Chapter 4 - Which Research Tools?

Hard books and bookshelves are pretty, but practically dead. Do not even bother with those. Further, books become obsolete, while quality on-line research materials are regularly updated.

How about one of those encyclopedic treatises? They cover so much material; they are like the "Cadillacs" of legal knowledge. They come with almost every option.

Mistake! It is arduous and painful for the authors and co-contributors to keep up their monster volumes and thick books. Think about it from your own perspective. You just wrote a 1,876 page work covering the rules of civil procedure. Six months later, four of those rules were slightly amended. Is there any chance you would be a little burned-out on that project and not so motivated to keep it going indefinitely? Even if you were a good worker-bee and still were motivated, will you find every place in the book where those rules are mentioned so that a proper update is made? It is not unusual to go to the subject indexes in these treatises to find references to sections that no longer even exist within the work! This is enough to tell you, "stay away!"

Cardinal rule #1: Statutes and court opinions NEVER misquote themselves. This is why these are called "primary law" and all the rest is lumped into what we call "secondary materials."

However, there is a purpose for these treatise works. If done well, and with an eye to readers who need to gain a stable framework for a particular area of practice, they are useful tools at helping an attorney to see the forest through the trees. These works, however, should not be considered adequate when it comes to the ultimate need to "peel the onion." Read them once on a topic of interest and throw them away. There is no point in owning them if you can borrow them, read them at a library, etc.

For daily use, primary law (cases and statutes) and a good set of forms are all that is needed. "But forms aren't primary law," you assert. True, and you might even get away with knowing all you need to know from only the primary law, but you will be missing something huge - something law schools do not teach and even practicing lawyers take for granted every day.

The law is more than just statutes and opinions. It is based largely on custom. Custom is what contributed to law-making in the first place. Imagine knowing all the elements of a deed. Every day, thousands upon thousands of deeds are filed in the courthouses. They are almost identical in their lay-out, organization and overall appearance. You could, of course, create your own form of deed which looks entirely different and technically, have a valid deed. But do you want people thinking you are goofy or even worse, inept? People become accustomed to seeing ideas expressed in certain, predictable formats. Follow those formats. Tweak them if you have a special need (and you will). But stay within the bounds of conformity. For this reason, yes, you need a very good form set.

"Okay. So where should I get my primary law and forms? Come to think of it, I can Google all this stuff and find it pretty quick, and it's free." Nope. Going on the cheap when it comes to research materials makes you a cheap lawyer. Half-cocked and ready to stumble around every corner. If I was your client, I would be rid of you in a heart-beat. You are going to cost me big sooner or later.

Here is what you need: Westlaw.

Okay, so Lexis and all the inferiors are going to raise a terrible fuss over that statement. Well, opinion is not libel, and their emotions are of no concern. Westlaw is the most expensive, so do not over-subscribe. Believe me, their reps will pressure you to add all kinds of bells and whistles. You can run the tag up very fast.

Why Westlaw? Their key number digest. Years ago, we became disgusted at Westlaw always raising their rates - year after year. We called the Lexis representative and subscribed to Lexis. It was a fair amount less expensive. It was hardly a week into it and we knew we could not live without West's key number digest system. We actually kept West and had to endure the dual subsciptions for the year. Oh well. Live and learn. Now, this was back around the year, 2000. It could be that Lexis has improved and caught up with Westlaw. This would be for others to research and judge. I have been there and done that. I am no longer interested in experimenting.

You have to be able to Shepardize/KeyCite by POINT and not the whole case. You also need the digests because they are by POINT. Here is an example: You are researching a case, and it is fairly close to what you want, but not quite. You want to see which other cases cited the subject case on that particular point. Without this capability, you will get the whole list of cases that cite the subject case for ANY reason - including all those irrelevant ones. So now, you see that 63 cases have cited your case for "God knows what?" Good luck finding the one or two cases you really want to see.

What will happen is you will stop short in your research because you are not going to sift through all 63 cases. You stop and hope what you did was enough. This is weak. Law school introduced you to research tools, but it did not show you how to evaluate them well enough. Law school did not force you to research enough. So, what happens, when you become an attorney and your research actually becomes important to someone other than you, is that you either believe people like me, or you find out the hard way. But find out, you will. Do not listen to attorneys who tell you that something less is good enough. I cannot stand West as a company because they are always trying to milk me for every penny. But sometimes, you have to make a deal with the Devil.

In any event, if you are looking at a product that does not have a comparable digest system, in terms of years of coverage, subject matters covered and overall quality, you now know what to do. Key number digests and KeyCite are a given. On top of that, you need at a minimum (and probably a maximum):

  1. case law for your state with the ability to find all citing cases to a case with a single click (not a word search),
  2. your state's statutes annotated, and
  3. forms for family law, probate, real estate, estate planning, litigation and basic
entity formation documents. These practice areas will keep you diversified and versatile. You can expand on them as you see fit. But for most attorneys, this should be ample. Do not subscribe to less. If you do, you will regret it - hopefully not unwittingly. Some attorneys might aspire to practice in federal court. If so, add primary law for it as well. But there is no reason to think federal court is necessary. The whole premise of this book assumes only a state-law based practice.

The main point of this chapter is to get good quality research materials and forms in order to maintain high quality while delivering services efficiently. It does not cost much to be properly equipped with the highest quality research materials and forms, especially when other, superfluous costs are properly avoided.

Special attention needs to be paid to the chapter on "Versatility." This chapter goes hand-in-hand with it, but you can keep reading in order.


2015, Jeff M