Features - Inundated with Offers for Legal Research Services on the Internet? Sorting Out the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Susan B. Hersch is the Firm Librarian of Hahn Loeser & Parks LLP.

If you’re like most attorneys, offers for Internet-based legal research services arrive with alarming frequency via e-mail, fax and print. You may also receive telephone solicitations. How do you decide if any of these services fit your needs? Here’s a “cross examination” list of questions to help you determine whether or not to make a purchase.

What Are Your Needs?

Determine what kind of information you want. Do you need statute, case, and legislative materials from multiple states? Where and how are you obtaining this information now? Is the information you currently use in print, on CD-ROM or other types of databases?

Are you thinking of using an Internet-based service because you don’t have enough space in your office for any more books? Will you keep your books if you decide to use an Internet service? If you use an outside source for research material, will you continue to use the outside source?

Is the Internet service going to replace or enhance what you already have?

Is the convenience of the Internet important? Do you have high-speed access to the Internet?

Evaluating Internet Based Legal Research Services

The Provider

How long has the service been in business? This question is usually answered on the provider’s Web site.

Does the site work better with Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator? If you access the Internet from AOL, MSN, or another fee for service Internet service provider, will there be difficulty in searching the legal service’s information? Are there any other specific technical requirements? Will the service work with different operating systems, for example, McIntosh or Linux? Do you need additional proprietary software to use this site?

Has the site ever been down for more than an hour? If so, has the subscriber been reimbursed?

Is there a relationship with another provider of legal information? If a larger provider of legal information is spinning off “slices” of its information to smaller, related Web-sites, this may enhance the reliability of the smaller site. It may also be a marketing effort of the larger provider to increase subscribers to its site.

Is the service merely providing links to other sources or has it truly created its own database?

Does the provider offer you a free password to look at and evaluate its site?

Is there banner advertising on the site? Advertising on a site may or may not be important to you. Advertising can be viewed as a positive sign by advertisers regarding the site or as a negative sign by users who feel that the site is compromised by the presence of advertisers.

What is the privacy policy? Is identifying information about you ever given or sold to others?

Coverage of the Information

What are the dates of coverage for the material you would be using most often? If the site does not provide information that goes back far enough, do you have another source for this information? Does the provider intend to add older material? If so, is there a schedule that indicates when this would be done?

How often is the site updated with current information? When updated information is added, is this flagged on the site or on the materials that you choose to search?

Are links provided to other legal sites that could be helpful to you?

Source of the Information

Who is providing the information that the service is selling? Is the source a government institution, a court, an academic institution?

If an Internet service is providing a link to a source, can you determine what the ultimate source is?

If a service is just providing links to other sites, will those links be there when you need them?

If an official cite is not provided for case material, how do you cite the Internet source?

Accuracy of the Information

Is the source of the information stated on the site?

If the source of the information is a Court or a government agency, is there a way to verify this?

Currency of the Information

Is there information indicating when the information you are looking at was last updated? Dates indicating when the site was last updated is not always indicative of when the information was last updated.

Is there a toll free telephone number to call to find out the currency of the information?

Search Engines

Most Web-based search engines are not as precise as a service that maintains its information in a data base. If your searching is straightforward, this may be not be of importance to you.

Searching may not be as flexible as from a service that maintains its own data base. Check to see if you can search using natural language, connectors, or segments.

Is a sorting of search results important to you? Search results in most Internet-based services do not return sorted by reverse chronologic order or by highest to lowest Court.

Is training available? Training should be provided as an on-line tutorial, via telephone, printed materials, or by a trainer at your office.

Is there a toll free number or e-mail where you can reach someone to answer your search questions? If there is, can your questions be answered quickly?

Cost

If a service meets your needs, what is the convenience worth?

Is pricing based on the number of attorneys in a firm, or can it be based on the likely number of users in a firm?

Are there discounts available? Can you receive a discount if you feel you do not need access to all the information that is available on a site? Can you purchase access to what you feel you need?

Does the service ask for payment without giving you a chance to look at its site?

What is a reasonable rate for a service that meets your needs?

You should evaluate a fee-for-service Web-site as you would when purchasing any product or making any investment. Decide what your needs are. Investigate the provider of the site and its policies regarding subscribers. Determine the coverage, source, accuracy and currency of the information on the site. Ascertain if the search engine meets your searching needs, and what a reasonable fee would be for a service that meets your needs. Keep this “cross-examination” in mind when weighing the pro’s and con’s of these Internet research offers to maximize your library and research investment.

Product Reviews on the Web

You can check the following Web sites and search for articles that review Internet-based legal services: 1) www.llrx.com, Law Library Resource Xchange, LLC, is a free Web resource, and 2) www.virtualchase.com, a site sponsored by the law firm of Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, LLP, in Philadelphia.

This article was originally published in the April 2001 issue of the Cleveland Bar Journal.