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Virtual Research – How To Master Online Research In A Freedom Of Information World

When I speak about the topic of virtual lawyering to young lawyers just starting out, one concern I hear is that going 100% “virtual” means losing access to critical research tools that may come with renting a traditional office space.  When a space is offered for lease in a suite occupied by other attorneys, one perk the “for rent” ads often mention is access to a law library.  In many instances, this means a small version of the traditional law library with print versions of codes, case books, Restatements, and practice guides such as The Rutter Group series. It may also mean that the suite offers the use of electronic research materials to the tenants.

If your main concern about embracing a virtual law practice is the inability to access research information, then let me reassure you that you can go 100% virtual and still have full access to all the research materials you should ever need — even if you do not have the money to license expensive services such as West or Lexis Nexis.  In fact, you may just open yourself up to a host of new and previously-undiscovered resources by freeing yourself from the tethers of “old-school” legal research.

Because I hear this concern with fair regularity, I have decided to start a regular column here on Cyber-Esq., called “Find It Friday”©.  “Find It Friday” will be devoted to the topic of virtual legal research, and is the first in a planned “CyberWeek Series”© of regular articles on topics that seem to engender particular interest among my readers.

In “Find It Friday,” I will be emphasizing new developments in the area of legal research, providing links to online research tools.  In addition, I will be paying especially close attention to any free resources that exist in the virtual world that might assist the cost-conscious readers.  Heck, these days, isn’t that just about all of us?

To get “Find It Friday” started, here is a link to 3 sites offering free or nearly free access to legal information:

Lectlaw.com – The ‘Lectric Library’ is a site containing a variety of legal information as well as links to other law-related sites. Their information is basic, and by no means could be the last stop in your legal research.  However, let us say that you have a meeting scheduled with a potential new client who has a question about whether an employer can lawfully conduct workplace drug testing.  Your schedule is tight and you have not had a sufficient opportunity to conduct pre-consultation research into the issue.  You want to give the client some useful information during the interview, possibly get retained, and avoid sounding like a complete buffoon.  Lectric Library may well be a good place for you to quickly find access to starting-point, virtual information that will help you, regardless of your jurisdiction.

In addition, Lectric Library has an online legal dictionary and a database of premium forms to search and download.  It should be noted that the forms are not all free to download; they are, however, competitive with many other sites offering legal forms downloads.

Below are screen shots I took of the relevant pages from Lectric Library, illustrating what you would find if you were the hypothetical attorney with the potential new client I described.

FireShot capture #025 - 'The 'Lectric Law Library's Entrance, Welcome & Tour - legal resources and definitions' - www_lectlaw_com

FireShot capture #026 - 'Employment and Labor Law' - www_lectlaw_com_temp_html

From the second page above, you would click the link entitled “Drug Testing In The Workplace,” which would take you to an article in the ACLU’s database discussing general rights and obligations pertinent to the subject.

Internet Legal Research Group – No list of online legal research information would be complete with mentioning Internet Legal Research Online.  Internet Legal Research Online is a comprehensive guide to legal resources available online, and you should find it helpful in many ways as a virtual lawyer.

HG.org – Suppose you would like to find a portal-type site that will direct you to an array of different legal sites, not just run-of-the-mill legal research.  You want to find information about various law firms, schools, associations, and even legal publishers.  Oh yeah, you also want information from around the world.

If this is you, HG.org might be just the ticket.  HG.org’s tagline boasts as being a source of “worldwide legal directories.”  I was not familiar with the site until preparing to write this article, so I cannot vouch entirely for the comprehensiveness of their information.  However, I can say that their site is relatively user-friendly and does appear to contain an impressive collection of information categorized under these headings:  law firms, legal services, law & practice, employment, students, associations, publications, and events.


Law Library of Congress – As both an attorney and educator, I have encountered a surprisingly high number of people unaware that the Library of Congress, through its Public Services Division, offers a free online library called the Law Library of Congress.

While not the most user-friendly online library one will encounter, it is, nevertheless, a thorough library and well worth a look-see.  The Law Library of Congress began in 1832 by act of Congress and is, in fact, the world’s largest law library with 2.65 million volumes covering almost every jurisdiction in the world.  Another nifty benefit of the Law Library of Congress is the “Ask A Librarian” feature to help you with your research.

Justia.com – Justia.com is fastly becoming one of the true powerhouses in the field of Internet legal research.  Offering access to a wide variety of free online legal research, Justia.com is also active on Facebook.

If you were a California attorney, for example, needing to find the specific statute in the Food and Agricultural Code that discussed the “Food Biotechnology Task Force,” but did not have access to Westlaw or Lexis Nexis, you could use Justia to find that Code provision quickly and easily.  Justia.com provides that kind of information and much more, and is not limited just to California either.

Below are screen shots displaying how the information would appear if you were this hypothetical California attorney:

FireShot capture #028 - 'Justia __ Law & Legal Information for Lawyers, Students, Business and the Public' - www_justia_com

FireShot capture #029 - 'US Laws, Codes, Statutes & Cases -- Justia' - law_justia_com

FireShot capture #030 - 'California Laws, Codes, Statutes & Cases -- Justia' - law_justia_com_california

FireShot capture #007 - 'California Food and Agricultural Code - California Code - California Law - California Statutes __ Justia' - law_justia_com_california_codes_fac_html

After you reach the final page above, you will easily see that the provision you are looking for is Chapter 3, Article 5, sections 491-492. You could find this information more quickly on the Justia site, by the way – I present it this way so that you can walk through these pages and get a feel for the site.

Another thing I personally like about the Justia site is that it provides jurisdiction-specific information about legal services available to you and your clients.  On page three above, for example, you could find listings and links for services such as California Indian Legal Services, Inc. or California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.  Such services are important resources to know about if you practice in particular fields.

Justia has recently acquired another useful online resource, The Virtual Chase (TVC), which I include as number 5. TVC is an online resource that teaches legal professionals how to conduct more effective legal research.

According to the information shown on the landing page for The Virtual Chase, Justia.com apparently intends to continue TVC’s development rather than discontinue it.

Both of these sites are worth adding to your own personal research database.

I hope you have found this first installment of “Find It Friday” helpful.  If you know of an online site that you think should be included in “Find It Friday,” please provide me with the name of the site, even if it is your own site. I will review the site, see how it works, what kind of information it contains, and include it in a future “Find It Friday.”  (One Caveat:  keep in mind that I am looking for accuracy, thoroughness, ease of use, and affordability.  To maintain the integrity of the articles, not all suggested sites will be included.  If you propose a site, and it is not included, please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns.)



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