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March 2000

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Legal Research

How To Reduce Your Law Firm's Budget for Legal Research

Choosing wisely among the providers and options can reduce your law firm's research costs.

By Scott Davis

HOW can you, as a practicing attorney, get the most service and the most relevant information for your legal research dollars? It's tempting to conclude that simply spending more money will buy better results. However, a cautious and insightful approach, bearing in mind the dynamics of the legal research market, can give you more for less.

1. Design the right constellation of tools: i.e., choose the right plan.

Study your previous usage before you renew a contract via autopilot.

If you are a heavy user, subscribe to comprehensive flat-rate plan.

Conversely, if you are a sporadic user, subscribe only to what you really need.

You don't want to pay all year for a database you might access once or twice, buy those on a pay-as-you-go basis.

2. Split your budget among different vendors.

For example, buy the premium CDs in your specialty, then a discount comprehensive primary law source on the Web.

Free and comprehensive, if inconvenient, resources are available at your county law library.

There is even an argument for not subscribing to anything.

Rather, when you need to research a case, simply call a major and request the search. The results will be overnighted to you in paper or disk format.

A consultant may be able to do the same thing even less expensively. If you are busy, or semi-retired, or if you work part-time, you may find complete delegation optimal.

3. Negotiate price effectively.

Prices vary from firm to comparable firm by as much as 300 percent. This disparity is reason enough to hire a legal research consultant, who knows the lowest price paid in your area, and can negotiate effectively for you.

Colleagues are sworn to secrecy, not a third party. Special Library Services in St. Petersburg, Fla., is a good example of this kind of service.

4. Derive power from numbers.

The government has long employed this strategy, and not-for-profit institutions have banded together for needed savings, but private firms lag in the practice of purchasing in a group, so guess who pays the most? End-of-Quarter, especially Q4, are the best times to wrest concessions

Also, check your bar association member benefits; sometimes there are special affinity group packages for which you may qualify.

5. Notice when the billing starts for a search.

It has been successfully argued that, without benefit, no charges should accrue. Still, some online services start the clock from the first access, and make you pay two ways: both for the minutes in which you receive nothing from their slow mainframes, and your wasted time.

6. Choose media dispassionately.

The Web is trendy; the majors capitalize on the excitement. Don't follow along blindly.

Look at Intranet research as well. Are you being charged repeatedly for the same body of information?

Buy the database, either CD or flat-rate online. Price all media: book, CD, online and Web before you buy.

Suppose there were a new technology that put the Internet to shame? It was thousands of times faster, could serve hundreds of researchers at once, and was free of connection charges.

These are the characteristics of modern CD-based Intranet servers. With a server you own the computing and storage power online users rent. It's in-house, dedicated to serve all of your users, over your fast local area network, instead of a distant, shared server over a few slow lines.

CD servers aren't trendy, and they need to be maintained. But they are cost and performance winners.

Encouraging Competition

In a cost­neutral evaluation, most people prefer one of the major content providers. The majors have added value to case law such as summaries, indices, and other enhancements for easier, more precise retrieval.

But unless you are a judge, a law school (that gets connected for free), or so high in your profession that cost isn't an issue, you need to justify the higher cost of the majors.


After reviewing offerings by the majors, look at some of the alternatives. Check out,, and, for starters

There are concerns that you might miss cases if you go with a discounter. The new providers generally do not go back as far as the majors. Unless you are working in property or another field with long- standing precedents, early cases won't Shepardize anyway.

However, it is true that if you search a discount provider with the same techniques you search a major, you will miss cases.

You must use new techniques with discount providers. Let's say you are researching a tenant-landlord case.

With summaries, you can be sure the editor has included the terms tenant or landlord in the summary. Without a summary, (discount provider) you would have to broaden the search to also include the terms property, lease, rent, renter, apartment, etc. It would be impossible to appeal a case on tenant-landlord issues mentioning none of these terms.

However, you would then have to wade through equipment lease and building code cases as well.

Do you have the time so you can save the money? The starting associate or rural public counsel probably has the time. The Fortune 500 chief counsel probably doesn't.

Search Engine

Learning a new search engine is easy. Don't let that put you off.

If you find a discount provider that satisfies your needs, the time you spend learning a new system will be better compensated than your billing rate.

There are different levels of cost and service within the content provider community to address the varying time and money resources among legal research users. Base your decision on true cost and performance, not habit or comfort. Comfort with a new system will come.

Collectively, higher prices for legal research are shouldered by consumers already incredulous, enraged and impoverished over exorbitant legal bills. There is, as a result, little justice for the poor, and little good will for lawyers among the rest.

For the profession's reputation alone, lowering cost is a worthwhile goal. Through lower cost we may achieve a closer approximation of equal representation under the law.

Savings are quite possible if these guidelines are followed.

Scott Davis runs Academy Computer Services, Inc., based in Stoneham.

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