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Another Reason to Develop Extremely Efficient Research Skills: Clients May Refuse to Pay Your Law Firm for Research!

The ABA Journal online reports that with the recession, legal clients are increasingly demanding discounts and refusing to pay for some items, expecting firms to absorb these costs into overhead. These items include the time of new associates, and most recently, legal research costs.

Clients have grown resistant to having firms pass on their research costs to the client, citing their beliefs that many lawyers are not efficient in their research process and that the research process is a professional education process that benefits lawyers and that firms therefore should treat as a cost of doing business.

As a result, legal consultant Rob Mattern of Mattern & Associates told the ABA Journal, more billing partners are knocking research costs off invoices before they’re even submitted to clients.

The ABA Journal article also reports that a recent Bloomberg Law Survey found that 43 percent of law firm respondents in a survey of 97 law firms said they absorb more of their legal research costs today than in 2010.

I’m reporting on this trend because I hope it will bring home to law students and new associates how important it is to hone legal research skills that are accurate, efficient, and laser-focused on getting the most relevant results as quickly as possible, while also weeding out the chaff as quickly as possible. Law school is a great opportunity to practice becoming the best researcher you can be, in an environment where the research is cost-free and you aren’t under any client deadlines. So take your research process for legal writing classes, law review notes, and clinics very seriously. Another opportunity for practice is the many online legal research practice exercises offered by Westlaw and Lexis.

In an environment where clients won’t pay for legal research, one other important lesson to be drawn from the ABA Journal article is the increased benefit of using cost-free online legal research sources as much as possible. The amount of accurate legal primary materials available cost-free online is increasing every day. State and federal legislative, court, and administrative agency websites are excellent sources of primary material (USA.gov provides one‑stop access to all online U.S. government resources). Other excellent sources include THOMAS, Cornell Law’s Legal Information Institute, Justia, LexisOne, Findlaw, Google Scholar, the Social Science Research Network, and the websites of law school libraries, which explain legal research methods, collect links to many useful free legal websites, and provide Research Guides by law librarians for various legal topics.

When researching on the cost-free Internet, however, attorneys need to be extremely careful only to use reliable sources of legal information, such as those listed in the above paragraph. Random Googling and citation to sources like Wikipedia or blogs written by bloggers with unknown credentials is not responsible (or even ethical) legal research. Beware of attorney marketing materials masquerading as authoritative legal information. You might be interested in reading one attorney’s complaints about the tendency of some other attorneys to Google a legal topic and present the Google results as if they are authoritative legal research. A word to the wise: they are not.

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