* Internet Research Now Ready For Prime Time

The Internet is now ready for serious legal research.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 5/4/1998; LegalResearcher.com; publisher: New York Law Publishing Company

Not ready for prime time. That was the line on using the Internet for legal research when the Internet first caught the public’s eye in 1995. Too much noise, not enough signal. Well, not anymore. The transition from personal distraction to serious business tool has been more evolutionary than revolutionary. Almost without noticing it, the Internet is now ready for serious legal research.

At the ABA’s annual TechShow in March, West Group, with little fanfare, announced that WestLaw is now available via the Internet. Other legal publishers, including Matthew Bender and BNA, are also making their content available via the Internet (both on the Web and via e-mail). And Lexis-Nexis, the king of all legal research databases, is available online at http://www.lexis.com.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is huge news! Many law firms have, for years, relied on multiple dial-up accounts or special lease-line connections to access the Big Two databases, Westlaw and Lexis. Those same firms have since installed separate high-speed connections to the Internet to support their e-mail and Web habits.

Now it is possible to pull the plug on all of those old analog phone lines and those proprietary networks connections, because everything (well OK, almost everything) that a legal researcher could need is now available via the Internet. A law firm can and should use its new Internet network to replace older proprietary network connections. By combining Internet, Westlaw, and Lexis access over the same Internet connection, firms should see significant savings over “old” ways of doing legal research online.

So could it be that the real cost savings of online research is not that it replaces paper, but that new Internet connections can do their new job that of two networks? Obviously, I think the answer is yes. And we have just begun to see how standard network technologies (like the TCP/IP protocols on which Internet networks run) will usher in a who new era of cost savings. In a few years, we will be talking about voice over the Internet, fax over the Internet, video over the Internet, you name it!

Besides the big publishers with their subscription-based Net-based services (I did mention they were subscription-based, right?), what else is going on the field of Net-based legal research?. Or, more properly, what other business models are being used?

Giving away content for free is not a viable business model, unfortunately, so it’s no surprise that Lexis Westlaw et al. are relying on subscription based services. Nor is it surprising that they are winning mind- and market-share in the Internet marketspace. In the battle between those who got Web sites first and then looked for content AKA “the little guys”) and those who got Web sites later but had gobs of content (AKA “the big guys’), the safe bet is on the big guys.

So now that Lexis and Westlaw are on the Web, who of the little guys can we expect to see in the next few years? And what will they use to distinguish their services from the big guys? If you don’t mind some crystal ball gazing, here are my predictions.

1. Companies that guide us through the Web. There is, and will always be, some free content on the Internet. And there will always be more Web sites than any of us can ever visit. As long as this is the case, there will be a market for directory services to help Web users find their way. FindLaw (http://www.findlaw.com/) is the obvious leader here, but as the legal Web grows, there could be room for directories that provide an even more narrow focus than FindLaw. Imagine FindCaliforniaLaw.com, for example. Already, sites such as RomingerLegal (http://www.romingerlegal.com/) and Counsel Quest (http://www.counselquest.com/) suggest that the legal search engine and directory market is big enough for more than one dominant player.

2. Companies that focus on a specific area of law. Or a specific jurisdiction. There will always be smaller companies that can provide more depth in a particular area of law that you can find from the big publishers’ sites. Kind of how you can find a better selection of fine watches at a small jewelry store than at the mall. Companies in this category include JuriSearch (http://www.unilegal.com/), who focus areas include California law, and the Social Law Library (http://www.socialaw.com/) in Massachusetts.

3. Aggregators. Companies that act as front-ends to a variety of legal research sources. Right now, the closest thing like this is the “meta” search engine that searches a variety of Web-based search engines simultaneously. DogPile (http://www.dogpile.com/) is an example of a “meta” search engine. And Northern Light (http://www.nlsearch.com/) is a company – albeit not law-related – that offers simultaneous searching of Web and commercial databases. But as mentioned above, companies like Northern Light are fighting a losing battle against Lexis and Westlaw unless they can more narrowly focus their service on particular content areas.

Did you blink? The Internet just changed your life. Hang on, there’s more to come!

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