Eight Reasons Solo Lawyers Should Use Law Libraries

Mary Whisner is assistant librarian for reference services at the Gallagher Law Library of the University of Washington and author of Trail Ad Notes.
One: Librarians

Libraries employ people whose job is to help you use the library and figure out your research puzzles. Law librarians specialize in legal materials and the needs of legal researchers. Many are legally trained. We keep up with new sources and techniques and can often save you hours in your research. What's more important to you than your time?

Librarians also create online guides to help you with your research. See my library's collection of guides, for instance. So we can help you with your research without ever meeting you - even at 2:00 a.m., if that's when you're looking for some research pointers.

Two: Books

You've got a limited budget and limited office space, so you don't buy every practice manual, looseleaf service, formbook, or treatise that might come in handy. Your local law library is a great resource. (If you find the book or set is really useful, then you can order it for your office collection.)

Even if you are very comfortable using online research, some sources are easier to use in print. Many people find it helpful to use annotated codes in print because of their layout. Sometimes you might use a database to find a source, but sit down with the print when it comes time to skim the whole chapter you need.

And remember that not everything is online (and certainly not everything is online free!).

Three: Databases

Many public law libraries subscribe to databases that lawyers and often members of the public can use free. Say you subscribe to a thrifty Westlaw or LexisNexis package that gives you access to your own state's laws and cases. When you need to research some other state's law, wouldn't it be great to be able to use the law library's subscription?
  • Some law libraries make databases available without charge.
  • Others charge on a cost-recovery basis. (Usually that's still a lot cheaper than getting your own subscription for occasional use.)

Some of the databases popular with the lawyers who use the law school library where I work are:

  • LegalTrac, an index of legal periodical articles, 1980-present.
  • Hein Online, a collection of pdf documents from a variety of sources. It includes hundreds of law journals (from the nineteenth century on!), Statutes at Large, the Federal Register, treaties, and federal legislative histories.
  • KeyCite, the component of Westlaw that enables researchers to check the history of a case, statute, or other document and find citing references.
  • RIA CheckPoint, a rich source of tax and accounting material.
  • BNA, a wide range of newsletters and databases, including BNA publications in tax, labor, and health.

Nonlegal databases. Ever need economics, business, scientific, or medical information? The law library might have access. If not, your public library or local university library is a great source for nonlegal information.

You can test drive databases before you decide to subscribe.

Four: Audiovisual materials

  • Want a DVD on cross-examination? How about an audiotape to review a subject while you're in your car? Many law libraries have them.
  • Some law libraries (e.g., the State Law Library of Montana) maintain collections of AV materials you can use for CLE credit.

Five: Space

  • One attraction of solo practice is getting to work in your own special space and wear your bathrobe while you're drafting motions. But what if you want a change of scenery? The law library provides you with a fresh place to work - and maybe a fresh outlook.
  • Many county law libraries also have conference rooms that you can reserve for meetings with clients or colleagues. Pretty neat if you don't want them to see your ironing board and that lunatic cat in your home office.
  • Location, location, location. Most county law libraries are right in the courthouse. What a great place to gather your thoughts before you argue your motion.

Six: Networking

  • When you're in a firm or a government agency, you often pick up a lot at the water cooler. You can bounce ideas off your colleagues and hear what projects they're involved with. That's a little harder for solo practitioners. But at the law library, you'll run into law school classmates, former coworkers, and other acquaintances in the legal community.
  • Who knows? The contacts you keep up might even lead to referrals for you.

Seven: Services at a Distance

  • Law libraries also offer other services when you're away from the library, such as telephone or email reference (or even instant messaging reference).
  • The law library can help you even when you're in your office or on the road.
  • Many law libraries offer a document delivery service, and can send you copies of material for a fee. If it would take an hour of your time to drive here to get the document, it's a bargain to pay $20 to have it faxed to you.

    Eight: Training

  • Many law libraries offer training, sometimes with CLE credits.
  • For instance, the King County Law Library offers classes on Casemaker, Loislaw, LexisNexis, Westlaw, Word, using the Internet for legal research, skip tracing, and more.

Where do you go?

  • Many counties have county law libraries whose mission is to serve the public and the bar. Generally, the bigger cities have bigger libraries with bigger staffs and more services.
  • Each state has a state law library (serving state agencies and courts, but often serving attorneys in the state as well).
  • Some federal court law libraries are open to attorneys or the public as a courtesy of the judges.
  • Some law school libraries (like mine) are open to the public.
  • Some law school libraries are open to attorneys or alumni of the school, sometimes for a membership fee.
  • Some cities are served by members-only ("subscription") law libraries, such at the Social Law Library in Boston.

Follow the librarian credo: Just ask! You might be surprised what the public law library can do for you!

By the way, public law libraries welcome your support, financial and otherwise. If you benefit from your local law library, consider making a donation. If you decide to weed your shelves of some CLE materials and handbooks, make a call to see if the law library could use them.