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Computer Counselor - December 1997

Keeping Current in Electronic Legal Research Methods

Computerized research keeps advancing and changing with each year

By Daryl Teshima

Daryl Teshima is the editor-in-chief of Law Office Computing, a bimonthly technology magazine. He can be reached on the Internet at 

No single area of a law practice is changing more rapidly than legal research. Within the past few years, lawyers have seen legal publishing titans merge, libraries shrink to fit onto CD-ROMs, and the Internet make a tremendous impact. Research is no longer done only the old-fashioned way, with books. 

Nor does it look as if the dust will be settling soon in the legal research arena, especially considering the recent release of products such as West Group's KeyCite, Lexis-Nexis's Xchange, and new browsers from Netscape and Microsoft. How these and other developments will affect legal research is unclear, but practitioners should focus on some of the more significant developments in legal research and the effect they may have. 

Choosing Your Research Format 

The most obvious result of new research developments has been an explosion of choices. Today, law firms do not merely select a case law and code book publisher; they also have to determine if they want their information to come from a book, a CD-ROM, or an online source. Complicating the matter is that attorneys have as many research preferences as choices. Some attorneys who are not at ease with computers may prefer books. Many younger lawyers, however, who have learned to conduct their research on primary law by using Lexis-Nexis or Westlaw, may want electronic formats. What is a law firm to do? 

One direction a firm should not take is throwing its library of case reporters and code books away. Despite the wonderful advantages that CD-ROMs and online services have to offer a legal researcher, books are still essential. CD-ROM drives can fail to work, and sometimes technical difficulties keep a firm off the Web. Books continue to be the leaders in reliability. 

Besides books, in what other formats should a firm invest? To answer this question, first assess your law firm's computer operating system and configuration. If you are still using DOS, you may have a limited selection of research choices. A form of Windows (either 3.1x, 95, or NT) is needed to use many of the advanced features of the newer CD-ROM products as well as to access the Internet. 

Second, determine whether attorneys at your firm need to conduct research in places other than the firm library. For example, if you often conduct research out of the office, then CD-ROMs and online services are ideal. Almost every computer sold now has a CD-ROM player, allowing its user to slip decades of California case law and codes into a briefcase for the weekend. In addition, all one needs to access online law libraries is a modem and an account. No longer are attorneys tied to a windowless carrel in a library when building the perfect brief. 

A third factor is the type of research your firm conducts. If it is limited simply to looking up primary law, such as state statutes and case law, there are a number of economical alternatives for California attorneys. For example, the CalDisc CD-ROM series (AccessLaw, 800-533-0159,  www.accesslaw.com) provides practically every California primary legal resource, including California Appellate Reports from around 1934 to the present, other reporters, legislation, rules of court, and all state codes. CalDisc consists of two CD-ROMs and has an initial purchase price of $549, with quarterly updates priced at $89. The low price of CD-ROMs like CalDisc has had an impact on traditional legal publishers. Earlier this year, Lexis-Nexis offered flat-rate pricing that gives attorneys unlimited Web access to California codes and cases (Lexis-Nexis, 800-356-6548). Likewise, the West Group introduced WestPro, another flat-rate pricing schedule for solo and small firms that also gives attorneys unlimited online access to selected California and federal resources on Westlaw (West Group, 800-255-2549, ext. 247,  www.westpub.com/Practice/ca/cawlpro.htm). 

If your firm conducts research on a variety of topics, you should look into an integrated CD-ROM product like LawDesk, which links together California official reports and West's annotated codes (West Group, 800-762-5272). This product represents the next step in legal research because it links two separate areas of primary law together. For example, while reviewing a particular code section, a researcher using LawDesk may notice several annotations that refer to cases that may be on point. Instead of putting down the annotated code digest and picking up the appropriate case reporter, the researcher simply uses the mouse to click on the case. Within seconds, the full text of the case is available. 

Although law firms currently face complicated decisions regarding how to budget for their research tools, pending developments may make the question of whether to use CD-ROMs or the Internet moot. For example, West Group recently announced plans to consolidate its three legal research tools-Westmate, Premise, and Folio Views-into a single search engine. This product, Trinity, will let researchers access a combination of legal sources from a computer. For instance, if your firm has the resource on CD-ROM, Trinity will first access that CD-ROM to deliver the requested information. If your firm does not have the desired information on CD-ROM, then Trinity will connect to Westlaw to access the information. Trinity is expected to be released during the first half of 1998. 

The Internet 

The Internet has often been described as the largest library in the world, with all the books scattered on the floor. There is much truth to that: great information can be found on the Net, but it sometimes takes a miracle to find it. In addition, it is easy to get sidetracked when searching for information on the Web. Despite wonderful resources like FindLaw (www.findlaw.com) and LawCrawler (www.lawcrawler.com), performing cost-effective case research on the Web is often difficult. Another problem is that of assessing the accuracy of the information that you find. Anyone can publish anything on the Internet. There are no watchdogs or standards on the Internet, so beware. 

Several vendors now offer services via the Internet that, for a price, provide reliable primary law. The oldest provider is the LOIS Law Library (www.pita.com), which allows full-text searches of its federal and state primary law databases. Another established Internet primary law provider is V. (www.versuslaw.com), which also gives users full-text searching of its primary law databases. Both services allow users to purchase unlimited access to their databases on an annual, semiannual, or monthly basis. 

Another promising new service is JuriSearch, a California-specific online database that provides unlimited access to California codes and supreme and appellate court decisions since 1934 (JuriSearch, 800-576-4800,  www.jurisearch.com). This service uses the Folio search engine and monthly access charges are as low as $39.95. 

A further development in Internet research is "push" technology, which delivers certain types of preselected information to your desktop. This helps overcome one of the limitations of the Net by significantly reducing the amount of time spent searching for information. Both Internet Explorer 4.x and Netscape Communicator 4.x now have the capability of turning your computer desktop into a billboard that flashes not only the latest stock quotes and sports scores but also new legal and court developments as they occur. 

Pay as You Research 

Technology has also affected the way legal publishers can charge for research. This welcome development has allowed some publishers to charge researchers only for the research they conduct. An example of this new approach is Authority-on-Demand, Matthew Bender's new Internet legal research service that provides access to more than 250 secondary sources (Matthew Bender, 800-223-1940,  www.bender.com). Using a Web browser, you can access the site and conduct full text searches of these publications. After a search, you are presented a list of the results, similar to ones generated by Internet search engines like AltaVista and WebCrawler. You only pay if you want the full text of a listing. 

To a lesser degree, other legal publishing companies have experimented with this pay-as-you-research approach. WestDoc is a document retrieval service that allows researchers to obtain the full text of a case via the Internet (West Group,  www.westdoc.com). For each case retrieved, the payment is $8. 

Virtual Communities 

Until now, technological advances have primarily changed the delivery methods of legal information. One intriguing development-the rise of virtual legal communities-creates an entirely new class of research. 

Virtual communities use computer technology to bring together users with similar interests. In many respects, this idea is similar to joining one of your local bar's practice sections. Through meetings and networking, you develop relationships with colleagues who can help you in your practice. Information exchanged through this method is invaluable and cannot be found in CD-ROMs or books. A virtual community simply expands the networking group, allowing you to consult and share with colleagues on a worldwide basis. 

The largest virtual legal community, Counsel Connect, has had financial difficulties, despite having 26,000 paid subscribers. Recently, West Group shelved its own service, The West Network, after disappointing results. Despite these past failures, Lexis-Nexis has announced a new Internet-based legal community for attorneys called Xchange. This online service is in many ways similar to Counsel Connect, with the added feature of Lexis-Nexis's information databases. Lexis officials hope that the service will allow attorneys to network with their peers, participate in expert-led forums and discussion groups, and even exchange documents in a secure environment. 

While it is unclear whether the present incarnations of Counsel Connect and Lexis-Nexis Xchange will prosper, the growing importance of the Internet suggests that it will lead an inevitable trend toward online research. Successful research requires the linking of thoughts and ideas to solid legal references. Virtual communities may prove to be the ultimate link in the evolution of legal research. 

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