Paralegals wear many hats in a law office, but one consistent and primary responsibility is to research case law and facts. Whether your attorney is considering a new case, drafting a complaint, writing a brief or fact checking another party’s allegations, your research skills are a critical component to the success of the project.
Case law research has remained mostly unchanged over the years using Lexis and Westlaw. Any paralegal worth their weight in Post-It notes should have a firm grasp on case law research skills. Factual research, on the other hand, is more complicated because some facts change frequently, while other facts remain the same. For instance, if you needed to know the high temperature in Tampa, Fla., on Sept. 23, 1990, a quick search of the National Weather Service will provide that information, and that fact will stay the same forever. It will not change. In contrast, in 1970 Pluto was, in fact, a planet.
A fact is defined as a thing that is known to have occurred, to exist or to be true. However, any one fact can change on a daily basis. Think, for instance, of the population of the United States, which changes every nanosecond.
Clearly, things have changed since the ’70s, and so has the way research is conducted. With the evolution of the World Wide Web, research has become almost commonplace for everyone. Nevertheless, paralegals are not expected to be common researchers; we are expected to be crackerjack researchers, able to find the most obscure facts backed up with concrete evidence. The Web has not necessarily made this task easier for us. We are now bombarded with so much useless information via the Web that we need to sharpen the skills needed to separate the guppies from the marlins.
The Internet is a beautiful thing. No longer do we need to leave the office to do research, which saves law firms time and money — a true benefit in this economy. Maneuvering on the Internet to accomplish your task is not an easy ride and the road is riddled with barricades and detours. Knowing where to go and having proper directions can get you to your destination.
It’s easy to just type a word or phrase into Google and hope for the best, throwing time-honored research skills out the window. Research is a talent, and, as with any talent, practice makes perfect.
All search engines operate on the premise of these basic searching principles:
• use correct spelling;
• use synonyms (if you are searching for an expert’s opinion on a topic also use the words “perspective,” “viewpoint” or “stance.” A thesaurus can help you);
• use lower-case letters to find both uppercase and lowercase terms;
• use quotation marks to find an exact string or phrase “The Rolling Stones” or “smallpox vaccine.” This is a good search technique when looking for names or titles;
• use the Boolean search terms — AND to find both terms, OR to find either or both, NOT to find the first term but not the second;
• use the wildcards (?) to replace one letter (m?n will search for man and men); (!) to replace any sequence of any number of letters; (politic* will search for politics, political or politicians;
• Take the time to formulate a search to get the best results in the most effective manner. The UC Berkeley Library provides a helpful form to assist in formulating your search in a logical way.
If you’re searching for common knowledge facts or recent news go ahead and use Google, which has an easy to use news feature that links to specific years or Yahoo. These basic search engines are ideal for finding quick information or helping you to find the Web address of an insurance company or an airline or the latest stock market information.
For more sophisticated searching you should consider using a meta-search engine. A meta-search engine searches multiple search engines at once to return a summary of results. Each meta-search engine uses its own algorithm to search and select the best results from multiple search engines. Your search results will be broader but not always better. Each meta-search engine uses its own algorithm so it’s prudent to sometimes search more than one meta-search engine. Some good meta-search engines are www.dogpile.com and www.mamma.com. Don’t let the silly names or Nickelodeon-style graphics fool you. In some cases these Web sites will get you just what you’re looking for quickly and easily. An excellent meta-search engine is www.clusty.com. Clusty organizes information in a manner that many find appealing with a magnifying glass feature that allows you to view the Web site without leaving the search result. This feature is a big time saver.
Whereas meta-search engines use software to find the best Web sites to match your search terms, a subject directory uses actual humans to sort the best Web sites to match your search terms. An extremely useful human-reviewed subject directory is the Librarians’ Internet Index. Information specialists such as librarians and editors evaluate the information on this Web site. This Web site contains broad subject headings that expand to narrower and narrower subheadings. Search engines like Google and Yahoo have their own directories that are also reviewed by human editors. But Google and Yahoo are for-profit organizations that survive on generating revenue and often contain search results from companies that are trying to sell you something. The Librarians’ Internet Index is a nonprofit organization and does not include Web sites solely for the purpose of generating revenue. Another good subject directory is the Internet Public Library, which works in the same fashion.
As fabulous and useful as these Web sites are for sifting through the abundance of information available on the common Web, you might be startled at these next claims. Notice these are claims not facts, because the information is changing as you read this article. Google claims to be able to search through 8,058,044,051 Web pages; the World Wide Web claims to house 167 terabytes of information; the Library of Congress claims to house 82.6 terabytes of information. That’s an enormous amount of information; however, the Deep Web is estimated to house 91,000 terabytes of information.
Maybe you have heard of the Deep Web, or maybe you haven’t. The Deep Web is defined as the part of the World Wide Web that conventional search engines, like Google and Yahoo cannot access; it’s the content that is housed in online databases. It’s estimated that the Deep Web is 500 times larger than the surface Web. This mass of information represents a potent research resource. At present there is not one search engine that can sort through all of the available data that is part of the entire World Wide Web, deep or otherwise. There are hundreds of thousands of databases that contain Deep Web content.
A couple Deep Web databases that you should be familiar with are www.lexis.com and www.westlaw.com. These databases contain content that is not searchable by the traditional search engines. These are examples of fee-based or subscription-based databases. Most law offices have access to Lexis and Westlaw. What about other Deep Web resources? Where are they? How can you get there?
Some common, though less familiar Deep Web databases are ProQuest, EBSCOhost and ThomsonReuters. ProQuest provides access to more than 200 scientific journals covering a wide range of topics from the physical and life sciences. EBSCOhost provides access to more than 4,500 full-text journals in biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, psychology, religion and theology. ThomsonReuters provides access to millions of records that include company profiles, industry rankings, investment reports and financial statistics.
You can access these databases and many other Deep Web databases quite easily with a library card. If you don’t have a library card — get one. If you take classes at a college, be sure you apply for access to the online library, a college library will have even more Deep Web databases available. Much of the content housed on these databases is available free to library subscribers through the online database. At the very least, you will find where the information is housed and then decide whether it is prudent to purchase a subscription or purchase the article you need.
Your local library has a wealth of free online information. In addition, many libraries around the world house specific and special collections of data and documents online. The Web site www.libdex.com/country.html lists academic, public, national and special libraries around the globe. This list can get you to some pretty obscure information (some in hard copy only) although, you may not be able to go to the Latvia International Library to search for data, but you can e-mail the reference librarian and ask if it would be possible to have a document or article e-mailed or faxed to you. This technique works 99 percent of the time. A reference librarian is a valuable resource. If you find yourself lost or suffering from researcher’s block, call or e-mail a reference librarian. If you need help with language translation, you can visit www.babblefish.com, type in your question, get the proper translation and send an e-mail to any reference librarian in the world.
Now that you are prepared to venture into the Deep Web, how do you maneuver in the choppy waters? Think of yourself as a fisherman and the Deep Web as the ocean. You can cast your net but how many fish can you catch? Certainly not all of the fish in the ocean.
Currently, the widest net you can cast on the Deep Web is located at www.completeplanet.com. CompletePlanet describes itself as the front door to the Deep Web databases on the Web and to the thousands of regular search engines — it is the first step in trying to find highly topical information. By tracing through CompletePlanet’s subject structure or searching Deep Web sites, you can go to various topic areas, such as energy or agriculture or food or medicine, and find rich content sites not accessible using conventional search engines.
BrightPlanet initially developed the CompletePlanet compilation to identify and tap into many hundreds of thousands of search sources simultaneously to automatically deliver high-quality content to its corporate customers. It then decided to make CompletePlanet available as a public service to the Internet search public. Collectively, the value of these databases is extremely high. Each database is focused in nature, and the sheer numbers of them indicate that there are hundreds if not thousands in any given subject area. You can click on the link or links provided by CompletePlanet, go to the individual high value databases, and search one-by-one there.
CompletePlanet is a superior “go-to” search engine for any kind of specialized fact research or fact checking. It will get you headed in the right direction and help you navigate where you’re going with your research.
Just as you should always use search terms, you should always check the accuracy of your facts. Ask yourself these questions: Who is the author? What else can you find out about this author? Have they written anything else? What are the author’s credentials, education and reputation? Is the information well researched and documented? Is the information objective or is there a bias? How current is the information?
Research is a process that takes time, curiosity and patience. The further you go in the research process, the more sources you will find. The more sources you find, the better equipped you are to make a statement of the facts you have uncovered. One sentence does not make a fact. One Web site does not make a fact. Only the collaboration of many sources can back up facts.
My grandmother always told me “believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.” Stop surfing the shallow surface of the Web and dive into the Deep Web to find the treasures at the very depths of the Internet.
Kim Walker is a litigation paralegal with the firm of Berger & Montague, P.C. She has been a paralegal in Philadelphia for 27 years. She currently serves as the chairperson of the technology committee of the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals, the chairperson of the medical/legal committee of the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals and is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Forum.