Research Strategies: Training Attorneys to be Cost Effective with Using Free or Fixed Rate Resources

Elaine M. Egan, Head of Research & Information Services, Americas, Sherman & Sterling, LLP (New York, NY), and Linda-Jean Schneider, Electronic Resources Manager, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius (Philadelphia, PA)

Cost efficiency continues to be a driving force in the business of law as legal practitioners have less time to spend developing research expertise. There is a fine balance between cost efficiency and time efficiency, which needs to be considered when teaching attorneys to utilise free or fixed rate resources – resources that may limit research outcomes. What are the options or strategies that lead to successful research skills when incorporating free or fixed rate resources?

Developing highly skilled legal researchers becomes more complex in an environment where digital natives, though sophisticated Internet users, are somewhat narrow in their approach to developing a search strategy. Not only does the researcher have to grasp new search platforms and assess waterfalls of data, but managing spend has introduced yet another skill to develop, namely, optimising the value of free and fixed rate sources.

Whether the institution is academic, governmental or a private law library, information professionals must deliver training methods that yield optimal search results. Having spent years creating training systems focusing on tip sheets, transactional versus hourly rates, key words, natural language, parenthetical values, truncation and controlled vocabulary, when should a researcher be trained to use free and fixed rate resources, understanding that may or may not improve the outcome?

Training attorneys to “manage spend” may be costly and not necessarily increase the bottom line. The approach may also imply that “just Googling it” is an acceptable approach, despite the inherent risk. Is it a measurable payoff when you don’t know if the source can be trusted? Can you realistically take thousands of “hit” results and turn them into one actionable answer set? If redirecting or training attorneys initially to utilise free or fixed rate resources is an organisational commitment, what are the best models to achieve the stated goal? Linda-Jean Schneider highlights the necessity of crafting a balanced approach as specialised resources, predictable spend and optimal productivity compete.

Historically, legal research via the traditional primary legal research sites necessitated crafting a broad search, and then using various filters and key words to narrow the results to manageable limits. Unless you had an agreement which somehow limited spend, the costs were unpredictable. Vast quantities of time were spent in training on the use of these complicated search systems and understanding the algorithms used to identify and retrieve relevant materials. Sophisticated researchers, able to focus their results, were the exception rather than the norm.

As the practice of law became more specialised, there was a corresponding evolution of increasingly specialised resources, such as those focused on corporate securities filings, court dockets or intellectual property materials. Rather than trying to be all things to all legal researchers, these newer providers targeted the niche requirements of the specialised practice areas with success. Since these were targeted resources often with a single retrieval charge or a flat subscription rate, they could be more easily charged at a fixed rate, and researchers felt they had a better chance to produce relevant results. At the same time, with increasing use of Internet resources and free search engines which could locate at least some specifics some of the time, researchers felt comfortable they had found an answer, without bothering to fully vet it. In these cases, the danger of malpractice loomed.

When economic imperatives required changes in how new lawyers were trained in research, a few firms such as Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP and Howrey LLP, responded by adopting extensive training programmes offering a form of apprenticeship, to develop the research and practice skills they identified as requirements for new lawyers. The Drinker Biddle curriculum included courses on taking depositions, writing briefs and meeting client needs. Instructors included attorneys, professional development professionals, research staff and firm clients. Investing in training programmes that build efficiency through the management of spend, as well as understanding critical productivity measures, requires careful planning, testing, feedback and evaluation for success. Linda-Jean balanced each of the following learning models toward success:

  • Apprenticeship Model: Orienting the researcher in real-world contexts to reinforce lawyer learning. This system is remarkably teachable because the scenarios are real and flexible.
  • Proactive Knowledge Responses: Simulation models with a set of learning experiences for a range of legal challenges and levels of competency.
  • Guided Research: Technology-driven platforms relying on a customised redirect system where the researcher may be directed to a more appropriate source.

Research instruction sessions concentrated on cost-effective time management spent time analysing research results and included sessions on using free resources on the web, primarily to retrieve background information on clients, potential experts and witnesses. This portion of the curriculum allowed for practice sessions and compulsory exercises, some of which were built on actual client issues and real-life scenarios. The intent was to become proficient in using these tools – even free resources when applicable – that provide the most relevant, practice-specific, targeted research resources. The feedback from surveys and assessment results demonstrated that new lawyers found the presentations on effective searching via Internet sources to be tremendously eye-opening and beneficial. Participants worked through scenarios and exercises on their own, demonstrating that the time required to use “free” non-targeted resources can translate into hidden costs, whereas the relevant targeted resources can provide answers more quickly and efficiently.

Many top firms have adopted a variation of this type of research training focused on proactive, knowledgeable responses to client requests. A primary concern is that new practitioners be proficient in identifying the best resources for the topic, and/or identifying research tasks which could be delegated to appropriate lower-cost professional staff who are considered “experts” in that subject area. The AALL Special Committee on Legal Research Competency, as well as previous task forces, emphasised that “A successful legal researcher gathers information through effective and efficient research strategies ... and critically evaluates information.”1

Knowledge Management tools have also evolved to assist firms in building both internal expertise and vetted external sample documents to provide a valuable framework for crafting relevant practice-specific results. A few AmLaw 100 firms have dedicated personnel within the practice group structure to identify and vet recommended sources lawyers should access first, and they ensure the necessary training is available. Other firms have knowledge services staff to help with developing these tools as part of internal training programmes, to provide more efficient and cost-effective ways to respond to clients. One of the more frequent requests from clients is for 50-state surveys and checklists in specific areas of law. A knowledgeable researcher will know where and how this type of resource can be located, from a fixed-fee resource. If the firm has practice group-specific intranet pages, links can direct researchers to the most relevant, and often fixed cost, sources. Something as simple as a group of targeted practice-specific research links on an intranet site can efficiently streamline the research processes.

Another way technology contributes to the development of research strategies is through “guided research” via resource monitoring applications. Most of these platforms offer an option to block access to expensive, limited-license resources, and provide an annotation recommending other relevant, fixed-cost resources. Usage reports from these products can also track successful or frustrating research, important for evaluating if costly systems are worthwhile, and whether they are providing relevant information. Once the issue is identified, a better solution can be proposed. As these capabilities become increasingly sophisticated, there will be a tangible benefit to the bottom line.

No matter the approach taken to educating attorneys about when to use which source, as well as how to use those research sources effectively, and when to rely on others to do portions of specialised research for them, any firm that wishes to thrive in the current cost-containment environment should build a strategy to address this and develop a training regimen to support the defined strategy.


1. American Association of Law Libraries, Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competency, 11 July, 2013.