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Legal Research Online and in the Library

Legal Research Online and in the Library

by Stephen Elias, Susan Levinkind (Joint Author)
People like to have choices. Black or with milk? Grainy or fine? Beveled or smoked? Legal researchers are no exception. Now, thanks to the rise of the Internet, they have their own set of choices: online or in the library?

Legal Research Online and in the Library helps researchers decide where to go to find the answers they need, whether they're browsing


People like to have choices. Black or with milk? Grainy or fine? Beveled or smoked? Legal researchers are no exception. Now, thanks to the rise of the Internet, they have their own set of choices: online or in the library?

Legal Research Online and in the Library helps researchers decide where to go to find the answers they need, whether they're browsing the stacks or surfing the Web. The book covers the tools of the traditional trade, such as periodicals, encyclopedias and case digests and provides practice exercies and sample research questiions. It also casts light on the legal research opportunities on the information super highway, explaining how to conduct specific legal inquiries on the Web. To make the searches even easier, the book comes packaged with a CD-ROM that provides point-and-click access to over 600 law- and government-related URLs. An indispensable resource!

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 13: Legal Research Online : What's Out There And What Isn't

Legal research is rapidly becoming automated. A click of the button can get you a case, a statute, a regulation or a learned discussion of the issues that concern you. Legal research tasks that might take hours or days using the books in the law library can now be accomplished in minutes with the help of a computer and modem, a phone line and the Internet.

Until this year (1998), it was impossible to do credible legal research by computer without using one of two huge databases-Westlaw and Lexis-at an exorbitant cost. In reality, these services were (and are) used primarily by law students (their law schools pick up the tab), well-heeled law firms (their clients pay dearly) and the occasional public law library patron who can afford the search fees. Everyone else had to hit the books for even the most basic legal research task.

And then along came the Internet-a world-wide assortment of computer networks that share common rules for access to and transfer of stored data. There are several systems or protocols that transmit information over the Internet. The most important is a type of computer language that supports the World Wide Web and lets your Internet browser uses to jump from document to document and from site to site.

If you have worked your way through this book's earlier chapters, you have already read about some of the legal resources available on the World Wide Web. Hopefully, you've joined us for our step-by-step sample searches of these resources. This chapter augments the earlier information by providing an overview of how you can use the Internet to do the more traditional type of legal research that forms the basis for this book.

A. What's Out There-And What Isn't

You can now find many of the basic resources on the Web that are available to you in the law library. As with the law library, many of these resources are available for free. As of June 1998, these include: state statutes for every state except Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and West Virginia state regulations for most states federal statutes and regulations information on pending and recent state and federal legislation recent state and federal appellate court opinions U.S. Supreme Court opinions going back 100 years municipal codes and ordinances (for about half the states), and background (secondary) resources on virtually every legal topic.

Unfortunately, not every good source of legal information is free on the Web. Some important resources and research tools that are free in the law library are accessible on the Web only after subscribing to the service or paying a per use fee. However, when you compare these costs with the costs inherent in visiting a law library and using printed resources for your research-transportation, parking, photocopying and time-you may come out ahead on the Web. With a major credit card, you can use the Web to:

  • Search older (archived) state and federal appellate court opinions
  • "Shepardize" any interesting cases that you find by headnote and West key number, and
  • Read any case that you discover through your Shepar_ dizing activity.
The combination of free and fee-based resourccs on the Web will in most cases give you everything you need to follow the basic research strategy outlined in Chapter 2, Section C and restated in Section E below.

In some cases, the resources you'll be using on the Web don't exist in the law library. But they will often serve the same purpose. (See Chapter 5, Section E for an example of finding background materials on the Internet.) Likewise, many of the background resources we describe in Chapter 5 are not available on the Web-for example, you can't get to the American Jurisprudence or Corpus Juris encyclopedias, or to the American Law Reports series, from the Web. But if you want to pay the price for using Westlaw, Lexis or Mathew Bender's "Authority on Demand" service (http: //www.bender.com), you will find some of the same background resources that are available for free in the law library.

It's also important to note that as this book goes to print, both Westlaw and Lexis are making their huge databases available over the Internet, primarily on a subscription basis which is still very pricey. However, Westlaw offers some fee-based services to nonsubcribers that are both helpful and reasonably priced (see, for instance, the research example using KeyCite in Chapter 10, Section C, and Lexis undoubtedly will follow suit.

More About Westlaw And Lexis

Without a doubt, Westlaw and Lexis would be your legal research sites of choice on the Internet if money were no object. Both services provide universal access to reported cases, state and federal statutes and a wealth of useful legal background materials. If you do a lot of legal research, you should explore the various subscription and pricing options offered by these services. It may be that one of these will fit your needs and be affordable. To find out more about these services-what they offer and what they cost-visit Westlaw at http-//www.westlaw,com and Lexis at http.-//www.lexis.com.

B. How Legal Materials Are Organized On The Internet

Most of this book is dedicated to showing you how to find your way around the typical law library. Now it's time to do the same for a legal question you bring to the Internet. We'll explain the process as it relates to a typical visit to a good old-fashioned library.

1. Step One: Open The Door

just as you can't find a case or read a statute until you've waltzed into the library, you can't get information off the Web until you use the Internet equivalent of your two feet: your browser, which connects you with the electronic law library of your choice. No need for a bus or car ride across town and parking lot fees-by typing an electronic law library's address, or "URL," into your browser's search box, you'll be there instantly. For instance, by typing this URL in your browser-http://www.law.cornell.edu/-you will find yourself at the Cornell Legal Information Center, the essence of an electronic law library. But often, instead of going directly to a specific electronic law library, you will be better served by using your browser to connect to an independent law finder service that maintains connections (links) to hundreds of general and specialized electronic law libraries. You can think of these law finder services as the equivalent of a travel agent specializing in electronic law libraries. You go to the agent, describe your wishes ("A big resort with great food, beaches and lots of intelligent, available singles") and wait for the agent to sort through all the possible resorts until he finds the one that is most likely to deliver. A law finder service is the functional equivalent of your agent for the Web. As a travel agent's bulging file drawers contain information about vacation spots all over the world, so does a law finder service contain information about the resources available through the many electronic law libraries on the Web. Throughout this book we provide lists of selected law finder services and destination sites that we have found consistently helpful. We think that the less information you have to deal with at the outset, the easier time you will have getting started.

Law and Government On The Net: An Internet Travel Agent The Nolo Press CD-ROM product titled Law and Government on the Net [LGN] by James Evans provides detailed descriptions of the law finder services and the thousands of law-related sites on the Web. Using LGN as a launch platform for your legal research has two benefits:

  • Like an experienced and knowledgeable travel agent, it has identified and described those Internet sites that are the best (and notes the ones to be avoided), and

  • It can save you time and money. Jump-starting your research before you go online can be a huge advantage if your Internet connection is slow or you are online during peak hours when the Internet becomes more like molassesnet.
For a good understanding of how Law and Government on the Networks, follow the example on finding background information on the Internet in Chapter 5, Section E.

2. Step Two: Visit The Catalog

Every regular law library provides a catalog which lets you find books by author, book title and subject matter. Until the 1990s, this catalog consisted of cards (and was aptly referred to as a card catalog) Now, most larger law libraries have converted their card catalog to a computerized retrieval system based on the same information that was in the card catalog.

Law libraries on the Web, and the law finder services that help you find materials in them, also use a catalog, one that's quite different. There are two reasons for this change. First, because Web materials exist electronically, they can be stored and retrieved in a much more flexible manner than their paper versions. For example, law library catalogs refer almost entirely to whole books, whereas online catalogs also reference chapters, pages and paragraphs of books. And electronic catalogs reach beyond standard library fare and refer you to a vast array of articles and legal discussions of every conceivable type.

Second, the physical constraints applicable to card catalogs-which carried over to the electronic catalogs that were derived from them-are non-existent on the Web. The online catalogs aren't limited by the size of the card or the space available for the catalog.

Generally, Web catalogs organize legal materials under two groupings:

Group 1: Materials grouped according to background subject matter categories (like bankruptcy, trademarks, divorce), and

Group 2: Primary law materials (cases, statutes, regulations).

In addition, most catalogs let you search for materials according to the words that are used in them. We cover this type of search in Section D below, where we discuss key word searching.

3. Step Three: Find Out Where The Various Collections Of Information Are Kept

If you were using a regular law library, you could find the resources in Groups I and 2 by checking the catalog or floor plan or just walking around to see where the books are shelved-statutes over there, case reporters right down here, treatises back in the stacks, encyclopedias up by the reference desk.

In an electronic law library, you do an equivalent kind of reconnoitering. A little surfing around the Home Page of a well-designed law finder service or electronic library will quickly tell you where to find appropriate background materials, statutes, and cases. You'll see buttons to click or descriptive phrases that are the digital version of, say, a sign saying "California Codes" on the end of a row of books in the library.

C. Searching By Subject Matter Categories On The Web

Let's continue our get-acquainted tour of an electronic law library by focusing on Group 1, which has arranged legal information by traditional subject-matter categories. Looking for your answer by trying to place it within a library's categories and sub-categories is called "topical" or category searching. It works best when you want background information, but it can also be useful for more specific legal questions. . . .

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