Legal research in England and the USA compared

I first need to tell you a bit about my own experience. I have worked in law firm libraries for 16 years, first with Nabarro (commercial work with an emphasis on property), then with Winckworth Sherwood (parliamentary, police, housing, ecclesiastical) and now with Sidley Austin (US, with the London office specialising in international finance). I am currently responsible for the library, research services, know how and intranet development amongst other areas. I am also responsible for library and research services in the three European offices – Brussels, Frankfurt and Geneva.

In addition, a team of five PSLs are responsible for training and producing know how, standard forms and value added current awareness tailored for Sidley’s own lawyers and specialisms. The Library team of six people at Sidley provide research services, current awareness and monitoring, and develop and administer the know how database and intranet.

My experience in managing Library and Information Services in London and in the US has resulted in the emergence of a general theory of my very own. US and English/Welsh (E&W) trained lawyers use internet sources for research differently (I do not have personal experience of legal research in Scotland).

There are exceptions, but in general E&W lawyers look for as few sources as possible – ideally one ”˜killer’ source with the answer (authoritative of course, otherwise they will dig deeper if necessary), whereas US lawyers tend to “fish” for everything on a subject and sit down and work their way through the material looking for all possibilities. It is the same with due diligence exercises: the US lawyers look around for everything, whereas E&W lawyers have in mind what they are looking for and investigate that. This is much more structured in approach but it may run the risk of being too narrow and missing relevant possibilities.

Why is this? Is it training? US lawyers are brought up from the cradle on two major databases – Lexis and Westlaw. These are authoritative and wide ranging. They are information sources and not filtered “knowledge” such as that which PLC produce in the UK. As pure information sources they need legal skills to be applied to the results to get to the answer. This of course is always the case to some extent, otherwise who would need lawyers? Specific client work will always need an application of legal expertise but moving from primary sources to the “answer” is a bigger jump than moving from commentary/know how that has done some of the work already. The former is more akin to an academic exercise, whereas the latter is more practitioner orientated. PLC go one further step beyond the textbooks that have been converted to an electronic version – the success of which has been much higher in the US than the UK – and any attempt by them to move into the US market will be very interesting. Lexis and Westlaw are both trying to launch “rivals” to PLC; maybe once those two giants of the US legal information world start marketing their versions to the US we will be able to see if the gap that PLC filled in the UK is similar in the US.

The UK has always, for various reasons, had a wider range of electronic sources for primary law – cases and legislation. Electronic versions of textbooks mentioned above have never worked particularly well in the UK (my own view is that a limited amount of research has been done in order to make these useable electronically – it is not just a matter of getting the text dumped on the internet. )

The UK legal databases are all better at some things than others and personal preference comes into play. The lawyers do not want (or do not have time) to search everything so they tend to pass over in-depth research to their information professionals – usually library teams or professional support lawyers. This results in the library teams in the US and the UK having a different focus.

Most in depth legal research in the UK is carried out by the information professional, both to keep costs down and to make sure that the searching expertise comes into play. With a plethora of databases, both for legal and business/financial research, lawyers cannot be expected to make the most of the sources and to use them effectively. The information professional’s job is in the skilled use of these databases on a day-to-day basis, and making sure the information they provide is from an authoritative source. With the growth of the internet we always have to have one eye on a lawyer doing their own research who finds information for “free” on the internet and assumes that this is all there is to it.

As the computer-literate generation becomes more prevalent and the use of the internet and email makes even the more reluctant lawyer capable of using a PC, it becomes more likely that lawyers will “pull” their own legislation and cases. The vendors deliberately target the end user in this regard and it is fairly easy now for lawyers to retrieve this type of information. If they want an answer to a particular point, however, or something that requires in depth research or a complicated search process, that will get pushed to the information professional.

US libraries will deal with long lists of case cites and they do some in depth research (especially if historical) but most attorneys will carry out their own research. The exception at the moment seems to be non-legal information (mostly business related). There is also a tendency to do the research and then get the library to double check it.

Is it billing? US lawyers will charge back all research time. The E&W lawyers, in part due to professional regulations, tend to feel more constrained in how much time they can charge for research. For them the shortest route to the right answer is the key.

Fear of litigation? US is generally more litigious, so they need to check absolutely everything to feel completely safe.

There are more public records openly available in the US – they expect everything to be there and be available – but that also means mountains more information.

With the more structured and filtered information databases being produced internally (ie know how and intranet sources) there are signs of US lawyers becoming a little more UK-like. It’s a matter of trust and knowing that what they are looking at is resolutely on point and that some thought has gone on to make this documentation accessible.

There are also issues in both countries of lawyers simply not having the time to do their own research. Information professionals may fill that gap constantly or just on demand.

I wish to thank those who gave their time and advice regarding the content of this article – especially the librarians in the US offices of Sidley Austin who gave me their own opinions – Jeff Bosh, Christa Lange, Dave Rogers and Lisa Kiguchi Also to Ben Stacke for giving me his point of view as a lawyer.

The views expressed in this article are personal to the author and do not represent the views of Sidley Austin as a firm.

As well as the experience mentioned above, in particular at Sidley Austin, Susan Doe was Chair of the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians (BIALL) in 2004–2005. The Sidley Austin team recently won the inaugural Halsbury Award for Best Commercial Legal Information Service in London.