When to Use Computer Assisted Legal Research

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When To Use Computer Assisted Legal Research

Today legal researchers have a wide variety of manual and computer assisted legal research tools from which to choose. As with most trades, the key to cost effective and efficient use of the tools is not only knowing which are good and which are bad, but knowing when and how to use them.

Over the past couple of years the legal industry has experienced a great deal of hype about the application of new technologies to the age old practice of legal research. Although computer assisted legal research (CALR) is not new, the cloud of dust from its meteoric entry has not quite settled.

Pick up any bar journal or law magazine and you will very likely come across ads that read: "Only WESTLAW can give you the assurance that the decision on which you've built your case is still good law," or "LEXIS is not only fast and simple--it can also save you money."

Certainly there is truth to these words, but the overall impression is that these new CALR systems will do everything short of cook you breakfast. The complete truth is slightly different.

There are certain types of research for which CALR services are admirably suited and used. On the other hand, there are types of research for which CALR services are poorly suited and best not used. Knowing when to use CALR services will not only make a practitioner's research more efficient, but it will also save him or her a great deal of money.

Much of today's hype about law office automation, and about CALR services in particular, needs to be examined and placed in proper perspective. Over the last three to five years there have been several articles discussing the basic question: "Is there a legal duty to automate?" The simple answer to the question these articles raise is "Yes, there may be a legal duty to be effective and use effective management and research tools--the concept of reasonable duty and care--but no one has yet lost a malpractice suite because their calendar wasn't automated."

In many, perhaps even in most instances, automating a calendar may make nothing but sense. Certainly with the vast number of both micro and minicomputer docket control/calendar packages now being offered it makes more and more sense to step into automation.

But simply writing important dates in a desk calendar has worked fine for many attorneys since well before the days of Thomas Jefferson. There's a lot to be said for the maxim: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

In regards to CALR services, a 1986 article entitled "Computer Assisted Legal Research.....Another Basis for Malpractice?" is an excellent discussion of whether or not failure to use CALR services may mean potential malpractice liability.[1] The article is an excellent overall discussion, and worth keeping in mind. But let's not lose sight of the question mark in the article's title. It is significant to note that the article's conclusion contains a six sentence paragraph, of which five are questions.

The fact remains, no practitioner has yet lost a malpractice suit over failure to use CALR services.

The question of whether or not there is a legal duty to use CALR services is good, if for no other reason than it forces legal practitioners to at least become aware of CALR services. But practitioners shouldn't let it cloud the facts. CALR services are excellent for some types of research, but very poor for others.

A 1986 issue of the Law Library Journal contained an article entitled, "The Curse of Thamus: An Analysis of Full-Text Legal Document Retrieval."[2] The article discusses the results of a study made of the research efficiency of CALR services. The article's conclusion states, "An examination of the findings of Blair and Maron with respect to the recall performance expected of full-text retrieval systems does not indicate that the existing CALR systems should be abandoned. It does suggest, however, that they are severely limited in their usefullness for certain applications, and that there is a good deal that could be done to improve them. …