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Extras - Trends and Developments in Legal Research

By Ellen Quinn, Published on July 21, 2003

Ellen Quinn is Director of Library and Information Resources, Calfee, Halter & Griswold LLP, Cleveland, OH 


The world of legal information is in a state of continuous change. Law firm librarians and other legal researchers find themselves using a variety of sources in an array of formats. Some researchers long for the simpler days of print research supplemented by Lexis and Westlaw. Others yearn for a research world with everything available from one, easy to use online source. Ten years ago, some thought that the information overload could not continue. To the contrary, information overload continues which presents tremendous challenges those on the front lines of legal research.

What do the experts have to say about trends and developments in legal research?

Below are the thoughts and insights of some of the trendsetters in world of legal research and legal publishing on the web, and in print.

Cheryl Nyberg, reference librarian at the Gallagher Law Library at the University of Washington Law School, is the author and co-publisher of the bibliographic series, Subject Compilations of State Laws. Cheryl was the 2001 recipient of the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Marta Lange/CQ Award for this publication. As a distinguished author as well as an experienced teacher/reference librarian, Cheryl had some interesting insights into trends in legal research. When she began the Subject Compilation series, she believed that the development of sources on Lexis and Westlaw would make state survey bibliographies such as hers obsolete. This has not been the case. In fact, a trend in legal research sources has been the continuing need for these sources and an increase in the numbers of book-length treatment of state survey topics. Nyberg sees this continuing need for survey information resulting from the lack of standardized vocabulary in state statutes. Also, she believes that the need for guidance and interpretation has been strong in this area.

She also sees a growing development of Tables of Contents information online. Lexis and Westlaw have both added index information to their online treatises, as well as more detail and functionality to their online tables of contents. Nyberg sees a trend toward access of materials versus ownership. The growth of web-based electronic resources, and the replacement of print is a growing trend. Electronic resources such as databases and electronic treatises are typically acquired in a manner that is significantly different from books. Licenses of electronic resources frequently leave you with nothing once the subscription is cancelled, unlike print sources where you at least have the back issues you acquired during the subscription period.

Sabrina I. Pacifici has been a law firm library director in Washington, D.C. for over 20 years, and designed and manages her company's firmwide research intranet, as well as a CyberLaw website for her firm.  In 1996, she created the free webzine LLRX.com, a monthly publication that includes articles, guides and resources authored by expert law librarians, lawyers and information professionals on: online legal research services, sites, tools and applications, legal research training, legal marketing, international and comparative law guides, recommended books, and reviews of the latest tech gadgets. LLRX.com includes a searchable database archive of all content published since 1996, and the site also provides an RSS feed.

In January, 2003 Pacifici launched a daily current awareness and monitoring website on law and technology news, called beSpacific. The site is a weblog, and has a database of over 2,000 topical postings which users can easily search on issues that include copyright, privacy, the Patriot Act, library net filtering, knowledge management, search engines, ID theft, freedom of information, and more.  Sabrina sees a continued focus on areas that include privacy, freedom of information, copyright and e-mail (spam), and that these issues will increasingly be the subject of state and federal legislative initiatives in response to escalating public/consumer awareness and the efforts of government agency's such as the FTC, and of advocacy groups that include EPIC, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and the Creative Commons.

Trends to watch include the growing adoption and implementation of weblogs (by lawyers and librarians) and wikis in the library and corporate/firm environment. These applications facilitate timely, user-friendly collaboration, communication and information and resource sharing efforts specific to clients, individual law firm practice areas, marketing and research/knowledge management services.

Sabrina refers readers to the following resources:

  • On weblogs: http://www.bespacific.com/mt/archives/002382.html#002382 and  http://www.bespacific.com/mt/archives/002382.html#002382

  • On wikis: http://www.bespacific.com/mt/archives/002955.html#002955  and http://www.bespacific.com/mt/archives/002845.html#002845

  • Genie Tyburski is the web manager of The Virtual Chase, a service of the law firm Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, LLP. The Virtual Chase has been in existence since 1996 and offers a one-stop site for web-based legal research information sources. Although reluctant to make predictions or label something a trend, she admits that there were at least two things that she felt were developments that were significant and had great potential for affecting and improving the quality and access to legal information: the growth of RSS news feeds and the Internet Archive.

    RSS feeds allow sites to share their content with others. RSS uses XML as the standard way to share this content. Both Virtual Chase and beSpacific use RSS feeds to provide a constant steam of current information on developments in legal information and legal research. Tyburski believes that RSS is an exciting web content delivery mechanism that has great potential for law firm intranets.

    The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization whose mission is to archive public web content. Its purpose is to preserve the digital content that exists only on the internet and make it available for present and future researchers. They are collaborating with institutions such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. As research sources increasingly move to digital and web only formats, the archiving of this information becomes critical for research and the preservation of our intellectual heritage.

    Finally, Tyburski believes that it is more important than ever to develop critical thinking and sophisticated research skills. “Conducting research electronically includes so much more than knowing how to use a computer.”

    Kendall F. Svengalis is the author and publisher of the Legal Information Buyer's Guide & Reference Manual. In 1998, he received the Joseph L. Andrews award, the highest honor bestowed by the American Association of Law Libraries for works of legal bibliography. He sees a developing trend in the way online legal research companies are marketing themselves, particularly to the small law firm market. This trend is being driven by companies such as Versuslaw, Fastcase and Casemaker which tailor their research services to solo practitioners and small law firms. In addition, Lexis and Westlaw are both finding ways to promote their services to small law firms. LexisOne provides some good free legal research sources. It also provides access to slices of the Lexis database by the day, week or month. Westlaw has WestlawPRO. These low-cost, fixed monthly-fee plans are available for specific jurisdictions, practice areas, news sources, and other information categories and are aimed at smaller law firms and other organizations.

    Joan Axelroth is a Library and Information Management Consultant. Prior to founding Axelroth & Associates in 1992 she was a law firm librarian. She has clients nationwide and has worked with numerous clients on a variety of information issues. Joan noted that the migration from print to electronic has been an ongoing trend for many years. The trend continues and shows no signs of slowing down. However, print sources remain despite predictions of their demise. She believes that administrators often see the transition to electronic sources as a cost saving measure. The reality is more complex. The migration from print to electronic has driven up the cost of those print sources that remain. Also electronic licenses can be more expensive since they are usually priced by the numbers of users or the size of the firm. The response from lawyers is more diverse, since in addition to cost, they are concerned with the quality of research and its impact on service to the firm’s clients. Another trend is the fact that CD-ROM is on the wane with electronic sources moving to web formats. This has contributed to the trend which emphasizes access to materials rather than the collection of materials. This is supported by a recent survey AmLaw survey, which shows the shrinking physical law firm library collections, but a continuing strong need for capable information professionals.

    Alvin M. Podboy is the Director of Libraries, Baker & Hostetler LLP and Board Member, American Association of Law Libraries. Podboy sees a trend toward more involvement by librarians in the knowledge management activities of firms. Librarians need to provide quick, accurate answers to attorneys’ questions. KM tools, portals and compiler web sites, such as CEO Express and the Legal Information Institute help in the process of sifting and organizing from the vast array of web resources.