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Basic Legal Research

Introduction to Integrating Print and Online Resources

Image of a book open on a laptopAn important factor in being a good researcher is to know which tools best fit your research needs. Your needs will vary depending on the type of information you are seeking. If you have a choice of media (e.g., print, online or other) that choice should be decided after you determine the goal of your research.

In law school you will have a larger range of resources to work with than you will likely have once you begin practice. Take advantage of this opportunity to develop your skills with both print and electronic materials.

  • Once you leave law school the major online services will no longer be free or unlimited, so it is best to develop efficient and effective research skills here and now.
  • Since you will not know which vendor's resources will be available to you once you begin working, make sure to hone your skills on all the online services available to you in case your "favorite" online service is not the one available at your place of employment. 
  • While many firms are cutting down on print materials, print may still be the fastest and most cost-effective way to conduct your research. Even if your firm does not have a resource in print, check to see if a nearby law library (public, court or academic) has what you need.

Some research activities are better done in one media over another.

  • Online cite checking is far faster, easier and more complete than doing it in print.
  • Some federal and state legislative history material may not be available in the major online services and may only be available in print, in microform, or on a specialized website.
  • Sometimes the most effective results will come from a combination of print and other media. For example, secondary sources can be difficult to navigate online. Looking at a secondary source in print, or at least its index, can give you a better idea of the best terminology to use in an online search.

Factors Affecting Research Strategy

Be aware of your research goals
  • A law review article needs to be researched very differently from research for a case. In addition, there can be differences within the same type of document. Appellate level cases need to be approached differently from trial level cases, an advisory memo needs to be approached differently from a complaint, etc.
  • Keep in mind the ultimate audience for your information, which may have requirements for certain sources or formats. For example, some courts/judges will want copies from original documents; Illinois Supreme Court Rule 6 requires that citation to documents filed in Illinois courts be to the official reporters.
Uniqueness of topic/terminology
  • If the terminology related to the research topic is relatively unique, it is likely to be fairly easy to locate relevant materials online.
  • If the topic being researched uses frequently used words or terms, it is often easier to identify relevant materials in a print resource and then move online. For example, locating one or two relevant cases about car accidents through a secondary source, and then using those cases as a basis for further research online, will be more effective than trying to find relevant documents using a full-text search with commonly used terms.
Knowledge of the topic
  • The less you know about a subject, the more likely you will need to do some preliminary reading in a print resource (or a free or low-cost resource).
  • If you head directly to an online service you will waste time and money bringing yourself up to speed on the topic. Once you have a better idea of the subject it will be easier to craft an efficient and effective online search.
Time, money & resources available
  • Online can sometimes save time, but not always. It may be quicker to pull a book off the shelf than to attempt to locate the same material online.
  • Searching online can incur costs for time spent online and/or access to particular resources. If an online resource is not part of your firm's contract but is available in print elsewhere in your office or in a nearby library, it may be more cost-effective to travel to use the print resource. The time you spend traveling may be worth the money saved by not using a potentially costly, out-of-contract  online version.
  • Know your resources, and your research skills, well enough to make these determinations. If you have a choice of different media, use the one with which you are most comfortable. You do not want to be learning a new system on a client's time/money.

Understanding Your Options for Choice of Research Media

Know what materials are available to you
  • Learn what print and online resources are available in your office
  • Learn what is available at nearby courthouse or university libraries, both in print and online. Some libraries allow you to use their online resources as long as you are on-site in the library.
Understand what types of information can be found in which formats
  • Sometimes the information you need can only be found in one format. For example, information about Illinois House and Senate floor debates prior to 1998 can only be found in the print version of the Legislative Synopsis and Digest. Some older materials, or materials that take up a lot of space such as newspapers, may only be available in microfilm or microfiche.
  • Sometimes the same information can be found in multiple sources, but the methods of access may require a tradeoff. A free website may be more time-consuming to search than a paid subscription service. The subscription costs may be worth spending depending on the time saved.
Understand the content limitations of each resource
  • Make sure the resource you are thinking of using contains the type of information you are looking for. (For example, some federal agency decisions may not be available in Lexis or Westlaw and are only posted on the agency's website.)
  • Check the scope note on the database, check with your firm's librarian, or contact the vendor; Lexis, Westlaw and Bloomberg all have reference attorneys who can help determine if what you need is available in your firm's subscription or elsewhere in their system. 
Understand the currency of each resource
  • Not all online services have older materials. Check the scope note on the database for coverage before spending time/money searching, especially if you are dealing with materials prior to the 1990s.
  • Print resources may include older materials but may not be as current as online.
Understand the accuracy of each resource
  • Print and subscription-based online services are generally produced by reliable publishers or information providers, which adds some weight to their credibility. 
  • Free Internet resources require special scrutiny. Know who is behind the website; check "About" and "Contact" pages to determine if the source of the information is credible. When using court, federal/state agency, or an educational institution's website you may be better able to determine who is providing the information and draw some conclusions about its accuracy and reliability.
  • Material available in multiple media can be cross-checked for accuracy. For example, a citation on a website can be verified against the print version. If information is not cited, this may be a sign that the material should not be relied upon.
Understand cost tradeoffs of each resource

Print:

  • Materials will either have a one-time cost or an ongoing subscription/update cost.
  • No additional charges for researching in print beyond the time spent to do so. If researching in print takes just as long, or even a bit longer, than searching online it may be more cost effective to research in print.

Online:

  • Various subscriptions/pricing plans available
    • Hourly: charged per minute online
    • Transactional: charged per search
    • Flat fee: one fee per month for the usage of a package of individual databases (along the lines of cable/satellite TV packages). 
      • Note: flat rate does not mean free or unlimited searching. Each year the contract will be reviewed and renewed based on usage during the previous contract.
      • Searching outside the package will incur standard search charges (along the lines of "pay per view" channels).
  • Even in flat fee situations your research may be billed back to clients, so be aware of excessive/extended time online.

Tips for Locating & Using Resources in Different Media

Print:
  • Use indexes and/or tables of contents whenever available to get you to the relevant sections.
  • Once in the relevant section, browse the content before and after the section to see if there is other relevant material.
  • Seeing how a particular topic relates to other topics is usually easier in print than online simply because it is easier to flip from section to section.
Online (subscription services):
  • Just as with print, use indexes and/or tables of contents whenever available to get you to the relevant sections quickly.
  • Using indexes and/or tables of contents in online subscription services is often free, or very low cost. Use these tools first to target relevant information before (or instead of) a full-text search, which may be more costly.
  • Take advantage of "browse" features to locate additional relevant materials. Note that when in transactional pricing mode "book browse" may be free, but using "previous section/next section" may incur a charge.
Online (Internet):
  • Understand the limitations of search engines and the way in which they sort and present results.
  • Learn how to effectively use advanced search features in search engines.
  • Be aware of any relevant specialized search engines in your area of research.
  • When using a specific Internet site (for example a court website) familiarize yourself with the site's search, printing, downloading and other features.

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