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Posts Tagged ‘free legal research’

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.

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Dictionaries – word nerd fun continues: Everybody Researches

September 2, 2011 1 comment

Words, like laws, are not static.  New words are unofficially being added to our vocabulary all the time and are considered “official” when added to an actual, publisher-edited dictionary. Many dictionaries send out annual updates to let the public know what are the newest official additions.  While the massive Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is one of the most, if not the most, highly regarded dictionary, the more concise Oxford American Dictionary (OAD) is also reliable and focuses on U.S. English.  The OAD releases a list of its recent additions in the fall, and the 2010 words have been official for almost a year.  If you enjoy word games, you might like to take a look at the list of words below to see if you know what they mean, and if you can correctly guess which ones have made the cut to becoming “real” words according to the new Oxford American Dictionary before checking your answers in this article from Vanity Fair introducing the OAD changes for 2010. If you are in a hurry,  just click-through to make sure that you are informed about what’s new in the U.S. vocabulary.

Which of these were included in the dictionary*?

  •  bromance,
  •  hater
  • chu doing
  • hockey mom
  • tramp stamp
  • hashtag
  •  truthiness
  • Snooki
  •  Tumblr
  •  the new black
  • green-collar
  •  Trig
  •  what’s not to like?
  •  share a moment
  •  blerg
  •  vuvuzela
  • GTL

Those more “experienced” staff members and professors, and any non-traditional students, should make sure that you know about the Urban Dictionary.  It is a particularly good idea to have it readily available if you have children and you would like to know if they are saying “sure, whatever” in teen-speak or if they are telling you to do something biologically impossible.  Like Wikipedia,  this “ultimate slang dictionary”  is authored by the public so some of the definitions can be coarse and vulgar.  If you are wondering if you really need to subject yourself to some of these words, consider the following: Do you think that PITA is someone with Caps Lock problems writing about  bread or perhaps an animal rights group?  If so, you might want to explore the Urban Dictionary.   While the Urban Dictionary can be very helpful for immediate slang edification, you need to keep in mind that anyone can submit a definition.  Therefore, you might want to read two or three options before using a word.  If you demand more reliability for you slang definition needs, you can consult The Dictionary of American Slang by Robert L. Chapman which is considered to be “the standard printed work for American slang.”

Even two blog posts cannot cover the myriad types of dictionaries available.  In law, there are many topic specific dictionaries for areas such as tax or environmental law.  To see what is available in our library visit Professor Johnson’s research guide  Legal Dictionaries and Thesauri .  There are also picture dictionaries, bilingual dictionaries, dictionaries about cats, chocolate, and brain tumors, and even a dictionary of mountain bike slang; all of which are online.  To view these more unusual dictionaries visit the Free Dictionaries Project or browse the “dictionary” search results on OneLook.  With all the options out there, you are bound to find a dictionary that meets your particular needs.

* Two words that were not include in the article, GTL (did not make the cut) and green-collar (now an official word).

Dictionary Fun for the Word Nerd: Everybody Researches

August 8, 2011 Leave a comment

If you watch legal shows on television, you would think that lawyers spend their time either arguing with other lawyers in court or chasing after attractive co-workers in the office.  Even if you are only starting out in law school, you know better than this.  While there are certainly exciting and satisfying courtroom moments, the majority of your time, particularly as a new associate, is likely to be spent in writing, reviewing documents, and RESEARCHING.  Lawyers in big firms research, solo practitioners research, corporate counsel and law clerks research.  Because legal research is such a universal theme to the practice of law, The Demon’s Advocate will be featuring at least one post per month on new or unusual ways to conduct legal research, or about legal research materials.

This post takes a new look at a familiar resource, the dictionary.  While most of you are likely to have used the print and or online versions of Black’s Law Dictionary, there are some free online legal dictionaries worth your time, as well as some interesting non-legal  dictionaries to expand your mind and your research. This post will review some of the more traditional dictionary offerings, and a future post will describe some dictionary innovations.

Law.com’s offering, known as the  Real Life Dictionary of the Law bills itself as an easy-to-read and user-friendly “guide to legal terms.”  It is unquestionably versatile, allowing you not only to browse for the word or to run a search for it, but also providing the option to search definitions for your word.  This last feature proves helpful when you can remember the general areas of the law the word falls under or other similar concepts but cannot recall the word itself. (Take from someone who has passed the age of 40, this happens.)

Have you ever tried to explain a legal term to a family member or significant other without success? If so, next time you might want to try Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary.  Nolo Press has been bringing the law to the non-lawyer for years via print “how to” legal books, and now via Nolo.com.  Whether you consider them famous or infamous for their DIY approach to the law, their dictionary is a useful look at legal terms for the non-professional audience.

The Free Dictionary does have a legal option, but the feature I most enjoy is that it not only provides a definition of the word you are searching, but also has an audio pronunciation of the word.  For example, if you are a politician, and want to use the work chutzpah, but are not sure how to pronounce it, you could type the word (or a near spelling and it will offer you options), and you will get both a definition and a graphic of a speaker to click in order to hear the pronunciation.  Depending on the word, you may have both a British and an American option for pronunciation.

If this sampler of dictionaries has not sated your interest, you might want to investigate the University of Washington Gallagher Law Library’s dictionary research guide.   The guide is written by law librarians,  so the focus is on law dictionaries, including those for foreign and international law and for specialized legal  fields.  However, recognizing that law does not exist in a vacuum, it also includes some of the most popular general dictionaries as well as some basic law guides and glossaries for those not in the legal profession.  If you use this guide, do be aware that, while you have access to all free linked material mentioned, the call numbers provided are for the Gallagher library and so may refer to books not available in the PCL or that are in a slightly different location.  If you have questions about any of the titles, please contact one  of the reference librarians, staff, or students, or check the PCL catalog for information specific to our library.

Reminder: Free Legal Research Brown Bag

November 3, 2010 Leave a comment

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. Your host? Prof. Sowards.

Fresh Halloween candy will be served!

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.

Google Scholar Legal

March 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Google Scholar now has a full text database of U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme court decisions available.  You can search by case name or by topics.  You can also search for legal journal articles.  You can read their official announcement here.