Legal Crack


LEXIS-NEXIS and Westlaw offer law school students online access to every legal proceeding that has passed through due process as of yesterday. Each year, a new generation of some 42,000 computer-savvy lawyers-to-be are introduced to these research tools, making the two databases ubiquitous in the legal world. While book research is still taught with equal emphasis, many students prefer to expedite their assignments using electronic searches.

Why shouldn’t they? Included in their tuition fees is unlimited access to an increasingly sophisticated research application. LEXIS-NEXIS grants students free rein over some 2.5 billion documents, including every statute, court ruling, state and federal law, and piece of legislation.

“It’s essentially lawyer crack,” says David Alonzo-Maizlish, a first-year student at the NYU School of Law and a former intellectual-property paralegal, in reference to both LEXIS-NEXIS and Westlaw. Attorneys and law students alike have become dependent upon “being able to find whatever you want instantly.”1

But too much can become not enough, and the liberal use of LEXIS-NEXIS and Westlaw in schools potentially leads to misuse in practice. Careen B. Shannon, associate attorney at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, recounts, “I know of at least one case where a recent graduate accrued $6000 in charges to write a memo by using an electronic search inefficiently. A partner in the firm told him never to use it again. Students are just not used to the way that commercial clients are billed by these companies.” (Academic institutions pay a flat rate.)

Students have to be prepared for the resources that will be available to them once they graduate. Marian F. Parker, a former consultant to LEXIS-NEXIS who has returned to teaching law and directs the legal library at Wake Forest University, explains, “As legal educators, it is our role to ensure that students are able to function effectively in practice no matter what tools are available to them. Students need to learn how to identify what is relevant to the problem at hand.”

There is an ongoing debate among legal educators about how to best present LEXIS-NEXIS and Westlaw to today’s students, who are familiar with Internet search engines and often overconfident in how these skills will serve them in law school. Parker says of her students, “They walk in more sophisticated about technology but not about finding legal information.” There needs to be an understanding of what laws and courts take precedence. To this end, a consensus prevails that students need to learn how to navigate through shelves of bound volumes, cognizant of how to use legal indices and classification systems, as well as the books’ electronic counterparts.

Some claim that the traditional book collection and the space of a library provide a tangible representation of the way in which our body of law is structured. Each volume of cases is published by a particular federal or state court (or a private company), containing cases from that court over a period of time. Subsequent additions and errata are then inserted periodically as supplemental pamphlets. “We need to teach legal research using the paradigm of the book,” Parker explains. Julie Fendo, a law student at Fordham University, agrees, saying, “Books offer a better view of how the law works, how the courts work. It isn’t always easy to understand what you’re looking at on the computer. In the library, a citation tells you where the law came from, who it was published by, and when.”

The source from which a law originates is valuable information for determining its importance. Everything must be looked at within this context, as cases are overturned and laws change all the time. This means that an attorney cannot base her case upon any law until she finds that this law is still good, and has not since been overruled. Shepardizing has become the industry term for this assessment, in reference to the LEXIS-owned SHEPARD’S citations database. (SHEPARD’S determines the precedential value of a case by weighing it against cases that cite it and either negate or reinforce the initial decision.)

In litigation, however, where lawyers are liable for bad citations, books are regularly employed as a more accurate source of information. For trial hearings, if research is conducted on the computer, it is often verified in hard-copy form before it is presented in the courtroom. When all resources are available, it is still an issue of knowing where to look. Different situations warrant different methods of research. Careen Shannon says, “Books and electronic searches call for different ways of thinking. When you do an electronic search, you have to know how to narrow the hits and focus your query.” This is crucial, since charges accrue with every transaction.

Prophets and lawyers envisage paperless libraries that house rows of flickering monitors, the progeny of LEXIS-NEXIS and Westlaw. Or perhaps, through the Internet, the information will simply come to us. “I don’t do book research. All my research is conducted at my desk in the office or at my desk at home,” says Joel Friedman, a professor at Tulane Law School. “I find people’s romantic attachment to physical books to be rather antiquated. Already, because of computers, more law school libraries are buying fewer editions of books.”

The same is true of reference material in general. As the cost of burning a CD-ROM is pitted against the printing of chunky legal volumes, and as rents skyrocket, housing may become superfluous. “In eastern North Carolina,” Marian Parker recounts, “books were wiped out by the hurricane. Some law firms had to decide whether or not to replace their books. Natural disaster provided the opportunity for them to reassess their need for large libraries.” The changeover seems inevitable, but for now, the books stay, and LEXIS-NEXIS and Westlaw remain among them, an alternative, albeit indispensable, tool.

“Because crack is smoked, the user experiences a high in less than 10 seconds. This rather immediate and euphoric effect is one of the reasons that crack became enormously popular in the mid 1980s.”
—The National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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