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The Head of Research Services from Michigan State University College of Law Discusses Online Legal Research

Jane Edwards discusses the issues related to the cost of electronic resources in online legal research, the value of print resources and the competition between proprietary databases and free resources on the web.

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Damien Allen:  Good afternoon and welcome to GAL Radio.  My name is Damien Allen and joining my on the phone today is Jane Edwards, the Assistant Director of Public Services.  Jane is also the Head of Research Services for the Michigan State University College of Law Law Library and is an Adjunct Professor of Advanced Legal Research.  Good afternoon, welcome to program, Jane.

Jane Edwards:  Thanks very much.

Damien Allen:  It’s a pleasure to have you here today.  Now, we’re going to be talking about online legal research and some of the pros and cons on it and what’s going on today in the field.  You had done an article for Amicus Magazine last fall, and in the beginning of the article you had mentioned a cartoon that was one of your favorites.  It shows a group of researchers working on computers and mounted on the wall is a glass case full of books saying break in case of emergency, which I like cartoons like this.  It’s one of those situations that technology has jumped up so much that now pretty much everything is based on the computer based on the internet.  What are the biggest issues we’re having to deal with this right now?

Jane Edwards:  Well, I think right now some of the biggest issues are cost.  That’s probably one of the biggest issues, although the cost of electronic resources keeps going down as you see more competition, not only from proprietary databases but also from the free web resources.  So, cost is still a big issue though, and that’s one of the issues that attorneys and even the public has to deal with when they’re doing legal research and academic institutions who subscribe to sources.  I think one of the other biggest issues that is going on is that people think everything is available online and it is, in fact, not available online.  There are lots and lots of resources that just aren’t there electronically yet, and people have the expectation that it is, and if they get a little too used to using electronic, then they have that expectation.  And so, here at the Law School, we try to instill in the students as they’re getting ready to be attorneys that not everything’s there online.  Yes, a lot of it is, and the online makes it much easier to do legal research, but you may have to go to print every once in a while when you’re out in practice. 

Damien Allen:  Now with online legal research, is it the case that, much like Wikipedia or other articles or blogs written on the web, that, yes, there may be information there on that particular subject, to that particular case, or that particular tenant of law, but it’s not necessarily the correct point?  It’s somebody’s opinion or a mistaken belief that that is the letter of the law. 

Jane Edwards:  It depends on the source that you’re looking at.  If you’re looking at free sources, and its sources that are interpreting the law, you always have to take those, in my opinion, with a grain of salt.  Now, if you’re looking at something on Lexis or Westlaw, and you’re looking at something like a book online or encyclopedia, those are very reliable sources. They’re sources that have been edited and they have legal experts working for them that do the editing.  So, those are very reliable sources.  It’s sort of a “you get what you pay for” kind of theory.  Now, a lot of law is law that’s created by the legislature or the courts.  So, it’s coming from the actual source.  And in those instances, you don’t have someone interpreting or looking at it and talking about it; it’s just the law.  And in those cases, the free sources tend be to very reliable, exactly what they’re supposed to be.  The only issues there are a lot of the free websites, the organization or the entity, the governmental entity will say, will put a caveat on the source by saying, you know, it’s not reliable, it’s susceptible to mistakes, and so, you cannot rely on it.  They don’t give any guarantees about what’s out there for free.  So, like I said, a lot of it is you get what you pay for, especially when you’re looking at free sources where someone is interpreting the law.  But most of the people who do that are attorneys, a lot of them are attorneys, and they’re educated, and they’ll give their side of it, but I think when you think about credibility, you do want to evaluate what’s the source, who’s the publisher, what’s their background, all those kinds of things when you’re evaluating those sources online.

Damien Allen:  Now with Lexis and Westlaw being two of the biggest sources of online legal research, all the competition with the free sources on there, what’s coming down the pipe as far as changes for Lexis and Westlaw and those types of search engines for legal research?

Jane Edwards:  Well, I think what Lexis and Westlaw are doing is they’re trying to make their sources feel a little bit more like Google, making searches that are just basic type searches where someone can type in words and retrieve what they’re looking for.  I think that they’ll also be adding more of the treatises that interpret the law.  Because right now on Lexis and Westlaw you have all of your primary law, and that’s pretty much what’s available for free online.  The things that make Lexis and Westlaw more valuable are the things that interpret the law, which we call secondary sources.  The treatises and books that…where you have experts talking about the law and analyzing the law and interpreting the law, that’s what makes people want to pay them, because it has that added content.  I think they’re just trying to make the sources easier to use.  So, I think a good example – and this has been around for while – but a good example is the United States code or any code that you might be searching online.  They’ve added a lot of enhancements to the code to make it feel more like books because everyone –most, I shouldn’t say everyone – but most people who are searching codes, like to do it in print because they can browse, they can flip back and forth, they can look at tables of contents, and so Lexis and Westlaw are adding those types of features and making it easier to link between documents and browse a little bit more.  I think that that’s probably the direction that those vendors will be going.  I think just making things easier for people and making it more like …because…Google is a competitor… Google now has a search function under Google Scholar where you can search for cases, and that makes it a lot easier to do your legal research because people are used to using Google.  I think that in the future we’ll see more of that where Lexis and Westlaw are trying to go in that kind of direction, making it what people are used to with the common search engines that are out there.

Damien Allen:  What are some of the improvements that you think need to be made whole scale in online research?

Jane Edwards:  I think for the free resources, I think the search capabilities…if those could be improved, then I think the free resources will be a huge competitor to Lexis and Westlaw.  You know, there’s so much material, I think, online and in Lexis and Westlaw, and sometimes it’s hard to just know what’s there, and I’m not exactly sure what the answer to that is, of how to make it easier for people to become aware of what’s available.  Maybe it’s just a matter of designing the databases differently, but I think that’s part of it is people trying to sort through all of the information that they have and there’s… I think the vendors are doing a really good job.  I think Lexis and Westlaw have lots of search features that help people do that.  The free resources don’t have much of that. so that puts them at a disadvantage.

Damien Allen:  Any closing thoughts before we let you go, Jane? 

Jane Edwards:  I think, going back to the cartoon that I love so much, I think one of those things that’s interesting about legal research is that I’m one of those people who absolutely love electronic resources.  I think they’re great.  I think they have done, they have made the work of attorneys so much easier than they were in the past, and so I’m a big advocate for electronic resources. I hope the cost will come down at some point in the future but, you know, the publishers have to make money so they can stay in business, but I think there is still a lot of merit in the print resources and they’re very valuable, and I don’t think we’re at a point in our practice of law where print resources are going to completely disappear.  I don’t think they’re going to be the emergency only just yet, but maybe in the future, I hope not.

Damien Allen:  Well, thank you very much for joining us today, Jane, and explaining some of the trials and tribulations of online legal research.

Jane Edwards:  Thank you for inviting me to join you on your show today. 

Damien Allen:  You’ve been listening to GAL Radio.  My name is Damien Allen,  everybody have a good afternoon. 

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