Notes from the Technology Trenches – Cost Effective Research

Cindy Carlson is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C. , and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.

Summer associates are coming. Soon. Are you ready? Do you have your speech set about cost effective research? Do you already feel as if delivering it will be an exercise in futility? If there is one thing that really gets me down about my job, it’s knowing that no matter how much time I spend working on the perfect pitch for my summers, somehow there is always at least one who misses it entirely. Inevitably, one of them comes to me after hours of work when they’ve been getting nowhere saying either, “I didn’t think I could use Westlaw or Lexis because it would be too expensive” or, “I spent six hours searching in cases online and couldn’t find what I needed.” Ouch. I do tell them to try to think in advance about their searches and choosing appropriate sources, I swear.

What’s Working Against You

Librarians can talk until they are blue in the face about cost effective research, but unless there is support within your institution for that idea, it often goes out the window. Here are some potential undermining factors:

The Billing Environment

It’s a tricky balance we strike in private law firms. We are running a business, and, ideally, we should make a profit. We don’t want to either pay to much for our resources or overcharge our clients. It is our ethical responsibility to work effectively and charge fairly. Still, I occasionally run up against the argument that, “the idea is to bill, isn’t it?” Umm, no. If that was the goal of any private firm, it would shortly have no clients.

The flip side that I hear for that argument is, “Why not only use free sources?” Again, for summers especially, it’s all about finding a responsible balance. Free sources can be fine, but when your time actually equates to money charged back to a client, it’s your responsibility to use it wisely. If it takes you ten times as long to do something using a free resource as it would to find the same information using a fee-based service, you are wasting resources.

By the same token, using a fee service is fine, so long as it is the best resource to answer your question. Summers, unfortunately, don’t have experience with a breadth of resources. Research in law school tends to be very case-oriented and close-ended, whereas legal work in a private form tends to be more open ended and often consists of broad background fact gathering that requires research in secondary sources rather than cases. Perhaps case law could answer the question, but it may not be the best resource for that answer. But how does a summer associate know when cases are not the best place to start? They may not. We remind them to do four things:

  • Plan a research strategy, however minimally. Even if you only think for a couple of minutes about your research, you’re not going in cold. It helps prevent lazy reliance on old habits (like full-text case searching).
  • Be open minded about resource options.
  • ASK, ASK, ASK someone who may know better: The assigning attorney, the librarian, etc
  • Use the 10 minute rule: If your search strategy isn’t getting you anywhere in 10 minutes, STOP! Re-evaluate, and see the steps above (especially the part about asking a librarian for advice). Ten minutes may seem short, but taken on a resource by resource basis, it’s worked very well for us.

One more potential trap: free time on Westlaw and Lexis. While more senior attorneys may look at this as a right and expect all work done online by summers to be unbilled, free time is meant for training. Try to reinforce the idea that free time is intended as an opportunity for summers to compare resources without having to worry about the ticking of a very expensive clock. It’s their opportunity to familiarize themselves with features for research (like Shephard’s and Search Advisor on Lexis, or KeyCite, KeySearch and some of the newer integrated tools that prompt searches with related materials in Westlaw) that they may have never really explored or needed in school. With luck, that attitude may continue when they return to the academic environment and they will be that much better prepared when they become full-fledged associates down the road.

Understand Your Contracts

Another minefield for researchers is the fee-based contract. Flat-rate contracts, especially where charges are billed back to contracts, are the source of all sort of misconceptions, the first of which is, “Great, we have a flat rate contract, so I can search as much as I want at no extra cost to the firm, right?” Ummm, sort of. The problem is that the renewal rates for those contracts are based on actual use, so if a summer (or anyone else for that matter) searches inefficiently, it costs the firm money in the long run. It all adds up. Also, summers need to consider their clients. Clients are very aware of what our work costs them. If they are charged too much, they go elsewhere. Last, summers should consider themselves. Summers, who will (hopefully) become associates in the near future, will be low on the professional totem poll, and so get stuck with the long jobs. Their personal time is precious, so why waste it on inefficient searching?

We tell our summers all that, but we still hear these classics:

1. I’m in a hurry. I’ll go online because it’s fastest.

It’s only fastest if it’s the appropriate resource to answer your question. Think strategy before you think source. Then, you’ll be better prepared to find the best source.

2. I don’t want to miss anything, so I’ll search every possible database.

That’s an exhaustive approach, and it’s the philosophy at some firms, but the cost-effective approach is to check only the resources that are most likely to answer the question first. Then, if necessary, check the rest. Again, it’s imperative to consider your source before you dive in.

3. I know there must be an answer, so I will search until I find it.

I think this idea must come from two lines of thought. One, the assigning attorney has said that there must be an answer out there (usually when a concept is generally accepted but so prevalent that no one has actually documented it), and summers feel obligated to search until they are told they can stop. Two, assignments in law school tend to be close-ended. Summers expect to find an answer and don’t know when to stop if they don’t. Our advice to them: First, follow the ten minute rule and double-check their strategy with someone else. Having done that, when they start seeing the same references over and over in their research, say in three or more resources, and nothing new to start them down another research trail, they should go back to their assigning attorney and let them know it looks as if that’s all they’ll be able to get. She may still ask them to persist, but at least she may offer new a avenue of approach.

What’s Working For You

The good news is that summers are fairly open minded about learning to balance costs, time constraints and the need for the required information. Basically, they are afraid to miss-step in the very expensive environment of researching using Lexis or Westlaw outside of law school. You get them while they’re new and nervous and paranoid about costs, especially when they begin to be familiar with retail rates. The trick is not to scare them away from online research entirely, but to teach them when it’s the best resource and when it isn’t.

Also, whether your firm knows it or not, you are one of the front-line fighters out there trying to keep costs low. You protect the interests of your firm, negotiate contracts to its benefit, and educate your attorneys about the resources available to them. You are an expert. Make sure they know it, and use that reputation to get their support for your efforts to encourage cost effective research. I hate having a summer come to me after I see an inflated Westlaw or Lexis bill to say, “But the attorney said he didn’t care what it cost. He wanted that information now!” So much for all my persuasive efforts to strategize and plan. Might as well tell that poor summer, “Panic! I am!” Heavens, they have enough trouble balancing the cost and time issues. Instead of causing them to panic, remind your attorneys that they should be giving actual deadlines. If they need an answer in 10 minutes, that’s fine, and something a summer can plan with. If you have the respect of your attorneys, your summers will be much more likely to respect and listen to your advice

You also know some strategies that attorneys often overlook. If you aren’t already educating your summers, you should be passing along some great tips:

  • Know your online and print tools. Our library offers classes for our summers on secondary sources, case research, regulatory materials and legislative research.
  • Know relative costs. You may not need to know the exact cost of a database every time your search online, but you should know that the bigger the database, the more expensive it will be.
  • When searching online, use the smallest database that will answer your question, but search as broadly as possible. Then use available tools, like Locate in Westlaw and Focus in Lexis, to narrow your results.
  • When you have the option, start with resources that are available in-house and where there is no charge to the client. These may be print resources, or they may be Web-based libraries. Often, these sources give you the vocabulary you need if it becomes necessary for you to search in a fee-based environment.
  • Use digests and indexes, both in print and online. Full text searching is inherently inefficient.
  • Don’t forget the 10 minute rule. If your search is not working, even in a free source like the Web, stop and reconsider your source and strategy. It’s tempting to just keep going because you’re sure there must be something out there, but resist the temptation and ask an expert if you’re not making progress.

If you have other tips to share about cost effective research, I’d love to hear them and will happily pass them along in a future column. Just let me know.

Posted in: Legal Research Training, LEXIS, Notes from the Technology Trenches, Westlaw