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When it comes to sleuthing for information there are no hard and fast rules for paralegals, except maybe this one: Don’t ignore the Internet. The courts may notice if you do. Last year, an Indiana appeals court agreed to dismiss a lawsuit because the plaintiff took three years to find a postal address and serve notice of his complaint. In a footnote to that published opinion (.pdf), Judge Michael Barnes noticed there was no evidence the plaintiff had tried looking on the Internet to find defendant Joe Groce. And the court was Google-savvy. “In fact, we discovered, upon entering ‘Joe Groce Indiana’ into the Google search engine, an address for Groce that differed from either address used in this case, as well as an apparent obituary for Groce’s mother that listed numerous surviving relatives who might have known his whereabouts,” Barnes pointed out. Mark Rosch likes to highlight cases like that when he leads seminars about online research for Internet for Lawyers, the Southern California consulting firm he and his wife, Carole Levitt, have run since 1999. Though essential, the Internet is an oft-overlooked research tool for legal professionals, said Rosch, whose company teaches lawyers and paralegals. “There’s incredibly valuable information that can make or break the case,” he said. “We see our function as sort of weeding out the shiny objects that can distract you. It’s about getting right to the best resource and the location of the best resources as quickly as possible.” For some, Internet research begins and ends with fee-based services like Westlaw and LexisNexis. And while these sites are as valuable as ever, there is so much data stored online now that you can’t access it all from a single source � not even Google. In fact, looking beyond the ever-popular search engine can help unearth inconspicuous evidence or witnesses. And breaking away from pay-site dependency can save firms and clients money, too. Virgene Lowe, a paralegal at Walnut Creek firm Archer Norris, estimates that 60 percent of her Internet time is generally spent logged onto Westlaw. Much of the rest involves Google searches. More recently, however, Lowe has been branching out to Web sites not traditionally associated with legal research. She perused blog posts from Bay Area animal lovers for evidence of tainted dog food. And at her children’s suggestion, she used MySpace, the popular social networking site, to track down a potential witness to a minor car accident.
Up and ComersInternet for Lawyers, a Southern California consulting firm that offers online research seminars, pointed out five favorite tools, including some altogether new Web sites as well as features added to tried and true ones.

These experiences gave Lowe a window into the world of teens and tech geeks, where few paralegals and lawyers think to go. “I’m finding that a lot of law firms don’t think outside the box,” she said. Some firms might be slow to adapt, but paralegals are catching on quickly. Shivon Meblin, a case manager in O’Melveny & Myers’ San Francisco office, says she has used Archive.org, which preserves versions of other Web sites from the past, in preparing for depositions. Using it once while defending a copyright infringement case, Meblin said she was able to show that the person suing her client had actually copied art himself. “It’s amazing what you can find,” she said. For Diana Sanchez Bentz, a paralegal at Cooley Godward in Palo Alto, tracking down information is only half the challenge. The other half is keeping research expenses under budget. “A lot of our [client] companies are start-ups, so you’re always sensitive about incurring costs,” she said. One way Sanchez Bentz controls costs is by going to the Web sites of public companies where financial disclosure forms are usually available free of charge, instead of using fee-based services. Similarly, she visits sites maintained by the Secretary of State where a company is located for corporate records. If she didn’t stay vigilant about research costs, Sanchez Bentz said they could quickly soar out of control. “I’m trying to think if there’s an hour that goes by where I don’t have to use the Internet for my job.”

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