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Everybody Researches – NC Bar Chooses Fastcase over Casemaker

June 15, 2012 Leave a comment

As students and faculty we have easy access to most of what Lexis and Westlaw have to offer.  Given this embarrassment of riches, it is easy to forget that practitioners are much more conservative in their use of these admirable yet expensive databases and prefer to substitute low cost search options when feasible.  Until recently, members of the North Carolina Bar had free access to Casemaker in their research arsenal.  However, as of June first, the NCBA switched to Fastcase, Casemaker’s rival.  NCBA’s Executive Director, Allan Head, cited Fastcases’s award-winning iPhone and iPad apps as a major factor in the decision to change.  With the recent introduction of an Android version of their FREE research apps, the NCBA should be even more pleased with its decision.

Attorneys who want to continue using Casemaker can do so, but it will now be at a cost and not as a member benefit.  Casemaker is reaching out to North Carolina attorneys with limited time special rates and is providing explanations of what makes their product unique, such as it’s “true citator service.”  Fans of Casemaker will need to weigh this feature against the fact that the North Carolina Jury Instructions will no longer be available on Casemaker but will be moving to Fastcase.

Whichever service you choose to use (or that your bar provides) there is no question that Casemaker and Fastcase will continue the battle for legal research service supremacy and for customers.  This should ensure continuing enhancements and improved access to free (for bar members) legal information.  However, as North Carolina switch shows, it is in every attorney’s best financial interest to be aware of changes in both services.

What to do when you don’t know what to do

Liz’s Top 10 Suggestions for Summer Success

#10: Become familiar with legal research options at your location.  Each firm and agencies may subscribe to different venders, from Westlaw and Lexis to Casemaker (sign up for free with a student account) and Fastcase (Free to WFU students).  Know what each vender offers and the pricing models employed.  By asking a librarian about this, you will show your employers you are genuinely interested in conducting cost-effective legal research.

Think about when using print resources may be more effective than using online.  For example, you may want to use print resources if you are searching for material that isn’t available online – duh!  Some materials, such as CLEs and treatises, may not be available online through your subscription or generally.  Often it is better to start with a print resource when you need general information on a topic about which are unfamiliar, or when your search terms are general or the subject of your research involves broad concepts.  Additionally, I have found using print resources for statutory research much easier than trying to navigate them online.  That being said, online research is most effective when the material you need is not available in print – duh!  Some firms have quit updating print materials, you may need to head directly to online research when you begin.  Also, if you are searching with unique terms or for proper names, online searching is quicker than browsing through the voluminous print materials.

#9: Use “free” internet sites but be aware of their limitations.   What type of research do you think would warrant using free internet over a fee-based services?  My suggestion is to use these site for research statutes, legislative history/tracking, cases, regulations, some case law and policy considerations. But before you use a “free” site, please take the time to evaluate it just as you would a print source.  Consider:

  • whether the publisher of the site is reputable and knowledgeable?
  • whether the content of the site is accurate, authentic and objective?
  • whether the content can be retrieved via keyword, author, or title searching?
  • whether the information is current?
  • the frequency with which the information is updated.

#8:  The Mean Green — Know how much things cost. There are two basic models for pricing: (1) Transactional or per-search pricing charges you for every search you run, or (2) Hourly pricing charges you for the amount of time spent on a research service.  Transactional is best when you plan to spend time going through documents and is good for locating different types of databases in your interest area (before you search them). On the other hand, Hourly is best when you need to find something quickly, and is good when you want to run many searches in a row.

A good rule of thumb is that it takes about 7 minutes of hourly searching to equal a single transactional search.  Because of differences in vendor contracts, database costs, and other factors this is not always the case.

#7: Check database pricing & choose wisely. Lexis & Westlaw will often tell you the price of the database. Click the “i” information button after the database name.  Keep in mind that differences in vendor contracts may make the cost inexact, but it will give you an idea of how expensive it is.  WestlawNext and LexisAdvance throw a whole new piece to the puzzle with pricing guidelines?!?!

#6: Start Broad and narrow later.  Lexis and Westlaw allow you to narrow search results without incurring additional  charges when charged per Transaction.  Start with a broad search to get many documents and narrow down as needed.  Focus Terms v. Locate in Results = No extra charge to filter through results.

#5:  Browse the Table of Contents online.  Locating a document in the table of contents is cheaper than searching for it (although more expensive than getting by citation).  Often searching the table of contents is also cheaper than searching the database content itself.

#4: Tailor the search to the problem. Choose wisely between the key word search strategies: natural language and terms and connectors. The natural language (or proximity) search is often the default search option for search engines, and it retrieves a fixed number of documents (i.e. you may always get 100 documents regardless what your search is).  This technique may be helpful to search an area of law you are unfamiliar with (some good terms but not enough for a terms/connectors search).  Terms and Connectors searching, however, searches based on relationships between words (Precision search), and is often referred to as boolean searching.  In order to construct an effective search, you need to:

  • Develop initial search terms
  • Expand the breadth and depth by adding wildcard symbols
  • Add connectors and parentheses to clarify relationships among words
#3:  Familiarize yourself with finding tools. Make sure you having a working knowledge of West’s Topic and Key number system because using the digest in print will help you to be more efficient searchers online!  Statutory Finding Aids (Popular Names Table/Index) and headnote searching on Lexis are the “added value” that you are paying for when you use these big commercial databases.  Make sure you utilize the extra features.  And last but not least, update and expand your research by using Keycite and Shepards online.  It is worth the cost!
#2: Plan — Start slow to go Fast.  I highly suggest reading and thinking about the questions one by one before starting your research so that you feel comfortable before you start using any materials.  The 20 minutes it takes to answer these questions will save you exponentially more time in the long run. Once you have gathered some preliminary information you’re ready to start writing out a plan of attack for your research.  There are three components to a research plan: (1) An initial issue statement; (2) A list of potential search terms,  and (3) An outline of the sources you plan to consult.
Your initial issue statement does not need to be a formal statement that you normally write for a formal legal memorandum, but it should be a preliminary assessment of the problem that helps to define the scope of your research.  An example: “Can the plaintiff recover from the defendant for stealing her goat?”  This would be an incomplete issue statement for a brief or memo, but at this beginning point in your research it helps you direct your research to all the possible claims that would support or oppose recovery.  If you aren’t able to write a preliminary issue statement, that might be an indication that you are not sure about the scope of the assignment or that you may need to ask more questions about the problem.

Your potential search terms are generated by looking at the preliminary issue statement and using the TARP (from LP I) method of coming up with key words and topics.After you have performed a preliminary overview of the problem, you’ll want to outline the sources you plan to use and the order in which you plan to consult them.  First, you will need to determine which research sources are likely to contain relevant information, such as Strong’s North Carolina Index (a legal encyclopedia) if the problem deals with North Carolina law.  Next, you will need to determine the order in which you want to research these sources.

Lastly, get to know your librarians, at the firm or at the school, they’re the best resource you can have to learn how to start your research.  Also, both Westlaw and LexisNexis provide 24-7 research assistance to you as a student, as an intern, and as an attorney.  Use these resources, there are people out there that are ready and able to help you.  Remember you don’t have to re-invent the wheel.

#1: Just Ask.

  • Jurisdiction
  • Useful Tips
  • Sources
  • Terms of Art
  • Ask
  • Sources
  • Key Cost Constraints

Key to success in your internship and in practicing law is asking questions, whether it be in the courtroom, to your client, or of your supervisor.  Be comfortable to approaching these people with questions, because the more information you have up front the more concise and efficient your research will be.  Make sure you understand what you are being asked to do, such as which jurisdiction you are applying, what is the scope of the assignment, and are there any key cost constraints that may constrict where you locate the information.  You might also consider asking about terms of art. Terms of art abound in the law, and often become automatic language for an expert attorney in that area of law.  For example, the phrase double jeopardy can be used in common parlance to describe any situation that poses two risks. In the law, double jeopardy refers specifically to an impermissible second trial of a defendant for the same offense that gave rise to the first trial.  Make sure you are clear on the context of particular, or unique, words before starting your research.

Just as a caveat, asking questions will be crucial to you conducting comprehensive and thorough research; however you need to still use good judgment in deciding how many questions to ask and who to ask the questions to. (Adapted from Georgetown Law Library)

Oh… and have a little fun too! If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, here are 5 tips for better work-life balance.

Everybody Researches….But Not Everybody Researches Well

March 20, 2012 Leave a comment

It may only be March, but summer jobs are just around the corner.  Are you ready?  While you may have the job, the three new suits and your smart phone at hand, that is not all you need.  How confident are you about your legal research skills?

In a white paper titled “Research Skills for Lawyers and Law Students”  Thomson-West (now Thomson-Reuters, “parents” of Westlaw) shared the results of numerous roundtables with law firm and academic librarians, and the resulting forum in response to the conclusions regarding legal research and writing.  In response to the question “What are the most important research tasks (online or in print that entry level attorneys must know?” the overwhelming top response was “cost effective research.”   When asked “[w]hat research tasks should usually be conducted in books vs. online?” “secondary source research” was the clear first recommendation.

In addition to the research skills that you will need to know, there are electronic resources other than Westlaw and Lexis that many law offices are using.  Some offices subscribe to Loislaw while others, particularly small firms, may rely extensively on services provided by state bars such as Casemaker or Fastcase.  If all this seems a bit overwhelming, you might want to hone your research abilities by attending “Boot Camp for Your Legal Research Skills.”  This program, offered March 29, from 4:00 -7:00 p.m.,  is intended to make you a lean, mean, researching machine.  It covers how to start your research project, tips for keeping billable hours, how to research cost effectively, and will provide you with a chance to hear from and question two students who have been employed in various jobs requiring legal research.  The program will conclude with the opportunity to visit a number of different “stations” where you will be able to view practice materials, databases, and apps that can help you conquer the most rebellious research assignment.  To keep your strength up, food and drink will be served.

Least you think that we are trying to blackmail you into attending our program (alas, I was outvoted), there are ways that you can firm-up flabby research skills even if you cannot attend the “boot camp for your brain.”  First, take advantage of the “prepare to practice” type classes offered by database vendors.  Their classes will focus heavily on practice materials, and on how to do cost effective research.  You should aim at taking these classes soon, before exams absorb your mind and the reps go back to headquarters for the summer.   Second, even after exam you can take a little time to familiarize yourself with the research materials in the areas of law that your firm focuses upon.  Even if it is too late to take a class in corporations, it is not to late to skim the Nutshell.  Also, make an appointment with one of our librarians.  Whether you are seeking to learn more about a topic area, or about the resources in a particular state, we will be able to help you filter the vast quantity of materials out there and select the best.  And third,  do not forget that the best research can be rendered ineffective by poor writing.  Make sure that you always keep the words “clear and concise” in mind when submitting your research results.  Good luck and good research.

Library Brown Bag Research Instruction Sessions

October 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Ever wanted to know more about legislative history research, cost-effective research strategies, or the latest legal research apps for your smartphone?  We thought so.  Therefore, the librarians are offering short research instructional sessions.  We’ll also be serving cookies, but you will need to BYOB!  Here are the dates, times and topics:

10/26, 2pm. Room 2321:  Legislative History

Streamline your legislative history research with online tools like Lexis Nexis Congressional and Thomas. Brush up on the best places to get documents from the legislative process.

10/27, 1pm. Room 1302 – Fastcase & Casemaker

What are they, where are they, and which one should you use?  Following a quick introduction to the nature of these no or low-cost services, you’ll get an overview of how to use each system and a quick look at their pros and cons.

11/2, 2pm. Room 2321 – The Mobile Lawyer

Do you have a smartphone?  If you do then come learn about legal apps such as Pocket Justice, Black’s Law Dictionary, Open Regs, Law Stack and mobile Westlaw and Lexis.

11/3, 1pm. Room 2321:  Free Internet Legal Research:  From Secondary Sources to Regulations

Add cost-effective resources to your legal research arsenal by exploring sites such as Wex, Google Scholar (yes, Google for legal research), Thomas and the e-CFR.  Learn about free and reliable resources to get you started on your research before turning to Westlaw or LexisNexis.