Why Legal Research?

By Griffith, Cary | Information Today, September 1992 | Go to article overview

Why Legal Research?


Griffith, Cary, Information Today


One of the most common complaints of everyone I know is that lawyers are expensive. People generally have little or no understanding of what the practice of law entails, or more specifically, what is involved with legal research. What they do know is that the bill at the end of the day is usually high, and needs to be paid.

But today the practice of law is actually becoming more cost effective and efficient. Over the last decade, one of the most important areas of improvement has been legal research.

As new scientific information becomes available, and as society changes, the laws that reflect those changes are drafted by state and federal courts and legislatures. Those laws are tested in the courts. What was illegal yesterday may be legal today. What was regulated yesterday may be unregulated today. And in both instances, the reverse may also be true.

Attorneys are largely responsible for creating, maintaining, and testing those laws. Not coincidentally, it is also their ethical responsibility to make certain their clients are aware of those laws. Consequently, the nature of the practice of law requires attorneys to perform legal research.

Unfortunately, legal research isn't cheap. Like everything else in America, the information management revolution has also come to the practice of investigating the law--with both good and bad results.

Today, several computer assisted legal research services exist that augment more traditional manual research methods, providing lawyers and paralegals with a wide array of legal research options from which to choose...for a price.

Judicious business people I know often question the invoices they receive from their lawyers. Business people are wise to examine their invoices. But in order to make an informed decision they have to understand what their lawyer does, and know what to look for. If they come upon a line item that says:

Computer Assisted Legal Research $354.00 they are entirely within their right to question the item. But the truth of the matter is that the research session, performed on a service like Dialog or Westlaw, while appearing expensive, may be one of the most cost effective and productive services the attorney can provide.

Competent and thorough legal research requires time and money. While some clients may question the expense, today's legal research tools make it more efficient, powerful, and cost effective than ever before.

In performing legal research, lawyers have three options--do traditional legal research, do computer assisted legal research, or perform a combination of manual and computerized research.

Some legal work does not require research. A business may hire a lawyer to file papers, incorporate a business, or perform some similar procedural task. If an attorney is already familiar with the procedure, and the law behind it, very little, or no research should be required. But if the client's project involves something more complex, it is the lawyer's responsibility to perform the amount of research necessary to meet their client's needs.

Consider a family that wants to sell a building. After performing an environmental audit of the property, they discover that the ground is contaminated with creosote. Several years earlier a previous owner manufactured railroad ties and soaked them in the wood preservative. Several potential legal issues now surround the sale of the property.

Is creosote a hazardous substance? Is it regulated by any state or federal agencies? If so, can they sell the property as is, or will they have to clean it up? And if they have to clean it up, how can it be cleaned up, and what are the costs associated with the clean-up? Perhaps more importantly, what's the current owner's liability for paying the clean-up costs? And what about the liability of the previous owner? Is the previous owner still operating a business? And if so, how can that business be located? …

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