific type of file, such as a PDF or Word document.
MS Live Advanced Search lets you search by phrases, site domains and countries.
7. Get Competitive
A lawyer’s research involves more than just the law, of course. There are a lot of details you can unearth on the Web to help you work with current clients or in developing prospective ones. For example, it may be important to know what an equity was worth on a specific date. Find out by using Marketwatch’s Historical Big Charts service and typing in the stock symbol and date to get high and low values.
To get company reports, head to sites like Hoover’s and Dun & Bradstreet, where you can search by company name or corporate officers. Hoover’s offers a free fact sheet from which you can purchase a variety of more complete reports.
8. Form Your Ideas
Why reinvent the wheel when online collaboration has led to new initiatives in sharing lawyers’ work product? Sites like JD Supra offer pleadings and other documents written by lawyers that you can search by practice area, jurisdiction and type of document (pleading, motion and so on).
Findlaw for Legal Professionals has an extensive collection of business forms organized by document type as well as by client industries.
9. Dig Deeper
Not everything is on the Web. Or, perhaps there is more on the Web than you can find with search engines. There are many databases that are accessible by a Web browser but are not indexed by public search engines. One site that can help you locate relevant hard-copy resources is Worldcat. It indexes library catalog databases from across the world and will bring up books, journal articles and other resources that you didn’t know existed—and it can tell you if the items are at a library near you.
Also, you might try the Social Science Research Network’s Legal Scholarship Network to look at law review and journal articles from all over the United States, many of which are electronic copies of published articles.
10. Know Your Sources
A corollary to “not everything is on the Web” is that anything could be on the Web—including specious, invalid or misleading resources. So when you are doing Web research, be aware of who published the information you are reading and when it was published. Court and government sites are among the easiest to identify, since they usually end with a “.gov” or state abbreviation. However, in the rush to have a Web brand, some government bodies are now on “.com” or “.org” domains so you may need to double-check those.
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 will add domain highlighting to the browser address bar, making it easier to know what domain you are visiting. Mozilla Firefox and the new Google Chrome Web browser can also highlight domain addresses.
Also, some sites—including many blogs—may not immediately show authorship, although on blogs it’s usually pretty clear when information was posted. Look for an author bio or a link to a law firm or other identifiable organization. When information is hosted on a large site—like blogger.com, typepad.com or wikipedia.org—it may be harder to identify the person who created the content, so be wary of considering the information “definitive” unless you separately confirm its authority.
You can use other tools to find out who a site owner is, too. Try Domain-Tools’ domain search, which returns information that can include a domain name owner’s name, address and phone number, as well as where the site is geographically located.
There is so much information on the Web to help you in handling your cases, serving your clients, and doing just about anything you need to do in the practice of law. You just need to know the right direction in which to point your browser. Incorporate the sites here into your practice and you’ll be on solid ground—and you’ll be stretching your research dollars in the bargain.
Catherine Sanders Reach is Director of the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center in Chicago. She is an ABA TECHSHOW Board member.
David Whelan is a lawyer and librarian. He serves as Legal Information Manager at the Law Society of Upper Canada in Toronto.
Get more tips from David Whelan and Catherine Sanders Reach when they speak at the Solo/Small Firm and Internet tracks during ABA TECHSHOW 2009 in these sessions:
Plus, expand your repetoire of innovative Web sites at 60 Sites in 60 Minutes , Saturday, April 4, with Jim Calloway, Laura Calloway, Barron Henley and Lincoln Mead. Visit www.techshow.com to view the 60 Sites Hall of Fame, with sites from the past eight years.