This weekend I was fortunate enough to travel to Austin, Texas for the POP Cats Convention. While there, I met up with a law school friend who just opened his own firm in Austin. While he has practiced law for several years, he spent his early career at medium to large firms that had information professionals at their disposal. Now that he is a solo practitioner, I was naturally curious about what he was doing to satisfy his legal research needs. Was he using Westlaw, Lexis Advance, Fastcase, or Casemaker? Did he have anyone helping with this task? His answer: “No, I don’t need anyone to help; I find that if I Google for a little while I can come to most things that I need just fine.” Using Google Scholar as a preliminary information-gathering method to save money would be okay. Unfortunately, he was not using Google Scholar, nor had he even heard of Google Scholar.
The point is not to chastise or embarrass my friend. He is a very brilliant man and was having a bit of a go at me. When he saw the look on my face, he conceded that Google was not his only avenue for research. My friend was paying to use Lexis Advance. Which is fine—but it is an expense that can make or break many solo practitioners. My friend did not know that the State Bar of Texas offers its members free access to both Fastcase and Casemaker. It is the only bar association to offer both legal research databases; typically bar associations that offer this benefits provide only one or the other. It’s bad that my brilliant friend did not know about this amazing resource, but what’s worse is that it was not the first time I have heard of a lawyer’s ignorance of what their bar association has to offer.
More than 50 bar associations offer free access to Fastacse, and nearly 30 state and local bar associations offer free access to Casemaker. I have lost count of the number of times that a member of the bar here in Louisiana has come to the reference desk to complain about the prices of legal research databases, not realizing they had free access to Fastcase. The sheer number of legal research options can overwhelm a new practitioner who only learned about a few in law school. The same applies to more seasoned lawyers used to having staff perform research for them, or who have failed to keep up with the rapid changes in legal research technology.
But who is responsible for educating these lawyers about their bar membership benefits? I have emphasized this point in my Advanced Legal Research Class when we discuss low-cost and free legal research resources. But is it the librarian’s job to make sure budding lawyers know about these benefits? Or is it the job of the Bar Association to properly inform their attorneys of the benefits they offer? How about the lawyer? Is the onus wholly on the lawyer to know and understand the legal research resources they have at their disposal? I think it’s a combination of all three: law librarians, bar associations, and lawyers. Ultimately, unless people hear it from many different sources, the information will not stick. It’s hard to absorb all the information out there, especially for people who just emptied their brain of anything that did not pertain to the bar exam.
This is not a trivial question. Lawyers who do not completely understand the legal technology at their disposal risk violating ethical rules. Failing to understand and use available legal research databases runs the risk of future sanctions. The ABA’s very first Model Rule of Professional Conduct requires technological literacy, and thirty-one states have adopted an ethical rule imposing a duty of technology competence. Further, the Model Rules prohibit excessive fees. A lawyer who fails to take advantage of free legal research databases could be charging fees inflated by unnecessary costs.
Is Google-fu a good skill? Sure. Do you think a judge (or a client) will be happy if they ask how you prepared for litigation and the only answer you could provide was Google?—probably not so much. We can all help avoid such unfortunate conversations by educating local lawyers about the hidden treasures that come with bar association membership.