Most clients — as rational consumers — want the best product available, for the least amount of money. While associates cannot control the rates for which their time is billed, they can control another price factor: the cost of their research. After receiving an assignment from a partner, most associates instinctually start researching the issue on Westlaw or LexisNexis, incurring considerable charges that are passed onto the client.
There are, however, many free resources available online that associates can, and should, first consult. Kicking the instinctual habit to immediately turn to Westlaw or Lexis will save the client money, which will in turn please the partner for whom you are working. Moreover, these free resources often locate cases or sources that searches on Westlaw or Lexis may not yield. At the very least, one can use these free resources to get acquainted with a new area of the law, or to find a few leading cases for a particular topic. Beyond that, featuring one’s ability to think outside the box, while also displaying compassion for a client’s concerns over costs, are sure ways to become noticed by partners in your firm. The following are some free online legal resources and search tips that should be used before running expensive searches on Westlaw or Lexis.
Search engines are capable of performing meta-searches that will help you locate a particular type of file or focus your search to a particular website or date range.
• File type: To search for a particular type of file (e.g., a PowerPoint presentation), use the format “filetype:ppt” followed by your search term. Thus, entering “filetype:ppt benefits of arbitration” into your Google search bar will only return PowerPoint presentations that discuss the benefits of arbitration. Running a PowerPoint filetype search can be extremely useful for finding CLE presentations or firm bulletins on a particular issue that are often a good starting point, or a quick tutorial on any given issue. Other popular extensions are: pdf, docx and xlsx for PDF, Word and Excel files.
• Prefix site: These searches will return topics from one particular website. For instance, entering “site:nytimes.com recent supreme court decisions” into your Google search bar will fetch links to articles, blog posts and other references to recent Supreme Court decisions that appeared in The New York Times. Prefix site searches are a good way to get a quick survey of the current state of an issue or topic in the media. You could also use the search to find out if a particular firm has published any information on a topic of interest.
• Number range: To search a topic within a range of numbers, use the format “[number]..[number].” That is, to search for articles by Jeffrey Toobin about the Supreme Court between 2001 and 2006, enter “Jeffrey Toobin Supreme Court 2001..2006.”
Free Online Resources
These sites provide free legal research and often include material and resources that cannot be found or accessed on Westlaw or Lexis.
• Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com): Google Scholar contains the full texts of many federal and state cases, as well as legal journal articles. It also features an advanced search that can be used to narrow the search to a particular jurisdiction. Google Scholar is particularly useful for finding scholarly secondary sources that may be helpful in making policy arguments.
• Findlaw.com (http://findlaw.com): If you click on the “visit our professional site” link in the upper right-hand corner of the home page, you will be brought to a page containing links to free federal and state opinions. State codes and regulations are also published here. FindLaw also contains useful legal forms that are free to access.
• Google patent search (http://google.com/patents): Google’s patent search is a searchable database for all U.S. published patents. There is also an advanced search by which one can search by patent number, title, inventor, original assignee or date.
• Thomas, Library of Congress (http://thomas.loc.gov): Thomas allows searches by keyword, phrase or bill number to find the legislative history of that bill. You can also browse bills by U.S. representative or Senate sponsor.
• Cornell University Annotated Code (http://www.law.cornell.edu/statutes.html): Cornell Law maintains this searchable database of all annotated federal codes.
Knowing advanced Boolean logic can help you locate your research target much more efficiently. Check out a Boolean search guide (e.g., http://www.googleguide.com/advanced_operators_reference.html) to learn how to run restricted searches, specialized information queries or alternative query types. You can use most of these search terms in Westlaw and Lexis, too.
Google News Alert
Use Google News Alerts to get daily, weekly or monthly updates on a particular topic. You can also filter your alerts to receive only news articles, or videos, or blogs. Google News Alerts are a great way to keep tabs on an adversary or to monitor the popular perception of a client.
Clients expect lawyers to empathize with their situations and to anticipate their needs. Part of that expectation is demonstrated through hard work to achieve the client’s desired result. But lawyers can also express their empathy by cutting costs where possible. Doing so will also distinguish your firm from others that won’t think twice before racking up lucrative research expenses. Using the tips and resources above will show that you think about these issues and that you care, leading clients and partners alike to take notice.
Ben Feldman is a litigation associate with Fox Rothschild in the firm’s Pittsburgh office. Prior to joining Fox Rothschild in September, he clerked for U.S. District Chief Judge Gregory M. Sleet of the District of Delaware.