Computer-Assisted Legal Research

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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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

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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...

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