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Computer-Assisted Legal Research

Recent Developments, Further Readings

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 the INTERNET, 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.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Companies House to Constituency