Computer-Assisted Legal Research

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Technology that allows lawyers and judges to bypass the traditional law library and locate statutes, court cases, and other legal references in minutes using a personal computer, research software or theinternet, and an online connection.

The two largest computer-assisted legal research (CALR) services are westlaw, offered by Thomson Corporation's Eagan, Minnesota-based West unit, and lexis, offered by Reed Elsevier's Dayton, Ohio-based LexisNexis unit. Both services provide on-line access to the fundamental tools of the legal profession—court opinions, federal and state statutes, federal regulations, administrative law cases, and other lawrelated materials. Their extensive databases are updated frequently, providing attorneys with the most up-to-the-minute developments in U.S. law.

CALR systems contain thousands of databases. In addition to primary source materials, they offer access to business and economic journals, national newspapers, law reviews, federal tax abstracts, and financial data and materials. Specialized databases for narrower topics such as taxes, securities, labor, insurance, and bankruptcy are also available.

When CALR was first developed in the 1970s, it borrowed Boolean search techniques from the field of computer programming. A Boolean search looks for a particular term or group of terms in a specific relationship to one another. CALR Boolean searches can include limits with respect to time: for example, court opinions are always dated, so an attorney can use a Boolean search to look for cases released in a given year or in a range of years.

CALR service providers have also created plain language search systems. Under the plain language approach, an attorney simply types in a search in the form of a question.

The following two samples demonstrate the difference between a Boolean search and a plain language search for the same issue: whether a successor corporation is liable for the cleanup of toxic waste left by a prior owner of the property. The two examples reflect WESTLAW notation; the notation for LEXIS would be similar.

Boolean search

(successor /5 corporation) /p (toxic or hazardous or chemical or dangerous /5 waste) /p clean! and da(aft 1/1/90)

Plain language search

is a successor corporation liable for the cleanup of hazardous (toxic) waste?

The sample Boolean search looks for the combination of successor within five words of corporation, in the same paragraph as the combination of toxic or hazardous or chemical or dangerous within five words of waste, within the same paragraph as clean or cleanup or cleans or cleaned or cleaning (the exclamation mark in clean! causes the computer to search for all words with clean as a root). Cases are limited to those dated after January 1, 1990.

Boolean search results usually are listed in reverse chronological order (the most recent case first). A plain language search ranks the first 20 documents that best match the search. The first ranked document is the one that most closely matches the terms in the search. A document will be ranked higher if the terms appear more often in that document.

Advances in computer technology have produced another innovation in automated research: voice recognition research. With this method, a search query is dictated either in plain language or by using Boolean terms and connectors. After the simple commands are spoken, the researcher's exact words appear on the computer screen and the requested documents are retrieved. The keyboard is not used at all during the search.

Legal researchers have the option of using CD-ROM (compact disc read-only memory) libraries, although these have become less popular in the early 2000s. A personal computer, CD-ROM drive, and specific software are required. Some CD-ROMs allow for access to a CALR online service (these require a modem).

Lawyers are also using the Internet, the public access electronic network. Because many statutes, court opinions, and library of congress materials are online, the Internet is becoming a valuable resource for business and legal research. It is also used for document transfers and client E-mail.

Recent Developments

Most judges, lawyers, and law librarians continue to rely on the traditional fee-based giants of online legal research—Lexis, Westlaw, and Loislaw (owned by New York-based Aspen Publishers, Inc., a subsidiary of Dutch publishing company Wolters Kluwer). However, more law-related professionals are turning to free Internet sites to conduct their legal research. A number of Web sites now provide free access to a variety of legal materials that include federal and state case law, codes and regulations, treatises, law reviews, scholarly articles, mainstream news stories, as well as legal forms, public records, and attorney directories.

Examples of Internet sites that provide free access to at least some of these legal resources are numerous, though the depth and breadth of coverage offered by each site varies. Among the myriad of such providers, FindLaw generally remains the benchmark for comprehensive quality. Many law school Internet sites also provide free access to a wide variety of information. One such example is the Legal Information Institute, a site maintained by Cornell Law School ( This site provides a range of primary and secondary source materials, as well as directories to locate additional information on the Web.

FindLaw provides multiple channels to access information from its portal and caters the information to specific types of end users. These include channels for legal professionals, students, businesses, and the public. Material specific to these targeted audiences is made available as well as resources for all users, such as cases, codes, articles, and guides. Within each channel users can drill down to the area of law that interests them.

For example, students can look at outlines and examinations for a variety of legal courses, view employment opportunities, or learn about study skills. Business people can gain insights into starting a business, review different types of business organizations, and look into bankruptcy provisions. For the general public, topics include employment, immigration, personal injury, education, estate planning, and real estate law. FindLaw also continues to provide an excellent federal case law database that is searchable by title, citation, and full text. All cases from U.S. Reports from 1893 to the present are included.

While boatloads of legal information can now be obtained on the Internet free of charge, the information typically consists of unanalyzed, non-value-added material such as primary-source documents stripped of the editorial enhancements provided by pay services. Such enhancements include case synopses (editorially created summaries of the procedural history and holding of a case), case headnotes (editorially created snapshots of each court ruling in a case), statutory annotations (editorially created indices listing every case that has interpreted or applied a particular statute), and legal citators (editorially created reference guides telling users whether a legal authority may still be cited in court as good law), among others. Because these editorial enhancements can be so valuable in making legal research more efficient and successful, most law-related professionals remain willing to pay significant subscriber and user fees to access them.

further readings

Ebbinghouse, Carol. July 1, 2001. "Portals to the Future of Legal Information." Searcher Magazine.

Jatkevicius, James. March 1, 2003. "Free Lunch: Legal Resources from Plain to Polished.". Online Magazine.

The Lawyer's PC: A Newsletter for Lawyers Using Personal Computers. 1983– . Colorado Springs: Shepard's/McGraw-Hill.

"A Show-Stopper from WESTLAW." 1992. California Lawyer (November).

"Three New Services for Lawyers on the World Wide Web." December 27, 2000. Law Office Technology Review.


Computer Law Association; Internet; Law Review.

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Computer-Assisted Legal Research

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