Cindy Carlson is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C. , and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.
Updated June 30, 2003
It’s too darned hot in the nation’s capital, and this month, we revisit our summer associate theme with some more information on using the Web – that useful tool and potentially huge time waster. We’ve already covered some of the basic time-and frustration-saving techniques for Web searching, but this issue I’d like to talk about some of the best general-interest and legal Web sites that can help answer the kinds of questions we most frequently hear from our summers. If you have other sites that seem like useful additions, please let me know. The services I’ve chosen to highlight are all free to search, though some offer advanced features at an extra cost or may require registration.
Any number of law school sites are great starting points. Among the best known is Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII) with its great collection of both online and print resource recommendations on a full range of topics. There are also some school sites dedicated to summer associates like the Georgetown Law Library Summer Associate Survival Site. These sites can be especially useful if your internship is far from your own law school. Check out the local offerings and see what is available. Georgetown, for instance, offers overviews of DC, Maryland and Virginia legal research as well as some great federal research guides.
Another site I recommend as a general legal research starting point doesn’t fit very neatly into typical topical or format categories. Lawyer Express, an offshoot of another terrific site, CEO Express, is rich with links to almost every useful legal site you can imagine. The idea behind the site is the 80/20 rule: 80% of what you need is available through just 20% of the sites out there. Sure, you can find the US Code many places, but which is the best? Lawyer Express sorts out the sites that are not current, those thin on resources, or those which mainly duplicate materials which originally appeared elsewhere and leaves you with a dense collection of the most essential links with very little explanatory text.
I have seen this site reviewed as visually busy and difficult to use, but from my perspective, it’s a great site for summer associates. Admittedly, it can be overwhelming on an initial visit. I encourage our users to print the page out and read through it, and they generally become enthusiastic converts. Happily, even without the text, most links are self explanatory. Resources include legal news, search tools, courts, Martindale, forms and associations as well as an amazing set of general business reference sites. The editors also recognize that a busy person needs a break and include fun resources on restaurants, shopping and entertainment. Let there be life after work!
Sites Organized By Topic
Sometimes legal questions lead to non-legal research. For a general idea of what’s available on the Web on a non-legal topic, try a subject-organized site.
Yahoo! is still the best site to search if you’re not sure what you might find or if the topic you are interested in is very broad or frequently mentioned on the web. Yahoo arranges Internet resources by topic. If you click on News & Media, you’ll see a list of narrower topics like TV and Weather, and if you click on any of those you’ll see a list of even more narrow choices, and so on, until you get to exactly what you need: a web page on your topic. A word search on Yahoo looks for potential matches from within its lists of topics and in an index of selected pages which is a subset of the Google database; it does not search the text of any web page for your keywords unless you use the advanced search option and specify that it should do so. You can also use Yahoo for legal research, but since it’s a general interest site, you may save yourself some time by using a site with a legal focus.
FindLaw, brought to you by Westlaw, is a subject-categorized site that will probably get you to most law-related materials you don’t see immediately on Lawyer Express. There is overlap between the two, but on FindLaw the resources are annotated, organized in easy to use categories and more inclusive. The format is similar to Yahoo’s, but the focus is legal instead of general. A useful aspect to note: when searching for state agency materials it can often be difficult to predict how a given state will name the relevant department. FindLaw provides brief but very helpful descriptions that make it easier to locate the correct entity, and tends to use the same overall hierarchical structure to organize them, making it easier to find what you need.
Using a search engine is a popular strategy for finding general information on the Web, but I don’t necessarily recommend it as a first option. If you have a broad idea of what you need and are looking for starting resources, a law school site, link collection or subject-organized site is usually a better bet. However, search engines are great tools when you need something very specific.
Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Google yet? While no one should use only a single search tool all the time, Google is definitely my first choice these days. A close runner up for general Web searching is AllTheWeb, also known as FAST. Both Google and AllTheWeb index .pdf documents, and they are currently competing to maintain the biggest index of documents available via the Web. Each has its strengths:
AllTheWeb, if you haven’t used it, has some slightly more flexible date searching features than Google on its advanced page and a more Euro-centric focus. Google indexes a broader variety of documents, has that fabulous cache feature and some unique search syntaxes (see http://www.google.com/help/refinesearch.html and http://www.google.com/help/operators.html). Though most of our summers were already Google users, few were familiar with the Google Toolbar. The abilities to search within a specific site, highlight search terms, and “find” successive occurrences of terms on a page using the easy to install toolbar was a happy revelation. Both are definitely worth using for general Web searches for highly specific or unique terms or phrases.
Here too there is a legal focus alternative. LawCrawler, associated with FindLaw, searches the text of a set of law-related pages using Google rather than searching only through FindLaw’s paths of connected topics (the default FindLaw search). If you find that a Google search nets you a little more non-legal information than you’d like, this is a potential alternative.
Martindale-Hubbell Lawyer Locator is free, available at your desktop, and VERY EASY to use! This site takes the directory information of its paper counterpart and provides users with the tools to search by attorney, firm name, city, practice area and more, as well as providing links and/or listings to firm web sites if they exist. Aside from its obvious uses as a directory for contact information for firms and attorneys, it’s a great tool when you want to bone up on a partner’s background before she takes you to lunch.
West’s Legal Directory (WLD) at FindLaw is similar to the M-H site. This directory also includes information on judges, government and corporate lawyers as well as attorneys at firms, but some firms even list other legal staff here like legal assistants. A listing in the West directory costs less than one in Martindale, so it’s a good place to check for single attorney or small firm listings as well. Beware, though, it tends not to be as complete or as current because firms still tend to view a Martindale listing as the one with more status. So, try Martindale and if you’re not finding what you need, this is a good second stop.
Many law school students are surprised to find during their summer internships just how much general business research is involved in the every day work of a law firm. Business background information on new clients, or on the opposition’s client, is vital. Some great places to start:
Hoover’s Online comes from the publisher of a popular series of print company directories that has developed a great Web resource for the same kind of information. The free company profiles typically contain a short conversational description of the company and its history, address and telephone information, a link to the company’s Web site if one is available, a list of key officers with links to their biographies and compensation information where available, plus major competitors and more.
Free EDGAR is a resource for the public company information filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). This used to be one of the best free resources available, and, though it now requires registration, I think it’s still a worthy alternative to the SEC’s own site. Its main advantage is that documents are organized into a convenient (though not always very informative) Table of Contents format. This makes it easier to select a specific section of a filing to view or print rather than being stuck navigating through an entire lengthy document. Financial information is great and should be current up to the latest fiscal quarter. You can search by company name or ticker, form type, SIC number, or simply look at all of today’s filings. These filings are some of the best resources for business information available.
Edgar Online People is another free search, this time for business people. Many executives serve on the boards of more than one public company, and if you want to know about the movers in shakers who are your clients, or your opposition, this is a another way to find out about their business connections.
Since most research in law school is case-oriented, students expect to be spending time working with cases during their summer internships, but some of the less conceptual and more practical aspects of litigation work are made easier with the help of the following two sites:
Court Rules Online is an excellent resource for litigation specialists. This site provides links to all the rules of courts which are available anywhere on the Web from federal down to local county courts. It is updated very frequently and is well worth a visit.
Basic Legal Citation: Can’t find your Blue Book and need a little help with figuring out how to cite a publication for a brief? The Legal Information Institute (LII) comes to the rescue with an online guide. The Folio-based service with its expanding and collapsing Table of Contents format isn’t the easiest thing to use, but it may do in a pinch.
Two other areas in which students don’t get much practice during school are legislative and administrative research. Some sources that may help:
Thomas, named after Thomas Jefferson, comes from the Library of Congress and is THE site for current legislative information at the federal government level. It provides links to legislation from as far back as 1995 including detailed information on status throughout the legislative process. It also includes links to the web sites of members of the House and Senate where available and information on committees and their schedules.
Updating the US Code is no easy task whether you are working with the official version in print, or one of its annotated equivalents. Even online, the Code is often not completely current. These tables show where recently enacted legislation will appear in the Code and which sections have been changed by them. Users can sort the tables by Public Law number or by Code section. One note: the tables only include those provisions of law that have been classified to the Code, which takes some time, so they aren’t ultra-current either, but they are definitely worth checking. To date the tables cover legislation enacted from 2001 through 2003, the 108th Congress, 1st Session, Public Laws 108-1 to 108-30.
GPO Access is the official government site for the publication of the Code of Federal Regulations and Federal Register, among many other federal government documents, straight from the Government Printing Office. Use the “Quick Links” to get to the most popular documents. While there are some real advantages to using this site (it’s free, documents are formatted to look like the originals, it’s searchable), the disadvantages can be frustrating. Often, the nice graphic format is not available, for instance, and the searching is rudimentary at best. The text formats usually are available though, and it can be a good spot to visit if you simply need to retrieve a specific citation. Take careful note of document currency, however; most materials are only as current as their print counterparts.
Those legal writing classes teach you some specifics for the documents you’re likely to write over the summer, but nothing is more embarrassing than being caught out in a simple grammatical error. To avoid those potential black marks on your summer evaluations, definitely visit The Elements of Style and Tomato Nation. Both offer slightly offbeat but highly memorable lessons on grammar basics.
That’s a Wrap
While the above list is far from exhaustive, it should give most summer associates a nice set of starting points. Summers, if you are working in a specialty practice area like Intellectual Property, Tax, Government Contracts or one of the many others, know that there is a whole world of resources online to make your life easier, and not all of them are simple Web sites. Your firm may subscribe to some fee-based Web libraries and your librarians or the attorneys you’re working with can probably also recommend e-mail discussion groups, news services with e-mail delivery and more to help you work more efficiently. Even though you may be feeling some pressure to avoid asking for help, don’t forget that intelligent questions can go a long way toward making you look good, and enjoy your summer while it lasts.