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Features - Using the Internet for Practice Group Services

By Donna Cavallini, Published on June 15, 1998
Donna F. Cavallini is a Research Librarian with the law firm of Kilpatrick Stockton in Atlanta.  She has a J.D. from St. Louis University School of Law, and was Library Program Administrator for the Florida Attorney General's Office prior to moving to Atlanta.

 

 

...the librarian's role is to assist patrons in harnessing the power of the Internet to improve their practice.

The telecommunications age has created expectations of immediate answers to research questions. Lawyers, even those with considerable subject-area expertise and years of practical experience, simply do not have the time to evaluate materials to discern what is significant, current and reliable from what is unimportant, dated and suspect. Law librarians are needed to make judgments about information, and nowhere is this more true than with respect to the Internet.

The Internet will never replace existing online services because of some very basic issues, including quality of information, currency, and problematic data formats, over and above the ephemeral nature of the Internet.   The fact that the Internet freely makes available a vast array of primary legal materials, agency documents, reference works and news, all accessible via the search engine of one's choosing, means that it has earned a permanent place as one of the big guns in the librarian's arsenal. Understanding these positive and negative points, the librarian's role is to assist patrons in harnessing the power of the Internet to improve their practice. Although this can be done on an ad hoc basis, guiding individual attorneys and legal assistants to the resources which will help them with specific projects, the librarian's responsibility to the firm as a whole is better fulfilled by offering macroinformatic services aimed at individual practice groups; practice-specific seminars, current awareness services, and marketing/client development projects.

Practice-Specific Seminars

Seminars tailored to the specific needs of individual practice groups are an excellent way to educate practitioners about Internet resources of interest. In preparing to speak authoritatively and cogently to a firm audience in these presentations, not only will the librarian become better acquainted with already-familiar sites, but also possibly discover several new sites to add to an existing bookmark collection.

Experience in conducting a number of these seminars in the last two years, for practice groups ranging from environmental to securities and litigation, shows it is clear that while information needs and resources may differ depending on the practice group, the methodology is the same.  Identify the best of the various Internet resources in a particular subject area, including listservs and usenet groups, and explain the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet as a whole and those of the particular resources recommended. For instance, attorneys will want to know that with respect to the Federal Register, the GPO Gate site is preferable to the GPO Access site because of the additional functionality that the GPO Gate interface offers, namely the ability to specify that words appear in the title of the document, and the ability to access finding tools such as the Table of Contents and CFR Parts Affected pages (by date).

Similarly, with the proliferation of sites offering access to the Securities and Exchange Commission's EDGAR filings, practitioners will want to know that the FreeEDGAR site is preferable because of its currency (only FreeEDGAR gives you real-time access to SEC filings at no charge), and that EDGAROnline has a search template page which allows for greater flexibility and more controlled searching than the more rudimentary interface available at the official SEC Website search page.

GPO Gate

 

GPO Access

 

FreeEDGAR

 

EDGAROnline

 

SEC Website search page

Litigator's Internet Resource Guide: Rules of Court

Guide to Environmental Resources on the Internet

Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts

National Association of Secretaries of State Administrative Codes and Registers

Lyonette Louis-Jacques' Law Lists

Usenet Group list

In addition, whenever possible, it is advisable to recommend master sites which attempt to list all links in a particular area.   It is extremely inefficient for practitioners to create bookmark after bookmark of links to individual but related resources, as one can expect that the administrators of the master link sites will update their pages to reflect the availability of new resources. Some fine examples of these master resource link lists include Genie Tyburski's excellent collection of rules of court in her Litigator's Internet Resource Guide: Rules of Court; a comprehensive Guide to Environmental Resources on the Internet; the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts collection of links to federal courts on the Web; and the National Association of Secretaries of State Administrative Codes and Registers table page.

To identify practice-specific listservs and Usenet groups for inclusion in a presentation, remember to consult Lyonette Louis-Jacques' Law Lists and the related Usenet Group list.   These are important current awareness tools for legal professionals because they are the obvious choice for discussions of hot legal issues, and because they regularly contain references to useful new practice-specific internet sites. Librarians themselves should consider subscribing to those lists and regularly consulting those usenet groups which are directly relevant to their own legal subject-specific interests.

As a practical matter, there are several techniques to keep an audience's attention focused on the presentation and not falling prey to post-prandial somnolence, if, as is often the case, a seminar is scheduled as a luncheon presentation. First, a live link to the Internet demonstrating the various features of each site is preferable to a PowerPoint slide show.  While the slide show does have the advantage of keeping the presentation focused on key points, it will not generate as many questions or as much interest as will actual visit to the sites being discussed. Second, provide a handout of the URLs for all recommended sites, along with a brief description of each, or better still, email the document to each attendee, so that they may easily cut and paste the addresses into their browsers. This will ensure that they pay attention to what is being shown, rather than spending time jotting down site addresses. Third, maintain a little mystery! Tell the audience at the beginning of the presentation, particularly where the group is a large one, that there will be one or two powerful resources discussed at the end of the presentation which are not on the handouts, and that they must stay to learn what they are.

The usefulness of these terrific collections of Internet links does not end when the presentation is over, of course. Consider making it part of the firm's orientation program to provide new legal personnel, summer associates in particular, with a collection of links for their specific practice group; this will help them hit the ground running and firmly establish the library's service orientation from the outset.

...provide a handout of the URLs for all recommended sites, along with a brief description of each, or better still, email the document to each attendee, so that they may easily cut and paste the addresses into their browsers.

 

CNN Interactive

 

Excite's NewsTracker

 

NetPartner Company Locator

 

Centraal Corporations's Real Name

 

AltaVista

 

PR Newswire

 

American City Business Journals

 

AltaVista

 

PR Newswire

 

To Catch a Client, or the Competition

 

Hoover's Industry Snapshots

 

Yahoo's Market Guide by industry

 

Yahoo's Market Guide by market

 

Current awareness services traditionally has meant clipping of news items, and although such services as CNN Interactive and Excite's NewsTracker have been described as clipping services, the designation is an uncomfortable one at best. Although both sites allow the user to customize information retrieved, both also require that the user actually login to access the information, and neither service offers automatic delivery (i.e., via an email address), which would seem to be a prerequisite for a clipping service.

Current awareness services need not be limited to clipping of news items, however. When Internet explorations lead to the discovery of a site or a document which would be of interest to an entire practice group, take a moment to compose an email message which alerts the group to the existence and location of the resource. Being careful not to inundate practitioners and selective in sending notices about quality information sources will establish credibility and ensure that notices will be read with eagerness because they are practical.

Marketing/Client Development

Finally, practice group needs can also be served by using the internet to assist with marketing and client development projects. If a particular company is the subject of inquiry, the Internet can be mined to prepare a background information packet on the company. Finding a company home page is a simple matter with the NetPartner Company Locator database, which uses the Internic's list of registered domain names as the underlying database.

Centraal Corporation's RealName service, available as a link from the AltaVista search page, appears to be another promising resource for this purpose, although its only recent debut renders any definitive pronouncement speculative at best. If the company is publicly traded, obtain securities filings from one of the sites listed supra; 10Ks, company annual reports, will provide detailed company financial data, officers and directors, etc. Current news items can be obtained from many sources, but two of particular note for business purposes are PR Newswire and the site for American City Business Journals. For other miscellaneous items, scan the Web using a traditional search engine, such as AltaVista. Also check out Genie Tyburski's article, To Catch a Client, or the Competition, which offers a step-by-step approach to mining the Web for useful corporate intelligence, with links to suggested sites and readings. If the project involves identifying companies in a particular target industry, Hoover's Industry Snapshots offers excellent industry overviews, including links to other industry-related sites of interest, plus listings of companies covered by Hoover's. Yahoo's Market Guide also offers information on companies related by industry and by market sector

The information explosion precipitated by the rapid growth of the Internet has created a need for librarians to become information intermediaries. Unlike the librarians of even a generation ago, whose role was more custodial, directing rather than selecting, librarians today are uniquely positioned to make significant contributions to the improvement of productivity, efficiency and ultimately firm competitive advantage by providing information customized to specific needs. But addressing the information needs of the individual practitioner is no longer sufficient; librarians must now direct their efforts to satisfying the macroinformatic needs of the firm as well.