THE UNIVERSE OF CHOICES FOR LEGAL RESEARCH
The world of legal research has been profoundly affected by the information and technology explosions of recent years. The universe of legal materials was once fairly small and contained in a predictable set of sources. Currently the sheer volume of potentially applicable materials, as well as the variety of formats in which they can be accessed, has increased dramatically. The number of cases decided by courts has skyrocketed in recent years; the volume of legislation and regulation has expanded in scope as well as in volume. To complicate matters further, the researcher also may have many more options as to the format in which to search for or access these materials; the researcher must therefore learn to evaluate the various formats available for a given research task.
Factors of cost and time efficiency have assumed great importance for the legal researcher. In "real world" settings, lawyers have always had to make determinations about how much research a particular problem is worth. In the current legal marketplace, clients shop for service much more critically than ever before, and may be much less willing than in the past to pay for unlimited research costs. The researcher's cost-benefit analysis is complicated by the need to make choices among print and electronic formats for the same information. As you will learn in this course, the decision is often not an easy one.
The Lexis system has been available since the mid 1970's; Westlaw has been widely available since the early 1980's. Both electronic research systems offer tremendous advantages to researchers by offering large databases of both primary sources and secondary sources. While these systems have revolutionized traditional methods of research, they have not replaced the print sources. Although the time involved in using print materials must be factored against the time spent online, the cost of using the online systems can be prohibitive in many "real world" situations. Print sources still provide the ability to browse and to "happen upon" cases or other sources that may not be found if the researcher does not think of the terminology contained in those opinions. The flexibility of print sources may also suggest alternative means of approaching or analyzing legal issues more readily than the more literal electronic research tools.
The Internet also plays an important role in the legal research process. Particularly in the administrative law arena, Internet sites offer extensive agency materials that are not available elsewhere. In other areas such as case and statutory law, material on the Internet can almost always be found in legal research databases and in print sources - that is, there is little which is not conveniently available elsewhere. Furthermore, Internet coverage often does not extend very far beyond recent years. Particularly in legal research, where access to historical materials and access to very current information are both extremely important, Internet researchers must be wary of sites that are not authoritative and/or are not updated on a regular basis. While researching cases and statutes on the Internet may be a viable alternative if other sources are not available or if the cost of the online services is too high to consider in a particular situation, the Internet is not yet a source that can be relied upon exclusively for legal research. Accuracy and currency of Internet sites vary greatly.
Often the most effective approach to researching a given problem is to utilize a combination of electronic and print sources. It is essential in today's research environment to become adept at using a variety of formats and in making informed judgments about which formats are most efficient to consult at various stages of the research process.