Tech Audit

Beyond The Books

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West Publishing was founded by John B. West in 1872. That year, Jesse James was robbing banks; the first black woman lawyer graduated from Howard University Law School; Susan B. Anthony voted for the first time, but was served with an arrest warrant; and Ulysses S. Grant was re-elected president.

In the 134 years since, there were 25 more presidents and innumerable technological advances, but not much happened in the delivery of law—until the past few decades.

Had the Internet existed in 1872, West Publishing may never have been created. The original purpose of West was to make judicial opinions available in a timely fashion to the lawyers that needed them. Today, most appellate courts post their opinions on the Web, without charge, nearly simultaneous with the filing. And it is not unusual for those Web sites to be searchable.

The Basics and the Databases

What does that mean for practicing lawyers, major publishers and the administration of justice? Lawyers now have choices. Any lawyer with an Internet connection can—probably without additional charge—access nearly all the basic law (statutes and case law) in his or her jurisdiction. Publishers also have choices: Add value or die.

So, if you are hanging up your first shingle and on a tight budget, you can get by without books and without a high-cost electronic subscription. Perhaps the most focused and productive use of limited library funds is an economical digital-research plan combined with selective acquisition of treatises in specialized practice areas. At least one unannotated state code is nice to have in book form, plus the rules of any court in which a lawyer regularly practices.

What constitutes an economical digital-research plan may be a narrow, limited plan from Lexis or Westlaw, or a broad plan from one of the budget databases. If you want one place to go for research, there are inexpensive electronic services available, including Fastcase, Loislaw and VersusLaw.

For about what you used to pay for the print copies of your regional reporters from West (or a wee bit more), you can now have fantastic value-added service from LexisNexis or Thomson’s West.

Theoretically that value-added was always present in Lexis and Westlaw, but in the past you needed to be a power user to draw it out. The organization of these two power databases and of the Internet graphical interfaces to them have evolved so that any lawyer with average research sense and minimal computer skills can be a power researcher. Westlaw’s interface now sleekly provides palette-type access to quick printing or e-mailing of multiple citations and KeyCites, as well as to narrowing searches to specific practice areas. Retained is its tabbed main search area for different kinds of customized searching of particular databases (such as specific states or federal searches depending on your plan and most likely searches). Palette access extends to preferences and alerts for new cases in specific areas (based on “auto-KeyCites” of designated decisions at designated intervals). The interface is like comfort food.

Getting Attached

Lexis has similar utility to Westlaw, at maybe a little lower price (depending upon the plan), in a little different manner. That utility seems better for some purposes and not as good for others.

For instance, Lexis limits e-mailing results as attachments to three addresses. This is kind of silly since, depending on your e-mail setup, it is easy to create group e-mail addresses. Date restrictions in searches are easier in Lexis but not difficult in Westlaw.

Unlike Westlaw, Lexis’ e-mailed authority does not preserve hyperlinks. But for us, in Lexis it was easier to paste material (with the links preserved) directly from a Web browser into our own databases. Results obtained by Lexis’ Get & Print provide active hyperlinks, but they require a separate login.

Some tasks in Lexis require downloading add-in programs, rather than building functionality into the standard interface. That’s a negative, even though you only do it once per machine.

Still, it is easier to set up on-the-fly searches of multiple jurisdictions in Lexis than in Westlaw (for example, three or four states’ cases). Lexis can spell-check a search. Overall, the Westlaw interface seems more sleek. The databases in both services are rock-solid.

All the digital research services could use more development to enhance the ability to browse statutes and treatises, but that could be a column (or a book) in itself. Both Lexis and Westlaw (and even some of the state Supreme Court sites) are great for browsing cases, particularly if you are nimble with a Web browser.

We particularly like the tabbed features of the Firefox browser for viewing multiple cases: Receive an e-mail that six cases were filed today; right-click six times and load all six cases simultaneously in separate tabs in the same window. And after you browse one, exit the tab and go to the next.

Bottom line: Acquire what you know you will use. The true definition of affordable is what pays for itself, makes you more competitive, improves your work product and lets you sleep better at night.

For the administration of justice, the news is good: the prospect of universal access to the law. It is fast, and it is free or nearly free.

Not since Moses came down from the mountain has the delivery of law been so available.

David Beckman and David Hirsch practice in the law firm of Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa. Contact Beckman by e-mail at [email protected] or Hirsch at [email protected]

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