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.