Research is a major building block of any law career. Attorneys spend their early years in the profession learning how to conduct precise, accurate research that wins cases and positions them as authorities in their field. Since the advent of the internet, legal research methods have largely shifted from drowning in stacks of books and print journals to sitting behind a computer screen.
So what specific resources are attorneys using for research today? How much time do they spend doing research? Are their research methods effective? Learn how lawyers are conducting research in order to serve their clients and win big cases.
Free vs. Fee Research
Perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows that when beginning a new project, attorneys first turn to free online resources (49%) before using CD-ROMs (yes, 1% still use them) or print materials (13%). Although attorneys like to use Google or Bing as a jumping off point for their research, they depend on the quality and accuracy of information from fee-based sites to get into the fine details.
In fact, the percentage of lawyers who said they were “very satisfied” with fee-based online research services was twice as high as that of the free services in all of the following areas: user-friendliness, searching multiple databases, depth of coverage, advanced search options, and the author’s credentials.
Fee-based online research services are used more often in large law firms. One survey found that 74% of associates in large law firms frequently or always use fee-based resources in contrast to only 46% of small firm associates.
Time Spent On Research
On average, lawyers commit about 20% of their total work time to research. However, new associates right out of law school spend around 35% (or 14.5 hours) of their workweek conducting research. Of these 14.5 research hours, 8 hours are spent using a fee-based service, 4.5 hours are spent conducting free online research, and 2 hours are spent using print resources.
Print vs. Digital Resources
About 10% of new attorneys don’t use print resources at all. Some experts argue that this is simply because the vast amount of relevant print materials have now been made available in digital form, making print research unnecessary. But others chalk it up to new attorneys being digital natives, who have relied exclusively on computers for research their entire lives.
Content Accessed for Legal Research
We know that attorneys generally use online resources, either free or paid, to do the bulk of their research. But what type of content do they access most often to research a case? And is it generated from free or paid online sources?
Over 80% of attorneys said they either frequently or always use statutes and case law to research a new case. Only a little over 50% say they frequently or always use secondary materials and citation analysis. And last of all is news and public records, reportedly used by around 20% of surveyed attorneys.
Over half of the surveyed attorneys said they use free online sources to research case dockets, corporations/companies, judges, lawyers, public records, state legislation/statutes, general news, and legal news. In other words, they use free resources to look up topics that are easily and publicly accessible.
Over 50% of the surveyed attorneys used paid online resources primarily to research federal and state case law. Since understanding the fine points of case law is so critical to the outcome of a lawsuit, it makes sense that attorneys would use highly reputable fee-based resources like Westlaw and Lexis to access this information instead of free search engines.
Legal Research Training
Any attorney will tell you that strong research skills are imperative for a successful law career, especially for new attorneys. But data shows that a fair amount of new graduates feel they do not possess the strong legal research skills necessary for the workforce.
One survey revealed that while both large and small law firms expected their new hires to have strong research skills, 46% of large law firms provided formal training while only 12% of small law firms did. This doesn’t necessarily mean that smaller law firms care any less about training their employees; rather, it could mean that larger law firms strive to streamline their internal procedures so that everyone’s on the same page. They may also have more resources to do so compared to smaller firms.
Another study, which asked attorneys to rate new law school graduates’ ability to develop effective research plans, found that only 45% of them could do so “adequately,” while 18% did it “poorly,” and only a tiny 7% did it “very well.” Furthermore, this same study also discovered that more than 1 in 3 new graduates performed cost-effective research “poorly” or “unacceptably.” This suggests that new law school graduates would greatly benefit from formal, on-the-job research training.
What’s more, new law associates want more training. About 49% feel that legal research should be a larger part of the law school curriculum. They also feel unprepared to undertake effective legal research in the workforce. New law associates also claim that employers expect them to have strong legal research skills and don’t offer professional development in this area because they assume law school has adequately prepared them.
Research Like a Lawyer!
Today’s lawyers have an abundance of information at their fingertips. The ways they access and analyze information are the key to serving clients and winning big cases. Although some new attorneys may struggle to build adequate research skills, there are many resources available to develop the next generation of well-researched lawyers.