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Vol. 31, No. 2

Online legal research: Bars choose with members’ needs in mind

by Dan Kittay

Legal research has always been a key element of most lawyers’ practices. Bar associations, being in the business of serving their members’ needs, have tried to assist where they could.

For years, many bar headquarters have had a law library that members can use. With the advent of computer technology, associations formed partnerships with research powerhouses such as West and Lexis, to allow members reduced fees for online research. As CD-ROMs became a universal medium for distributing large amounts of information, associations began providing them to members.

In more recent years, new companies have emerged that provide online research to bar associations, which then offer it to their members, often as part of their membership dues. As bars have begun offering such a product, they have thought carefully about what particular mix of features would best suit their members.

Some bars, such as the Ohio State Bar Association, began offering such a service years ago. In 1994, the bar and Cincinnati lawyer Joe Shea developed Casemaker as a CD-ROM that was updated periodically throughout the year. In 1998, the bar bought the product from Shea and moved it to the Internet. In recent years, the bar has been marketing the product to other bars as well.

But some bars have only recently ventured into offering online legal research as a member benefit. One such example is the Maryland State Bar Association, which began in May 2005 to seriously consider offering it, and ultimately chose Fastcase. Executive Director Paul Carlin says there was no “hue and cry” from members, so the bar could afford to take its time.

“I knew we needed to keep our eye on it. I didn’t think we needed to be on the bleeding edge. It’s nice to be on the cutting edge,” Carlin says. “We’d just see how things developed and which horses were in the race, and I think that played to our advantage.”

Another bar that recently began offering online legal research is the Cleveland Bar Association, becoming, it believes, the first ever metro bar to do so (see “Cleveland bar offers online legal research, weekly appellate digest,” September-October, page 5). But whether joining the trend earlier or later, all report that choosing and implementing an online research tool requires keeping an eye on what members need—and what they’ll be comfortable with.

Flexibility and exclusivity

When the 25,000-member Washington State Bar Association began in 2003 to study the various options available, flexibility was one important factor, says Douglas Ende, the bar’s assistant general counsel.

The bar considered making its own product, establishing an in-house platform where it would take existing state law content that was already in electronic format, improve its interface and presentation, and offer it to members. But it was felt that this would be too burdensome, offsetting the advantages that come with designing something yourself.

“We decided we didn’t want to be in the business of legal research, with the cost of personnel and running such a system,” Ende says.

One reason the WSBA ultimately chose Casemaker was that it offered the flexibility the bar was seeking. “The board really liked the approach that they would take information provided by the bar association and customize a library based on our needs and interests,” Ende explains. The board also liked that Casemaker is solely for bar associations, and only one bar in each state is allowed to offer it, which, Ende says, gives it an exclusive appeal.

At press time, 24 state bars belonged to the Casemaker Consortium, the group of bars that share information and offer Casemaker to their members. It used to be that bar members could see only information provided by bars that belonged to the consortium, but it was recently announced that a number of new sources of information will be added, including, by the end of 2006, case law libraries from all 50 states.

The fact that only one bar per state can offer Casemaker means that while local and other bars are eligible to join the consortium, for now, Casemaker is essentially a state bar offering. Some local bars, such as the Cleveland bar, which chose Fastcase, have been exploring providers that offer their service to law firms, bar associations, and other such clients, and that have no one-client-per-state restriction.

Ease of use

It stands to reason that ease of use is an important factor to consider, but what’s considered easy might vary depending on members’ tech expertise and what services they’re already familiar with.

Familiarity was one of several reasons the Pennsylvania Bar Association chose the Lexis product InCite when it made its legal research choice in 2001, says Barry Simpson, the bar’s executive director. Simpson recalls that a member survey showed that most members who did online research used either Westlaw or Lexis, so it was felt that there would be less of a learning curve than there would be in offering another product. It helped that courts, too, are familiar with Lexis, Simpson notes.

A quicker learning curve was also a factor for the Maryland bar, Carlin says, and was one area where Fastcase stood out during the RFP process. Another plus, Carlin adds, is that Fastcase seemed to offer the most frequent updates of new decisions and a quicker turnaround between the time of signing the contract and when the service was up and running. Also, Carlin says, the search engine easily handles comprehensive searches.

Denny Ramey, executive director of the OSBA, says Casemaker’s thesaurus expander makes searches easier. “If you go in and want to do a search for drunk driving, using Boolean logic [the tool commonly used by search engines], if those exact words aren’t in there, the case won’t come up,” he explains. Using the thesaurus option, words such as “inebriated” and “intoxicated” will be automatically added to the search terms. At press time, Casemaker had announced a revamp to its search engine, one that would allow users to simultaneously search in multiple state and federal libraries.

Spreading the word

Once a bar chooses an online research product, it’s important to let members know how it can help them—and to be there to assist them as they get up to speed. The WSBA, a unified bar, took a careful approach when it rolled out Casemaker. After a month of in-house testing, the bar published articles about the new offering in its Bar News and posted them on the bar’s Web site. The bar also sent a letter to each member, and created PowerPoint tutorials that were posted on the bar’s site.

Regardless of the particular product they chose, everyone Bar Leader spoke with reports a positive response to their online research offerings. Offering cutting-edge, if not bleeding-edge, services is essential for voluntary bars, but unified bars, too, enjoy the boost that comes from offering something new and useful.

“Member relations is a concern for every bar association,” says the WSBA’s Ende. “We take very seriously the service component of our mission.”

—By Dan Kittay

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