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Legal Research & Writing
Making Research Easier
What is new on LexisNexis and Westlaw.
The good folks at LexisNexis and Thomson West constantly are looking for ways to make research easier. While their intentions are good, the results don’t always end up that way. What does this mean for those of us in the trenches? Let us take a look at the major enhancements from LexisNexis and Westlaw in 2005.
Purchase of Accurint
The Accurint public records service is a cost-effective service many government agencies that pass LexisNexis verification standards rely on for up-to-date information on individuals and businesses.
Pluses: When I ran a comprehensive person report, the cost was only about $6 (but LexisNexis pricing varies). It has an easy-to-use, fill-in search form and provides comprehensive coverage in many local jurisdictions. The confidence ranking system on reports guides you to the most accurate information (most of the time). The search function allows users to search for name variations and provides a list of neighbors and relatives.
Minuses: Accurint doesn’t display the full version of the source record. When the link is clicked, you have to run another search in another database. Reports can contain a lot of information, making them difficult read.
My Take: This is a good service for the money, as long as you are aware of its limitations. I hope the LexisNexis purchase of this service will not result in this low-cost service being phased out, but I am not holding my breath.
Changes to SmartLinx
SmartLinx is a popular LexisNexis service that simultaneously allows the user to conduct research across several public records databases for less than the aggregate cost of searching each individual database. In one search, a user can get data on judgments, liens, real property, alternate names and mailing addresses all compiled into an easy-to-read report. The source documents for this information are available through hotlinks in the report. If you have not been using this, you have been missing out on a great public records research tool.
Pluses: LexisNexis incorporates the easy-to-use search form into the SmartLinx search. Locator information now is displayed in a tabular format.
Minuses: There no longer is a provision for searching using terms and connectors or multiple (dissimilar) names. For example, you can enter a name (John Smith) and get variations of that name (John Smith, Jon Smythe), but you can no longer string together different names (John Smith OR Jane Doe OR John James), which goes against everything you are taught about LexisNexis. You also no longer can use the “Focus” feature to narrow your search without incurring an additional change.
My Take: SmartLinx was a great service when you could search several names at once, but the one-at-a-time method is not efficient or cost-effective. I now recommend to the paralegals in my firm that they search the individual state files to get the whole record and avoid SmartLinx.
Release of Total Search 3.2
Total Search allows you to use your internal document management system in three basic ways: 1) to run a search on the LexisNexis research services and get the internal documents that meet your search criteria as well as the LexisNexis results with one search run simultaneously; 2) to run a search only in the internal document collection; and 3) to automatically cite check internal documents with Shepard’s. Version 3.2 places a DMS search page on your organization’s intranet, eliminating the need to log in to LexisNexis first to search your internal documents. Also, the new version allows documents to be organized by date and the user to narrow the search using the “Focus” feature without running another search. (The “Focus” feature gives users the ability to narrow their original results with additional search terms and without additional search charges.)
Pluses: Old documents can easily be retrieved, using familiar LexisNexis search techniques. Old documents quickly can be evaluated for relevance using the Shepard’s signals (e.g., has a case referenced in the memo been overturned?). Documents can be viewed from multiple formats without having the software installed on the desktop.
Minuses: It’s possible to get too many documents from the DMS, causing more delay.
My Take: We all know how difficult it is to run a search directly in the DMS. Total Search makes it easy, and these enhancements will make this an indispensable tool for the modern law firm.
Statutes Plus Enhancements
Both the federal and state annotated codes on Westlaw’s Statutes Plus are in the process of adding the following enhancements: 1) a KeyCite flag that lets you know if a code section has been stricken by the courts; 2) links to older versions of the code; and 3) a message indicating if there is pending legislation affecting a code section.
Pluses: It’s now easy to see how the code reads for actions arising in prior years. You also can see if there is any legislation pending that might affect an analysis of a particular code section, and include this information in your memo. The print and LexisNexis versions of the codes don’t currently indicate when a section has been stricken by the courts, but this information is now easy to discover on Westlaw.
My Take: Statutes Plus is very cool.
Graphical KeyCite is Westlaw’s answer to LexisNexis’ Shepard’s citation service with the addition of links to the West Key Number System. Graphical KeyCite creates a visual illustration of the preceding and subsequent history of a case.
Pluses: The flow chart created by this software
can be a great tool for understanding complex litigation that has
been appealed and remanded several times. For example, if you look
at the chart for the recent Kelo decision (125
Minuses: Administrative aspects of a case (e.g., certiorari granted) are placed on a separate path from the opinion, giving the impression that it’s a separate action. This creates a possibility for misunderstanding.
My Take: I think this is a step in the right direction. This tool goes a long way in helping paralegals understand what exactly has occurred in complex cases.
Access to Briefs
More than 1 million briefs and pleadings for both federal and state court actions now are available through Westlaw.
Pluses: This has multiple benefits. You now can find arguments written in similar cases by opposing counsel, giving you an insight to their thinking. To assist you with drafting your document, you can find arguments that have been made in an unfamiliar subject. Also, you can find arguments that were successful before your judge.
Minuses: It can be difficult to separate the successful arguments from the mountains of filings.
My Take: This is a great resource for getting strategic information on opposing counsel, providing you with insight into their thought processes, which you can’t find anywhere else (and it’s not protected by copyright).
As you can see, competition between the vendors is a good thing. These new tools can make your life as a paralegal easier and allow you to add value to your work product. Just think how pleased your attorneys will be when you provide them with examples of the opposing counsel’s arguments in a similar case, or retrieve the memo the attorney prepared several years ago on the same subject. There always will be hits and misses, but the important thing is that these services continually are trying to serve consumers better.
Mark A. Gediman, library director for Best Best &
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