Strategic Librarian

Using strategy to develop the law firm library.

The Value of Legal and Other Online Resources

Every now and then someone writes an article saying that information is free and decrying the practice of law firms to charge for online research services.  I see these as poorly formulated attempts to move the access to information to a free model.  Peter Schwarz’s recent article, The Reinvention of Legal Research: The Future is Now, Huffington Post, August 13, 2009, stating information is a commodity is no different.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do think that some information should be treated as a commodity.  Information that is freely available and has been produced by government entities should be treated differently.  On the other hand, information that has been produced by individuals or companies, with an expectation of profit, should be able to realize that profit.  The creators of technology and editorial analysis that  helps researchers quickly answer a question or obtain information have that same right to charge for the use of the tools they created.

The paragraph talking about the fluidity of information is particularly puzzling:

Information is liquid. We now live in an ocean of information, and are swept along by its riptides and currents. The challenge is to manage our relationship to this information so it serves us our higher purposes. We need ways to filter real-time story-telling and reporting so we can identify narratives that have substance and reject those that are ephemeral, partial, distorted, or trivial.

I can only conclude from this paragraph that managing and filtering of information is more necessary today than in the past.  The commercial companies that create the means to find, filter and manage information do so for profit.  Even those that appear free (e.g., Google) have some type of business model that makes a profit.  Yes, some non-profit companies exist, but, for the most part, the companies that have delivered this technology are for profit.

Given that, let’s examine (again – in other words, get ready for a re-rant) what the value these companies provide is and why it can be disbursed to clients – for a more complete description of the each of the following points, see  Justice Hunt, We Need To Talk About Your Views on Cost Recovery of Online Legal Research.

Online legal and other online resources provide the following:

  • Creates multiple access points – You are no longer restricted to the table of contents, index, or even the print indexes that used to sit on library shelves.  Those print indexes only gave access by title, author, and subject.  Keep in mind that the subjects were assigned by individuals who made judgement calls.
  • Reduces the amount of time a lawyer needs to spend doing research – Yes, the client may still need to pay for lawyer time in addition to the legal resource but think of how that time has been reduced by the use of computers.
  • Produces more complete research results – Storage on computers allows for the addition of more information where a book is limited to what the author writes or the editor decides is the right number of pages to make the book sell.  More information, more complete results.
  • Contains overall legal research costs – while some of the research done for a matter is still done using books (there is information that you can’t get on a computer at this time or the lawyer doing the work believes books are better), the reality is that the cost of the research is less than if all of it was to be done manually.
  • Provides information to support the matter that would not be available on a  firm’s library shelves.  Many non-legal resources that get used for matters are specialized and complex.  The vast information available to us today is endless and growing exponentially.  In the hands of expert researchers (i.e., librarians), that non-legal information used to support a matter is available today where in the past we would not have had access.  The information found can make or break a matter.  Information and the time of the librarians doing the research is valuable and is also open to disbursement to clients.

If I were a client, I would wonder about the lawyer and law firms that did not use online resources.  In fact, as a client of a local law firm here in Minnesota, I have been thankful when I see charges for research.  I’m also thankful that they have a librarian and that the research done is cost-effective.  Instead of talking about information as liquid and suggesting that all information should be free, we should be thinking about how to improve research skills and how to prove to clients that law firms are doing the best research on behalf of their clients.

FOR THE RECORD:  I am not against freeing government generated data and treating it like a commodity.  I respect books and believe that some books have a place in research.  The physical library treated as overhead is not yet a thing of the past nor should it be.  At the same time, I believe the power of today’s libraries is on our computer desktops.  I am not a schill for the online publishers and aggregators.

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