ByShawn G. Nevers
Shawn G. Nevers teaches legal research and is head of reference services at the Howard W. Hunter Law Library at Brigham Young University.
Unfortunately, however, it’s easy to get through law school with little understanding of the real-world costs of legal research. As a law student, Westlaw and Lexis are virtually handed to you on a silver platter. Your library pays for access, so you never see a bill. Not only that, but Westlaw and Lexis give you lots of free stuff, in effect paying you for using their service. No wonder it’s often a slap in the face for students when cost becomes a reality during the summer or upon graduation.
The truth is that Westlaw and Lexis cost lawyers a lot of money. And I mean a lot. Many employers try to pass these costs along to clients, but that just means a client will be paying for how good a researcher you are. Not always a comforting thought if you’re not that good.
Costs are simply a reality of legal research in practice. You can prepare for that world by becoming a cost-effective researcher. Here are some tips to help.
Practice while you can afford it. A cost-effective researcher is one who gets the job done efficiently without sacrificing competence. Learning to be that kind of researcher requires practice. Sure, you’ll get practice over the summer and during your career as a lawyer, but why not learn to use Westlaw and Lexis efficiently while they’re free to you?
Too many law students take the “ignorance is bliss” approach. They don’t have to worry about the costs of legal research in law school, so they don’t worry about researching efficiently. Unfortunately, they’re missing out on a golden opportunity to practice. And, what’s worse, they develop bad research habits in the process. You’ll become a much better researcher if you take time in law school to practice researching efficiently. Start today.
Understand costs at your job. One of the keys to being a cost-effective researcher is understanding what you have to work with. Instead of just finding out that your employer uses Lexis, find out what databases on Lexis you’ll have access to. Your employer may only have access to federal and state primary material on Lexis. Knowing this can help you avoid getting into out-of-plan resources, which cost additional money.
It’s also a useful idea to find out how your employer pays for legal research and how they bill their clients. Does your employer have a flat-rate contract with Westlaw where they pay a fixed amount each month or do they pay by the search or by the minute? Do they bill clients for the research or do they eat the research costs themselves? Knowing the answers to these types of questions can help you navigate research costs and makes you a more cost-effective researcher.
Use free and low-cost alternatives. Despite what law school suggests, there are alternatives to Westlaw and Lexis. And they cost a lot less. These sources can be a great place to start your research and can help you find some good stuff before you head to the more expensive databases.
For example, Google Scholar has a good database of court opinions and a powerful search engine. This combination produces very good results that are likely to give you some good cases to begin a research project. Not to mention you can’t beat the price.
My experience has been that, so far, Google Scholar is underutilized for case law research in practice. I’ve had reports from several of my former students who taught their supervising attorneys about it last summer. The supervising attorneys were surprised it existed and impressed by the results it produced.
While Google Scholar lacks statutes, other free resources can help fill that void. Fastcase is a legal research database that provides iPhone/iPad and Android apps with free access to case law and statutes. These apps have been very popular with lawyers, especially those that do research on the go.
The full version of Fastcase is available for a low-cost subscription or may be available to you through your state bar association as a member benefit. Fastcase and Casemaker are currently competing for the state bar association market and nearly all state bars offer one or the other. That means wherever you practice it’s likely you’ll have access to one of these legal databases. Get to know them.
There are also a number of other free or low-cost alternatives to Westlaw and Lexis that you may want to look into. Some examples are Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, Loislaw, VersusLaw, FindLaw, and various state and federal government websites.
It’s impossible to break down the details of each of these resources because they are all unique. Some are quite basic, while others are more robust. Some are a joy to look at, while others could have been designed in a fifth-grade technology class. There are, however, some common tips about free and low-cost legal research resources that you should be aware of.
First, check your content and coverage. Free and low-cost sources never have the extent of content or coverage that LexisNexis or Westlaw do. Google Scholar, for example, has cases but not statutes. Most state court websites only contain cases from the mid-1990s to the present. You get the picture. Get in the habit of checking free and low-cost sources for content and coverage so you know what you’re searching.
Next, learn how to search. There are very few differences in searching between LexisNexis and Westlaw. Both offer natural language as well as terms and connectors searching. Both have nearly identical connectors, which allow you to move fairly easily between each service. That’s not always the case with free and low-cost options.
Take some time to understand how to search these resources. Look for a “search tips” link or some other document that explains how searching works and lists the applicable connectors. If you gain an understanding of how to search effectively on the free and low-cost sources, you won’t be as frustrated that you can’t use LexisNexis and Westlaw the same way you could in law school.
Finally, love them for what they are. Free and low-cost alternatives are simply not LexisNexis and Westlaw. They have their weaknesses. If you can accept their limitations, you’re more likely to be grateful for what they can offer instead of being frustrated at what they can’t.
Free and low-cost resources have a limited amount of editorial or value-added material. You will rarely find statutory annotations or treatises in these resources, nor will you find anything like Westlaw’s Topics and Key Numbers. Additionally, while some of these resources offer citators, they are not as detailed or as useful as Shepard’s and KeyCite. But the lack of these things is what makes these resources affordable. Keeping this in mind will help keep things in perspective.
Learning to become a cost-effective researcher is an important skill for all lawyers. And when dealing with the costs of legal research, less ignorance equals more bliss.