Dollars and Sense

Posted on Categories Legal Education, Legal Practice, Legal Research

I was scanning the Legal Writing Prof Blog this afternoon, and I noticed a post stating that, in an effort to save money, one large law firm is now requiring its attorneys to use Loislaw, rather than Lexis or Westlaw, for some of their research.  Evidently, the firm has imposed a three-part policy:

  • All non-billable legal research involving case law, statutes, or regulations at both the state and federal level should first be performed using Loislaw.
  • Loislaw should also be used for billable research where appropriate, resulting in a much lower cost to the client.
  • If additional research is required on Lexis or Westlaw, that research must be billed to a client/matter.

This post raised two issues for me.  First, it made me think about what sources I should be including in my first-year courses.

To date, my coverage in the first year has largely been limited to print sources, Lexis, Westlaw, and some court websites (though my use of “limited to” is somewhat misleading, since introducing 1Ls to all of those sources is not really a “limited” introduction to research).  I have not generally introduced Loislaw or other free or lower-cost electronic sources, in part because there just isn’t time to teach everything in the first year, but also because, although I do provide some instruction on how to use Lexis and Westlaw, I hope that what students really learn in the first year is less about any particular product than it is about how to conduct efficient legal research, generally.  Finally, I have the luxury of knowing that all MULS students are required to take an Advanced Legal Research course, so their legal research instruction will not begin and end with my course.

Second, the post confirmed for me the importance of teaching cost-effective research strategies, even in the first year of law school. Several years ago, I began incorporating information about the cost of online research into my spring course.  For their second trial briefs, I require students to keep a time sheet, track their hours, and also track the costs of their online research.  (The Lexis and Westlaw vendors provide me with ballpark pricing for the databases and services students are likely to use.)  Students are often surprised and pleased to learn that if they put some thought into their searches, online research does not have to be prohibitively expensive.  Here are just a few of the lessons my students seem to have learned based on what I saw in their timesheet exercise:

1.  Make good use of the resources available.  If your firm has a librarian, ask the librarian for research leads.  If the firm doesn’t have a librarian, call the MULS reference desk, or call the reference attorneys from Lexis or Westlaw.  Also make sure that if your firm has invested in a print library, you make use of those resources when appropriate rather than going online immediately.

2.  Plan your research before you begin.  Think about relevant sources and potential search terms.  Consider whether certain searches would be more efficient in print or online.

3.  Careful note-taking is essential.  You cannot afford to retrace your steps every time you turn back to a research project.  You need to know what ground you have already covered to save time and money.

4.  Using secondary sources in print can be a helpful first step.  You incur no charges other than your hourly fee to skim some secondary sources to get an overview of an area of law, learn the relevant terminology, and get some research leads into primary materials.

5.  Topic searching (using an index, table of contents, headnote, or key number) in print or online can be a better starting place than term searching (searching for very specific fact patterns online).  And if you begin your topic searching in print, you may learn some terminology or topic and key numbers that give you a head start on your online searches.

6.  Careful database selection can save money.  There is no reason to choose a database that collects the cases from every state if you’re really interested in law from one particular state.  In general, the bigger the database, the higher the cost, both in terms of how much the vendors charge to search that database and in terms of how much time you spend sifting through the results.

Hat tips: Legal Writing Prof Blog and AboveTheLaw Blog.

4 thoughts on “Dollars and Sense”

  1. I wonder if the legal research fees saved will be offset by the billable time expended falling down the rabbit hole that is %#$%* LoisLaw. (Yep. It’s been a year and I still hate it.)

  2. I think that students at Marquette get a healthy dose of alternatives to Lexis and Westlaw in their Advanced Legal Research courses. In my Federal Advanced Legal Research course, we talk about how to use the free or low cost resources like Fastcase, Thomas, GPOAccess (soon to be FDsys) in conjunction with subscription databases. I spend very little class time demonstrating how to use Lexis or Westlaw. I may post slides to the course home page that explain how to access a particular database or how to use a particular tool if I think the students need extra assistance. However, I expect that students will be comfortable with the databases by the time I see them in my Advanced Legal Research course, which is often after they have already worked as Research Assistants, as volunteers in the clinic, as interns with local agencies or as clerks at law firms. I prefer to spend class time exploring legal research processes and how they may be applied using both the alternative resources and the subscription databases. For example, in my class today, we spent a good amount of time on Fastcase. Fastcase is free for State Bar of Wisconsin members and as a result it is important that our students can make educated decisions on how to use the database. The students evaluated Fastcase’s primary law databases, noting the concerns about the currency of the code databases and the drawbacks of using the Authority Check feature as a citator. The students then worked through an exercise demonstrating how they might use Fastcase to identify relevant case law or statutory authority and then Shepard’s or KeyCite to make sure those cases and statutes are valid.
    The feedback I get from former students on this approach has been largely positive. Most of the students seem to appreciate entering the workforce armed with the ability to make informed choices about how to use free or low cost research tools alongside Lexis and Westlaw.

  3. Everyone makes good points, but I want to underscore Stacie’s comment. Westlaw is very good. In particular, it’s natural language searches are very robust for practitioners with the experience or expertise to know how to phrase the question and how to assess whether what comes back is significant. Use of West’s key numbers – at least for those of us who once relied on them on dead tree as a major source – is a great way to make sure that you’ve got it. There are few discrete questions that I can’t answer on Westlaw in a matter of minutes and I can get a dump of relevant cases and scholarship on larger questions in a period of time for which the charges are immaterial relative to the costs of lawyer time.

    I have no consulting relationship with Westlaw and have had no financial relationship with West other than writing them checks.

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