By: Peggie Brown
Ask legal professionals to define legal research. Up pops several different answers with statute and case law being the most frequently listed responses. We may be about to add to the list.
Legal Research encompasses finding information to further a legal case or argument. The information found usually falls into two categories; primary or secondary sources.
Primary sources include applicable statutes and case law, along with the review of legislative notes, rules and ethics to provide additional information regarding these statutes and cases.
Secondary sources, however, are often the key to the ultimate success of the case since these types of sources often help persuade the Court that the primary sources relied on are applicable to the issues at hand. Used together, primary and secondary information provides the legal professional a very convincing and complete case presentation. For example, without knowing the specifics of safety devices available for Lawn Mowers and available preventive measures, all the legal theories and precedent in a lawn mower injury case will not be sufficient to actually win the case. We submit good lawyers would first ascertain the safety standards governing the agricultural products, thereby properly promote the theory of product liability.
THE INTERNET WILL EVENTUALLY REPLACE BOOKS AND CHANGE ON-LINE SERVICES (AS WE KNOW THEM NOW)
Bet that got your attention! Note, we added the statement, “As we know them now.” No, Lexis-Nexis and the West Group are not going out of business! They will simply offer additional services brought on in part by additional competition and aided with ever expanding technology. Competition assures legal professionals of a continuum of cutting edge technological products and services at more competitive rates. The choices for the actual services and products fitting the practitioner’s budget and requirements also broaden.
Let us offer a brief explanation why sites offer free information when maintenance of these sites obviously requires time, effort, and expense. Sometimes, it’s because the providers are nice people, like Katsuey! Actually, we enjoy providing Katsuey’s Legal Gateway as a service, but the exposure and compliments we receive provide a marvelous by-product.
Face it, we are suckers for attention! The Katsuey’s Legal Gateway site provides substantive content for legal professionals and consumers. Great content, organized well and kept fresh translates into more visitors and many repeat visitors. Many Internet sites provide free services for the same reasons television stations provide free viewing. They derive their revenue from selling advertisement, sponsorship and/or promotion of other revenue generating activities. At first blush, it might appear that USA Today’s site competes against itself since USA Today sells newspapers but offers free on-line news content, however, advertisers pay for both mediums. Other reasons for the “benevolence” of those offering free on-line content, include protecting turf and providing information to present and future clients less expensively.
Books & CD’s still pay important roles in legal research today. However, the role of these research medias are contracting rather than expanding. Many Internet research sites do not currently go back more than a few years, certainly not to the 1800’s. In addition, the Internet has yet to offer a standardized system for citation, though the issue is being addressed and there are some draft proposals for citing Internet site material. Most search engines do not offer annotations or expand on key words as of yet. For example, a search for “drunk driving” in even the best of Internet search engines today, does not retrieve the statute for “driving under the influence.” In the last few years, on-line providers have begun solving these issues.
So what are the pitfalls? Most importantly, reliability, always a pressing issue with case law, statutes and codes found on the Internet. Many sites are frequently not updated on a very regular basis and do not have the quality control of such services as West Group and Lexis-Nexis. Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw often offer more comprehensive case law and statutory research with cites and case notes to secondary information. Today, only the absolute novice, ready to experience a huge embarrassment and very large increases in their firm’s malpractice premiums would stop with Internet research. Yet, the Internet provides the perfect place for the savvy novice who wants to learn their subject matter, narrow their searches, discover related cases in the news and have an idea what their competition might be finding. All of this can greatly reduce their pay service on-line time.
Small firms, sole practitioners and some corporate legal departments cannot always justify the expense of a West Group or Lexis-Nexis account. Alternative no frill services available, such as Lois Law and Versus Law, allow these legal information seekers to access essential services for verifying case and statutory data at affordable prices. Over the last four year, both Lois Law and Versus Law services and databases have vastly improved, making them viable alternatives.
Having stated the cautions, we now point out some sites can be utilized with confidence IF one understands the site’s limitations and updating procedures. Most sites now list their sources, their updating frequency, and disclaimers. If the site does not list this information, ask.
Government sites include the Government Printing Office (GPO). GPO.gov contains daily updated U.S. Code & Federal Register Internet. The Library of Congress in on-line. The U.S. House of Representatives Office of Law Revision Counsel has a U.S. Code site. The EDGAR database of corporate information provides SEC information. State researchers looking for information on specific states, including registered agents can visit the Secretary of State’s sites. Visit Katsuey’s Legal Gateway Government Category for a long list of high quality government sites, then drop by the States Category to feast on the number of state, city and county governments now on-line.
What does the future hold? We see books and on-line services in the form we use them today disappearing over time. Why would anyone use bulky, single-user books, when for less cost, the future handheld computer’s 100 WBB (WholeBunchaBytes) storage unit will contain all the legal information, now housed in books? Our future vision of the Internet includes Boolean searches evolving into natural language queries, accurate and automatically looking for annotations and cites; comparative information available in any requested format; on-line searching and immediate updates a mere keystroke away. Before you view these visions as too futuristic, we remind you that only a few months ago, reliable cellular communications and pluggable terabyte storage chips were futuristic.
Old ways of doing business change. Martindale-Hubbell, in our opinion, realizes that their lawyer locator service is an easily replaceable dinosaur. Their solution? Meet the challenge by scrambling to find other ways to replace a previous revenue generator.
Still not convinced of the Internet’s promise? Ask your ten-year-old if she would rather look for information on the Internet or in a book. She already knows which is the fastest option and which provides the most descriptive and ancillary links. Books don’t hyperlink well. The new generation technology makes legal books passÃ©, just as the typewriter of yesteryear fell to the computer. Oh, typewriters are still around and have some uses, but not everyone needs or uses one these days.
WHY THE INTERNET IS AN ESSENTIAL SUPPLEMENT TO BOOKS AND ON-LINE SERVICES
The law changes daily, just as the resources used to find the law change. The effective legal researcher learns proficiency, utilizing all the tools available or faces being out-maneuvered on the case or in the courtroom.
In our specific example, we use a hypothetical legal practitioner handling his first (and he hopes not his last) Fen-Phen case. Our new practitioner, savvy enough not to reinvent the wheel by starting his own research from scratch, comes up to speed on Fen-Phen from major resource material available on-line through a law firm willing to share their research hours. Prior to finding case precedent, our now dry behind the ears practitioner reads the Mayo Clinic study which first openly revealed Valvular heart disease was associated with fenfluramine-phentermine.
Next, we guide our learning attorney to an article on the effect of Fen-Phen when taken alone compared with when taken with food and the effects of body weight, (example link no longer active) assisting Mr. Hypothetical in determining how these issues relate to his client. Mr. H quickly shares his knowledge with the firm’s newbie associates, telling them where to find medical information. On June 26, 1997, the National Library of Medicine announced that its Medline database of more than 8.8 million references to articles published in 3,800 biomedical journals may be accessed free of charge on the World Wide Web. Two Web-based products, Internet Grateful Med and PubMed, provide this access. HealthGate (not an active link) provides the ability to search Medline, the world’s largest biomedical database, six other databases, and display results – free.
GENERAL EXAMPLES OF WHERE THE INTERNET IS SUPERIOR TO BOOKS AND ON-LINE SERVICES
Internet advantages include more rapidly accessible information, more current information, general information sources, more contributors, and access from any location with virtually any equipment.
RAPIDLY ACCESSIBLE INFORMATION
Listservs contribute significantly to finding information. We are still amazed when we see a rapid response on listservs to an off-the-wall question or request for assistance. Clever legal professionals dramatically shorten searches by polling other listserv experts. While finding information, many times a practitioner fosters a mutually beneficial relationship which could not have come about from a one on one with a book.
CURRENT INFORMATION SITES
containing information on “hot legal topics” such as environment, tobacco, and sports have numerous sites updated almost instantaneously. Advertisers sometimes help fund these sites’ growth, allowing them to compete with larger commercial sites. Free Legal New sites abound and now allow for free media streaming directly to the practitioner’s desktop.
Numerous examples appeared in recent news stories demonstrating resourceful legal professionals finding information on the Internet which made their case and finished their opponent’s case. Actual examples include challenging a company’s claim to be a mom-and-pop by finding multiple branch locations on the Internet and settling a company name infringement case by doing a search on the company name and uncovering many similar companies. Internet searches disqualified jurors when the search revealed conflicting affiliations, interests, and statements. Try typing your name into dogpile.com or some of the individual search engines. You might be surprised at what comes up. We were. Better yet, your opponent might be surprised the next time you use it.
Discussion groups are available on every subject imaginable. Expert witnesses, government forms and information for tax returns, inheritance tax return forms from various states, corporate information, and the price of stocks can be located. Addresses and phone numbers of clerks of court and register of deeds in various counties and states can be retrieved. Many Secretaries of State now make their Databases available for searching on-line. Some Court dockets and pleadings are accessible through the Internet. Paralegals locate transfer agent names for a particular stock, their addresses, instructions and phone numbers, all through the Internet. Obituaries, blue book values for automobiles, current value of savings bonds purchased many years ago, instructions for contacting the Federal Reserve Bank and forwarding bonds, literature sources, and locations of people are still more types of information available. Financial information on a company, all sorts of government regulation reference materials, IRS forms, background information, statistics on verdicts and settlements are a search away.
Secondary sources abound, including periodicals, personal sites, humor, DejaNews, and listservs, such as TechnoLawyer, NetLawyers, and hundreds of lists through the ABA. DejaNews contains approximately a decade of archived searchable newsgroup messages. Also fueling the growth are law firms. Law firms discovered increased client base by providing quality information. Content-rich sites demonstrate firms’ expertise and concern for the public. Immigration, estate, and personal injury firms now scramble to provide high quality information. Everyone benefits.
Probate legal professionals pricing bonds for a decedent’s estate either write a letter to the Federal Reserve Bank and then begin the terminal wait, peppered with follow up letters, or, directly price bonds on line at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (no longer available).
THE INTERNET’S RAPID PROGRESS
The Internet is making great strides. Boolean and citation search capability are becoming more widespread. A typical example is North Carolina’s general state statutes now available and searchable using Folio Infobase Query Syntax. Findlaw hosts U.S. Supreme Court decisions since 1893 and Fourth Circuit decisions back to January 1995, searchable by full text, party name, and docket number. International research is available from many sources.
SPECIFIC RESEARCH USING A SAMPLE RESEARCH SITE
Oh, but you say finding all this information on the Internet is time-consuming and simply not as practical as using the well organized and categorized Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis. In the past, the faint at heart or those in touch with the cost of time, found research on the Internet impractically. Then came practitioners committed to utilizing the wealth of the Internet when it proved practical. Sites such as Findlaw, HierosGamos and Katsuey’s Legal Gateway sprung up, providing vast links organized by categories of law.
In summary, Internet legal research has progressed at impressive rates. Through time and the pioneer spirit, developing technology with a better grasp of the Internet’s immense capability legal researchers looking for the edge propel Internet usage forward. Competition between traditional research vendors and upstart Internet companies and sites speed the process. Don’t throw away the books, but do start planning their storage location.
Peggie Brown is a former Paralegal who currently is Internet Services Director of KatsueyDesignWorks, a full service custom web site development company, owner and operator of Katsuey’s Legal Gateway. Peggie also provides legal research and other paralegal services on a contract basis for local law firms and does educational presentations, seminars and training.