Legal Practice Tips

3 Thrifty Tools

Legal research for the rest of us

By Barry D. Bayer

There's a lot to do on the Internet, but for any lawyer, computer-assisted legal research should be key. Although Lexis and Westlaw still have more primary sources and better search tools than anyone else, they are, of course, the most expensive. Computer-assisted legal research availability has broadened. This column looks at two new sites that will be of interest to any lawyer, and takes another look at the revived Loislaw.

THE NATIONAL LAW LIBRARY
The National Law Library (NLL) purports to offer 'affordable legal research' with 'the essential case law and statutes that you need at the lowest possible price.' Depending on your definition of 'affordable' and 'essential,' NLL seems to deliver just what it promises.

NLL claims statutes, legal forms and at least 50 years of court decisions in all 50 states; I didn't check every jurisdiction, but coverage seems at least close to the claims.

To begin research, the user selects the jurisdiction and file to search, then enters search terms and chooses whether to treat two terms as connected with AND, OR, AND NOT, or to treat them as a phrase.

The user can also enter the search terms in a complex Boolean expression, but constructing a search according to NLL's rather strict and unforgiving syntax - each operator preceded by a backslash, each search to begin with a parentheses and a space, a space between each term and so forth - proved tedious; it took me five tries to get my first, relatively simple, search request accepted.

Each entry on the resulting hit list has a case name and either West reporter and official reporter citations or, for more recent cases, an official court case number and what looks to be a slip opinion. In cases with reporter citations, referenced opinions are hyperlinked if the referenced case is in the database.

NLL costs $34 per month for the state cases and statutes from one state, and $50 for the material from one state and the federal library. The federal library includes complete coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court cases, the United States Code, cases from the U.S. Courts of Appeals from all of the Circuits, Rules of the U.S. Supreme Court, Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence. All 50 states plus federal material is $75 per month. These charges are for one user at a time; significant discounts are given for additional concurrent users.

Coverage is not completely up to date and NLL doesn't have a lot of frills, but the pricing seems reasonable. If the major-company, computer-assisted legal research offerings are too expensive, and the $6.95 per month Versuslaw or the free five years of cases from Lexisone just doesn't have what you need, I suggest you point your Browser to www.itislaw.com, and take a look.

INSTACASE
Instacase digests court decisions from nine states, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, and posts each digest, and a link to the full text of each opinion, on official court Websites, or semi-official sites such as Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute's archive of U.S. Supreme Court opinions.

Check out the news and cases of the day. Or search the archive, selecting specific jurisdictions and case type. Chances are that your state is not currently available, but we're told that the developer will be including more states, and the rest of the federal appellate courts in the future.

The digests and links are archived and searchable for only 90 days. InstaCase is for current cases and doesn't pretend to do more.

All of this is available free of charge. But if you're willing to part with $100 a year, InstaCase will send a daily e-mail of iGests (for Internet Digests) of all opinions from the covered jurisdictions; if 'all opinions' leads to information overload, you can select a subset of the coverage, designating the jurisdictions and case types of interest.

If you are currently paying for a computer-assisted legal research system, you probably can get a clipping service that provides similar information at little or no cost.

Even so, you may wish to determine whether Instacase covers your jurisdiction or otherwise provides useful information. (The site does cover Delaware, and therefore may be useful for corporate lawyers throughout the country.) Even if there isn't enough to justify paying for the iGests, it may be useful to run a free search once a week, just to see what is there.

The URL is www.instacase.com.

LOISLAW
When Loislaw.com went public a couple of years ago, the market viewed it not as a legal publisher but as a dot-com, and priced the stocks extraordinarily high, considering the company's size and earnings history. Live by the dot-com market, die by the dot-com market, but Loislaw.com seems to be flourishing since its purchase earlier this year by Wolters Kluwer.

Loislaw has now added GlobalCite, an attempt to compensate for lack of a traditional citator service such as the old line Shepard's citator or West's more recent KeyCite. GlobalCite is not really a citator, but does a search in all Loislaw databases for the document being viewed.

A GlobalCite report doesn't give the nuanced, pinpoint listings and status flags of the Lexis or West citator, but it does at least provide some modicum of information to the attorney beginning research on a matter, with nothing but a case citation.

The second new feature is coverage of the most difficult to cover courts in American law, the federal district courts and the bankruptcy courts. The company is adding new cases as they come down, but is attempting to add older cases that have been cited by higher federal courts or state courts.

Both the district court and the bankruptcy coverage are intended to be inclusive, beginning with the year 2000; selective district court cases begin in 1932, with selective bankruptcy coverage in 1979.

Loislaw pricing has bounced around a lot over the years. It was incredibly inexpensive in the early days, but of course the database didn't have full coverage then. Current pricing begins at $79 a month for single-state coverage to $179 for the entire national collection not including the district court or bankruptcy cases. Add $20 to any other pricing for the district court cases, and $79 for district court and bankruptcy cases. Thus everything on the system can be purchased for about $260 a month.

All of these prices are for one user at a time, and significant discounts are available for multiple concurrent users. While these prices don't seem unreasonable for the material offered, it certainly asks solo or small firm lawyers to pay almost in the range of what they would for the big two. I suggest that before signing up with Loislaw, you should check with both Lexis and Westlaw.

The URL, of course, is www.loislaw.com.

ONE MORE WORD ABOUT PRICING
There are lot of differences in collections and research facilities in the various computer-assisted legal research companies. If you pay more, you usually get more. I don't think that legal research capability has become a commodity, but cases or codes within the given time periods are usually at least similar.

But the computer-assisted legal research companies are alike in one way: Pricing is always confusing and these companies do offer deals. While I know of no specific deals with any of the mentioned computer-assisted legal research companies, I always suggest you ask your salesperson whether any special deals are available before signing up. It can't hurt, and it might lead to significant savings.

SUMMARY
Instacase provides free current awareness case digests for nine states, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. E-mail versions are available at $100 per year.

National Law Library has low-cost, no-frills 50 years of coverage for 50 states, and usable coverage for federal appellate cases.

Loislaw.com, having added federal district court and bankruptcy cases and with foreign ownership, is now squarely in the computer-assisted legal research big leagues. I like the offerings, but if you're pricing Loislaw, you ought to see what is available on Lexis and Westlaw for a similar price. +


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Barry D. Bayer practices law and writes about computers from his office in Homewood, Ill. You may send comments or questions to his e-mail address bayer@lawtechreview.com or write c/o Law Office Technology Review, P.O. Box 2577, Homewood, Ill. 60430. Reprinted with permission from Law Office Technology Review, April 24, 2001.


return to top
return to Table of Contents