Friday, 02 December 2016 13:19

Should Lawyers Avoid Online Legal Resources Because They’re Free?


The Internet offers researching lawyers a ton of information from countless sources. All for free.

Rather than publishing a book or a journal article, legal professionals with niche expertise can share their research, insight, and commentary in a blog post. Lawyers conducting research can turn to Google and have a list of relevant sources — often such blog posts. Lawyers will soon be turning to Alexa for answers.

Should lawyers avoid such online resources, never before available, because they’re free and not provided by a legal publisher charging a subscription?

Yes, according to Minneapolis lawyer and blog writer for Thomson Reuters, Jeremy Byellin, in a post on the Legal Solutions Blog.

"Google is great for finding answers to random questions that come up such as movie times and trivia answers. However, is your run-of-the-mill search engine truly correct for your legal research?"

Byellin argues that you can’t tell if the authority is still valid, verifying resources takes time, there’s no centralized research, and your research is not automatically saved.

But Byellin goes off the tracks contending that the amount information available on the Web is limited as compared to subscription services.

"There is undoubtedly a plethora of information available on free websites. However, it is highly unlikely that these sites have anywhere near the sheer volume of resources that are found on paid legal research (link to Westlaw advertisement) services."

Lawyers I checked with across the country, via a Facebook discussion, aren’t buying the argument that free resources should be avoided.

Per Michigan lawyer and veteran bloggerEnrico Schaefer, whose firm has carved out a national practice, via technology and innovation:

"[Google is] the perfect way to start all research and spot issues. There is no legitimate argument against google-based research for lawyers. Research is always about digging deeper. Just because Google represents the first couple of shovel fulls doesn’t make it any less important than pulling the cases and keycite."

Seattle lawyer and publisher of the IP Litigation Blog, Phil Mann, adds:

"Nine times out of ten, a simple Google search is effective in leading me to blogs discussing the principal cases and relevant law. For “deeper” research, going to Pacer and downloading the principal briefs is often effective, and can save considerable time in writing, too."

Austin family law attorney, Michael Whelan, says the open web is a good place to start:

"We may start with Google to get a quick idea of the issues, but we’ll take that direction to dig deeper. There’s something to be said for starting with far more readable resources when doing general research."

California lawyer Emma Louise McCavana agrees:

"Cursory research using Google is a great first step to help identify issues not just legal issues and help begin the path of research. When litigating, Westlaw is the resource of choice for primary law and sources. Google books also allows access to some secondary resources not otherwise available. Reliance, if any, on blogs -tertiary. Trusting your source is key."

There will be certain practices where lawyers feel most comfortable sticking to paid subscriptions. Texas appellate lawyer and publisher of the Texas Appellate Law Blog, Todd Smith says:

"I never rely on Google for legal research, but that’s largely a function of the kind of work I do (civil appeals). Westlaw is a must for me.Most blogs don’t go into the kind of depth I need to be useful for anything other than a 30,000-foot view. That’s not a knock on blogs—you know I’m a fan. I’m generally looking at something in fine detail, and case law and law-review-type commentary are usually a better access point for me."

Texas cybersecurity lawyer and long time blogger, Shawn Tuma, seeing five links to a Westlaw research ad in Byellin’s post, captures it well:

"They are all tools — like any professional uses — tools, multiple tools. You may have the best hammer in the world but, if all you have is a hammer, you’re not building many houses. Of course, when you’re sponsored by the hammer manufacturer, then of course you try to argue that all you ever need is a hammer!I use everything that is available, letting my professional training, experience, and judgment guide me on which tool is the best for a particular job. Anybody that thinks there are absolutes when it comes to this stuff needs to stop focusing on the trees and see the whole damn forest."

I get that I’m biased towards the value of legal blogs. I was also a plaintiff’s trial lawyer for 17 years, who looked anywhere for good information. No question I’d be all over Google today for ideas from other lawyers, briefs, interrogatories, information to impeaching opposing experts — you name it.

I can’t imagine most lawyers today limiting research on Google to movie and trivia times. Free can be good, if used appropriately.




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