October 23, 2012

How to Set Up a Law Library: Solutions for Solos and Small Firms

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Rising to the Challenge




By Kara Phillips

Solo and small firm practitioners might think that systems security is not a priority for them. But in today's world, no one is safe from thieves, hackers and malicious intruders. Here are steps for protecting your practice and your clients.

Larger law firms typically employ a librarian to evaluate, procure and manage their information resources. In solo and small firms, having a librarian on staff isn't normally feasible, so the lawyer has to take on the role. And it is not a role that comes without impediments. The information explosion has made a dizzying array of materials accessible and expanded the choice of formats, too—but it has also complicated the process of sifting through the options to select the most useful and relevant resources. So where do you start in setting up and maintaining information resources for your law practice? Here are pointers for how to successfully undertake the process, without breaking the bank.

Evaluating Your Needs

The first step is to assess your information needs. Do you practice in a niche area or in several different areas of law? Is your practice limited by jurisdiction so that local and state materials will suffice, or do you need access to federal and international law? Will you consult secondary resources as a supplement to the primary resources you use most? Thoroughly consider the depth and breath of your needs. If, for example, you represent software companies, in addition to business law materials you may also want ones on intellectual property, tax, antitrust and employment law, as well as multijurisdictional and international materials.

Another factor to consider is whether you have colleagues (such as a paralegal, legal assistant or law student intern) who might require other resources. Also, don't neglect to think about whether (and how soon) you anticipate expanding your practice into new areas. A careful assessment of your practice needs will guide you toward potential sources and help you prioritize purchases.

Also think about what format (Web, print or CD-ROM) you prefer materials in. If you plan to do the majority of your research online, make sure your computer infrastructure has the capacity and speed to allow you to access materials efficiently, and that you have the ability to track online usage for billing purposes. Perhaps you prefer to read statutes and code material in hard copy. When opting for print materials, keep in mind that research tasks like cite-checking are more effectively done electronically.

Locating Free Resources

Think about which of your information needs could be met for free. Explore the resources at your local bar association, which may offer a lending library or access to online databases. An office-sharing arrangement might include access to library materials and other resources. Consider your local public law library. In her article " Eight Reasons Solo Lawyers Should Use Law Libraries," law librarian Mary Whisner explains the advantages of using a public law library: Law librarians are trained in legal research and often teach classes on research techniques for CLE credits; materials are collected in print and online versions; law libraries offer an opportunity to network; and document delivery, computer and photocopy services as well as meeting rooms may also be available.

Remember, too, your law school library almost certainly welcomes alumni patronage. Find out whether your undergraduate library is open to alumni as well. You may be surprised to discover that it has legal materials and databases to support a criminal justice or paralegal program and may have specialized libraries like environmental or medical to support graduate programs. In addition, your undergraduate library may provide access to useful non-legal resources like business, economic and statistical databases.

Then, of course, you have the wondrous Internet, where many primary materials can be found through a variety of free online resources. But be prepared to perform due diligence in verifying the currency, accuracy and authority of Internet information. Before deciding you can depend on a free online source, you should consider the source's functionality—the search interfaces of many free sites are not as sophisticated as those of the paid services. Likewise, most free sites do not provide the analysis, expansive coverage and indexing capabilities that lawyers routinely rely on for legal research.

Deciding Where You Will Spend

It should come as no surprise that, although more and more information is freely available on the Web, value-added information comes with a price tag. Be realistic about what you can afford, but understand that you will have to budget for some quality information.

A pay-as-you-go plan may be helpful for online resources that you need sporadically, while a flat-rate subscription plan or print versions will work better for resources you regularly access with frequency. Pricing plans for online databases vary and can be based on type of content and number of users, with some publishers providing discounts for combination online-and-print subscriptions. According to Kendall Svengalis, author of the Legal Information Buyer's Guide and Reference Manual (Rhode Island Law Press, 2006), online database access can run a solo anywhere from $150 per year to $5,000 or more per year. Some print materials may be a one-time purchase (a book) or have an ongoing investment with supplements or pocket parts. Pricing for print collections also varies—and remember, it does not reflect the hidden costs of shelving, space and upkeep.

To make the best investment—and to protect it on an ongoing basis—you will need to select resources appropriate to your practice, regularly evaluate existing resources, and cancel unnecessary ones as your needs change. There are several books describing materials from a variety of publishers to help you pinpoint the most relevant materials in your locality or field of law.  (See the resources sidebar.) In addition, the Law Scout site at University of Akron School of Lawserves as a portal to more than 130 research guides, generally prepared by librarians, that identify pertinent resources in specific areas of law.

Before purchasing print resources, check out tables of contents, prefaces and reviews on the publisher or bookstore Web sites. ACQWEB's Directory of Publishers and Vendors, is a useful tool for locating publishers on the Web. You might also consider examining material at your local library or requesting a copy from the publisher on approval.

For online legal databases, you should compare several products. Consult lists and reviews to get a feel for what is available. After narrowing your choices, request a trial to evaluate the following: quality of content, relevancy to your practice, predictability of pricing, ease of use, licensing, security, training, technical support, reliability, accuracy, navigability, reputation of publisher, coverage and the like. Before you sign a license for an electronic resource, be sure to review it carefully and revise it to meet your needs.

If You Need Help

Whether you are purchasing print materials or licensing online resources, dealing with legal publishers can present challenges. If a problem arises, contact customer service or your sales representative, document all calls, make copies of correspondence, and be patient and persistent. A number of online resources can guide you in transacting business with publishers. (See the resources sidebar) Lastly, when you find yourself spending more time managing library resources and dealing with publishers than working on billable matters, it may be time to hire a librarian. The American Association of Law Libraries' chapters can assist you in hiring one, whether on a temporary, contract or permanent basis: