Many Pennsylvania law firms are living proof of the trend toward downsizing paper libraries in favor of less costly electronic resources. For those embracing the world of online research -- or about to do so -- the Internet librarian at the oldest law library in the U.S. offers his picks of free research sites and some tips on how to get the most use from them.
By Jennifer Batchelor|October 21, 2002 at 12:00 AM
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Practitioners in small and midsize firms who aren’t researching online may be losing ground to their competitors as paper libraries become virtually obsolete and firms switch to electronic sources, upping elbowroom and increasing efficiency. And according to Pennsylvania attorneys, ditching the books may lead to considerable savings since electronic sources are less costly to update and maintain. “In this day and age, you probably don’t need much by way of books,” said Donald J. Martin, a Norristown, Pa., solo. “If I were just starting to practice or didn’t have the practice that I do, I would say that the Incite service [included with Pennsylvania Bar Association membership] and a couple of references specific to what you do are really all you need.” Because Martin practices in the appellate courts, however, he needs more than the Incite subscription offers. To supplement the bar association service, Martin subscribes to Pennsylvania PRO from Westlaw, which includes annotated statutes, federal cases from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and additional required reading. Martin said he does maintain hard copies of the Purdon’s statutes [privately codified Pennsylvania statutes], however. “I think the books are important for statutes you work in regularly,” he said. “It helps to have the books, one, to go to court; and, two, I find it easier sometimes to see relationships in the statutes rather than bringing them up on screen.” But overall, Martin said, he prefers the computer and finds it meets nearly all of his needs. Feldman & Pinto, a five-attorney firm with offices in Philadelphia and Voorhees, N.J., is almost entirely electronic. “I have everything from every state in the country on my computer,” said partner Laura A. Feldman. According to Feldman, the firm’s Westlaw subscription has significantly reduced the costs of maintaining an adequate library. The original paper library, she said, tipped the scales at about $20,000 per year for federal and state materials. Now the expenditure is around $600 each month. In addition, Feldman has found electronic research saves valuable time, essential for small-firm practitioners who compete with big-firm attorneys. Twenty-five-lawyer Hecker Brown Sherry and Johnson, a civil litigation firm that maintains offices in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Pa., and Collingswood, N.J., reduced its library volumes last spring, partner Stephen J. Imbriglia said. According to Imbriglia, the firm has yet to see savings from the switch since it incurred out-of-pocket construction expenses to revamp its library, but the cost of maintaining research materials should go down substantially. “For our firm, doing civil litigation and practicing in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, we need the U.S. Code, the Pennsylvania statutes and the New Jersey statutes,” Imbriglia said. “All of these things are available online now, so in reality, you don’t have to have the books for any of these things at this point. But I think that firms have — and our firm has — tried to strike a balance between the books and the online products.” In addition to treatises related to the firm’s practice areas, Hecker Brown keeps hard copies of the U.S. Code, the New Jersey statutes, the Pennsylvania statutes, the Atlantic Reporter and the Pennsylvania and federal digests. In terms of learning how to conduct electronic research, Imbriglia said the ease with which the attorneys made the transition revealed a generational gap among the firm’s ranks. “The older of us had a little more difficulty than the younger attorneys,” he said. But Imbriglia added that even some of the younger lawyers still prefer to hit the books, which is why the codes, reporters, digests and treatises haven’t been scrapped. Of course converting from books to computer-based research requires time and energy even if it eases financial burdens. For those who prefer to keep their bound volumes, at least for a while, it’s still possible to dabble in electronic research without committing to a complete overhaul. LEGAL RESEARCH SITES Free legal research sites have proliferated on the Web, and even search engines not geared toward the legal set can be invaluable sources of information. In a presentation to the Philadelphia Bar Association’s solo and small firm committee, Internet librarian Daniel Giancaterino of the Jenkins Law Library, the oldest law library in the United States, reviewed his top picks for free research on the Web, and provided pointers on how to get the most out of the sites.
However, “It’s not all on the Web, [and] it’s not all available for free,” Giancaterino warned. According to Giancaterino, Lexis and Westlaw unquestionably offer more than what one might find free or inexpensively on the Internet. “[They] exist for a purpose and with good reason,” Giancaterino said. “They’re great aggregators; they have a lot of information; they have pretty decent customer service; and they have the coverage over the years that the Internet cannot hope to match.” FAVORITE INTERNET PICKS User beware firmly in place, Giancaterino moved on to the Internet’s latest and greatest. Search engines are a hot topic among net gurus as features are added daily and new engines surface regularly, Giancaterino said. And public records sites have improved in the last year or so. For attorneys, this means plenty of information is available at little or no cost for those who know the right keystrokes. In a follow-up interview with The Legal Intelligencer, Giancaterino said practitioners only need a couple of tools for effective Web searches. First, a toolbox of useful sites is essential, and, second, a working knowledge of search techniques should be acquired. Lawyers who can conduct Boolean and phrase searches and who have a list of good sites should easily find 80 percent of what they need, Giancaterino said. Jenkins offers hands-on CLE courses on electronic research including the how-tos of Web searching for beginners as well as advanced search techniques. At the solo and small firm presentation, Giancaterino named Google (www.google.com) the best all-purpose search engine. The site has doubled in pages over the 1 1/2 years, bringing its total to 2.4 billion pages. Numerous file-types — including images, PowerPoint presentations, Microsoft Word documents and spreadsheet data — have also been added.
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