In late March, I will be presenting to the Fayette County Bar Association on the topic of Online Research Tools with an emphasis on free sources.  Yesterday, during a stimulating lunch conversation a fellow law firm librarian and I discussed the disparity between legal research in law school and law firms.

These two things have caused me to wonder if there is one way to influence the behavior of future attorneys and get researchers to  concentrate on cost-effective research?  Now my initial idea was to show the actual retail costs of a search to law students. The sticker shock in context of what they actually did should open eyes to possibilities.  Of course it could also scare them into a whole where they refused to reach beyond the easy, cheap results to find the unearthed gem even when it was essential to their work.

Now granted, I know next to nothing to how various law schools teach legal research.  The methods are probably as varied as the schools themselves.  What I do know, is that as a former firm librarian, bills that were beyond control in retail costs were shown to young associates and even partners, as warranted.  This simple demonstration of the cost of information was an effective means to getting attorneys signed up for sessions with our vendor training and our own planned training in the firm.  Or getting the attorney to call the library for their in-depth research because we could provide the results cost-effectively and allow them to spend their time analyzing the essential information.

Cost-effectiveness and time are two critical factors in online research for attorneys.  Hunting and pecking for that “free” resource is often not the best method for saving time and money on a project.  So the balance of the two is extremely important.

Firms that complement the in-depth resources offered by LexisNexis and Westlaw with the easy to use and sufficient resources on FastCase are providing a cost-effective tool.

Attorneys may complain about the need to be able to use all these different systems.  The reality is that most providers are taking their cue from Google and making search as easy as filling-in the box.

I personally have mixed feelings about that fill-in-the-box mentality.  If that’s all that we teach our attorneys and legal professionals to do, there’s a danger of mixed data and the reliance on a subset of results that could be lacking.  I’m not saying that the box isn’t great, it is.  What I’m saying is that we need to teach the reality of what it is that is being pulled out when the box is filled.

I’m looking forward to glimpsing WestlawNext in person, beyond this tutorial.  It sounds intriguing with the ease of use and the fill-in-box and the “work like you” concept that West is selling.

Jurisdiction and primary vs. secondary have always, and will, remain key factors in choosing the universe of legal materials that should be searched.   I just wonder how well those universes are defined to young attorneys.  Early in my career, I had an attorney who told me “No more or less than 20 results.”  He defined the universe narrowly, but he expected me to pull from the entire universe the best of what was available.

Aiming for the Gold

The box makes it easy to accept the first 20 as the best 20.  Or if you take the other approach: “I want to see everything that could possibly be relevant’ you have a wealth of organisms within the universe that must be analysed while keeping in mind the costs of the analysis.  To win the Gold in legal research, training should address both costs and time as well as the universe of sources that are and should be used.

Constance Ard February 23, 2010