Electronic Sources of Information in a Commercial Law Firm - An Overview
This is an IT Review published on 30 June 1997.
Citation: Boucher H, 'Electronic Sources of Information in a Commercial Law Firm - An Overview', IT Review, 1997 (2) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/sw/97_2bouc/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1997_2/boucher/>
A steady flow of correctly targeted information is the life blood of any successful commercial law firm and this article will indicate the increasing role of electronic sources of information. However, firstly a little about the firm itself. Pinsent Curtis is the amalgamation of two leading regional law firms; Pinsent & Co. in Birmingham and Simpson Curtis in Leeds and there is also an expanding office in London. The writer is Information Manager in Birmingham and her remarks are based on the facilities available at Birmingham.
Pinsent Curtis is therefore, a major firm of commercial solicitors in Birmingham, Leeds and London. A European presence is maintained through the Legal Resources Group offices in Brussels; both Pinsent & Co. and Simpson Curtis were constituent members of LRG and Pinsent Curtis is a continuing member. Work done by the firm is commercially based and specialist units include banking and banking litigation, commercial property, environmental, franchising, insurance and professional indemnity, intellectual property, pensions, planning and compulsory purchase and public sector. All three offices have information units offering a range of services from book loans and study places to information services such as literature searching and information provided for specific requests.
The information function has become increasingly more important with the rapid increase of information supply. Information Fatigue Syndrome (IFS) looks very likely when one considers that there has been more information produced in the last thirty years that during the previous 5000 and that the information supply doubles every five years. A weekday edition of The Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in seventeenth century England. Small wonder that the information professional's role has changed from information gatekeeper to information facilitator. Allied with the growth of information is the reducing expense of computer time. Computer power is now 8000 times less expensive that it was thirty years ago. Similar progress in the motor industry technology would mean that you could buy a luxury saloon for £1.50 and it would travel at the speed of sound on a thimbleful of petrol.
It is no wonder that the role of the information professional is changing rapidly. In a busy law firm information unit it is essential to use electronically delivered information to help respond to a continuous flow of requests for information and research. Electronically delivered information includes on-line services, the Internet and CD-ROMs. On-line information is information searched for by dialling into a remote computer with a large database of specific types of information. An on-line system is more targeted than an Internet search as the Internet search will lead to website matches as opposed to specific matching of terms with an on-line search. Such methods have totally changed service delivery - Pinsent Curtis in Birmingham have access to seven full text on-line systems: F.T. Profile, Lexis, Maids, Dialog, Datastar, Statutory Instruments on-line and Tenders on-line.
In practice the two systems that are most widely used are F.T. Profile and Lexis. F.T. Profile is used extensively in answering business enquiries and can aid research into industries, markets and countries providing information on news, statistics, trends, research and development, emerging markets, brand activity and economic policies. Information sources include the broadsheet press from the UK and abroad, trade press, business information, EU legislation, company and industry reports, market research and press releases. With well targeted sources and search terms, much useful information is obtained. The user can control costs by deciding how much information they wish to take from a two line summary to the full article. F.T. Profile proves extremely useful is providing information on target companies and press comment on personalities, a meter at the bottom of the screen gives the on-going cost of the search. The system is accessed using Freeway software running on Windows 95.
Lexis is used extensively to provide legal information. The system originated in the United States in the 1960's and still exhibits its American origins. By far the largest section of the database is American federal and state materials, but Lexis is keen to include coverage from other parts of the world. Commonwealth materials are developing rapidly and there is increasing coverage of EU materials. At Pinsent Curtis the Enggen file is used most extensively to provide information on cases, statutes and statutory instruments. Unfortunately some recent material takes about 8 weeks to get onto the system, especially frustrating when a Court of Appeal transcript, unreported, is required and not yet available on Lexis. Ironically two services, paper based, have now emerged which will provide transcripts more speedily. Also available is Nexis a news service, again US based but it has increasing UK and European scope and also gives access to Medline, the vast medical abstracting service of the National Library of Medicine in Washington. Lexis is currently not available as a full windows based product, it is a mixture of windows provided by a toolbar across the top of the screen but text itself appears on an MS DOS display. One looks forward to the day when the product is fully accessed on Windows software. Research aided by Lexis includes noting up cases, specific case searches and cases on a particular topic.
The Information Unit also has available other on-line services, Maids is a news and marketing service similar to F.T. Profile. A problem with Maids is that it has no Financial Times produced information on-line. As we research companies, we find that the Financial Times gives the best coverage on company information searches. Dialog and Datastar provide information on patents, trade marks and environmental information although it is worth noting that the material is mainly US origin.
The Internet is used to satisfy some enquiries especially company information and material that we have bookmarked. Among useful sites for us are the Department of Trade and Industry Internet service, H.M. Treasury home page, House of Lords judicial business for domestic information. We have been able to use the Internet successfully for US legislation, Canadian and Australian law reports. I have no doubt that the Internet will continue to provide much useful information for lawyers especially as legal information providers see the potential for distributing information via the Internet.
Statutory Instruments on-line and Tenders on-line from Context Systems supplement CD-ROM services to provide reasonably current information. Statutory Instruments available on-line, however, are at least three weeks out of date.
Moving from full text on-line systems we rely heavily on two systems that provide abstracting services rather than providing full text responses. These systems are Lawtel and the products available from Legal Information Resources. Lawtel abstracts various types of material such as statutes, statutory instruments, case law, articles and European materials and is able to put them on-line within twenty-four hours via the Internet. It proves extremely useful for searching for immediate developments in the law and, although the system only gives an abstract of the relevant material, Lawtel can be contacted to provide the full text item for delivery by fax or post. Lawtel also maintains a Research Bureau where, for a fee, a team of barristers will answer queries from subscribers. Answers are provided by fax but the query and response are put on the database so they can be searched. We find Lawtel an extremely useful source of current information. Equally useful is the information provided by Legal Information Resources. From 1986 LIR have provided paper-based abstract databases including Legal Journals Index indexes, with a short summary, over 400 legal journals available in the UK today. European Legal Journals Index complements Legal Journals Index by covering English language journals on the law of the EC and European countries. Daily Law Reports indexes and fully abstracts law reports from the law reports of the quality British press. Also available is Financial Journals Index which fully indexes journals in the area of insurance, pensions and banking, and LIR (now owned by Sweet and Maxwell Ltd) also produce Current Law and the Current Law Citator. Also of use in the Information Unit is BADGER, a ready made database of public domain information of interest to the legal profession covering 'grey paper', 'official publications' and press comment, all of which are given brief abstracts. Together all these products provide essential sources of information to aid legal research. We now access these databases via a monthly CD-ROM with more current updating via the Internet.
The Information Unit also evaluates and purchases CD-ROMs as appropriate. Titles available include S.I. CD-ROM and tenders CD-ROM from Justis, a Eurolaw disc which covers part of the CELEX database for European materials. We have also purchased the Supreme Court Practice from Sweet and Maxwell and a part of the Books on Screen service covering tax materials from Butterworths. Evaluating CD-ROMs is an on-going process and here I would make a plea for standardisation of searching strategy.
The delivery of legal information by electronic methods is a rapidly changing and developing market place providing services to lawyers simply not available a few years ago. Evaluation of new systems is constant and there are at least two systems; Perfect Information and Statutory Publications on-line that we would like to take on board.
If any reader would like further information on the systems we have please contact me at: Hilary.Boucher@Pinsent-Curtis.co.uk