As technology has changed, the face of legal research has transformed. Just 10 years ago, lawyers were spending hours in libraries pouring over case law in books. Lexis and Westlaw changed that by offering easy online access to thousands of cases, statutes, law reviews, and other secondary sources in one location. Now, widespread access to the Internet and a flood of tech-savvy young attorneys have opened up a whole new world of legal research and information. Google and other similar search engines provide an easy way to obtain basic information on an unfamiliar legal issue and can provide attorneys with practical information that is unavailable through Lexis or Westlaw. Ask most young associates today what they first do when faced with a legal question that is completely unfamiliar to them—they will (or should) answer “Google it.”
Take this simple, everyday example: A partner asks you to research an important patent law issue. You never took patent law in school. You’re not even familiar with basic patent law terms or ideas. Where do you start? You have no idea which terms to enter into a Lexis or Westlaw search. You have no idea if any statutes are relevant or would provide you with any guidance. Sure you could search secondary sources in Lexis, but that would mean wading through pages and pages of law review articles. Why not simply ask Google? A Google search for “patent law” returns articles written by patent law experts for their firm websites, legal dictionary definitions of terms and concepts, law review-type articles published online, blogs analyzing key issues, outlines from law school classes, and even full-text court opinions.
Once you have some key concepts and terms defined, it may still be difficult to identify the seminal case or important sub-issues through a search of cases in Lexis or Westlaw. Google can also help you identify these important aspects of your issue. Articles written by bloggers and those posted on law firm websites can help you identify what specialists in the field have identified as important cases or disputed or controversial issues. These articles often also identify citations to relevant cases. A Google search of that case citation will frequently give you the full text of the opinion through various free online databases. If not, at the very least it will give you other articles analyzing and discussing the case, and you can then obtain the full text of the opinion from Lexis or Westlaw.
Once you have a handle on the important aspects of your issue, there are many free resources out there to help you complete more in-depth research. For example:
State and federal full-text statutes are mostly available free online.
State court websites often have free access to full-text opinions.
Government websites often provide question and answer format websites for complicated areas of law—including Sarbanes-Oxley, patent law, and the like.
Wikipedia—while attorneys need to be especially wary of information contained in unofficial user-generated websites, Wikipedia is useful for a quick general overview of your topic. It will also provide you with citations to more official resources.
Fastcase is a new iPhone/smartphone application that allows you to conduct free case law research from your mobile device. This application does not have the full capabilities of Lexis or Westlaw, but it contains thousands of cases, and allows you to type in search terms in a similar format to Lexis or Westlaw, save your searches, and save relevant cases for later use.
There are also many practical aspects to litigation with which Lexis and Westlaw cannot typically assist. For example, imagine a partner has asked you to draft a brief for a plaintiff in an unemployment appeal. You’ve never worked on an unemployment case, and the procedure looks generally different from filing a complaint in a civil trial court. You are unfamiliar with the format for briefing in this type of administrative proceeding, and the local rules do not specify briefing formats. You know, however, that in any unemployment case, the relevant government agency is a defendant. Because clerk of court websites in many jurisdictions allow you to view full-text pleadings and documents filed online, you can search for cases with the relevant government entity as a defendant. This will allow you to locate briefs filed by other attorneys in your area that could help you discover the general format and procedure for briefing.
While Google searching is extremely helpful and can answer questions more traditional sources cannot, attorneys should be mindful that Google cannot entirely replace traditional sources such as Lexis and Westlaw. Those products are typically the only way to be sure that you have fully researched an issue and are the most efficient means of ensuring that the law you are citing is still good law. But, Google searching and other free online resources can provide you with a starting point for your research and can reveal key aspects that may not be readily apparent through Lexis and Westlaw searching. These resources can help you ask educated questions and make you feel a little less lost when beginning your research.
Google for Lawyers:
- Essential Search Tips and Productivity Tools 5110704 Law Practice Management Section.
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