While there are general practice attorneys, there are also those that specialize in specific areas. For example, some are in estate planning or intellectual property, and others are employment law attorneys. Of course, many are litigators.
However, there’s another specialty area that you may not have thought of: the research attorney.
The research attorney
These attorneys most likely never go to court, take a deposition, or speak with a client. The role they serve is one in the back office, conducting legal research, writing pleadings, making public records inquiries, and constructing reports on potential clients. That’s their specialty—legal research and writing 40 or 50 hours a week.
But you think you can do it just as well. Yes, you were on law review, and you know how to Shepardize® a case. But answer these four questions:
- How often do you conduct legal research as a part of your daily practice?
- Are you really as proficient as you think you are? Be honest.
- Do you have the time to spend hours on this task when there’s so many other things competing for your time?
- Can you bill back your full rates for conducting research?
If you answered:
- Not often;
- Perhaps not;
- Not really; and
- I doubt it…
You may be doing your clients, your practice, and yourself a disservice.
You may be able to swing a Motion to Dismiss without much worry, but when an issue of any substance arises, you’ll be faced with the question of how to devote your resources. Research and writing will take a chunk of time, and you have other clients to serve. There are depositions, hearings, client conferences, phone calls with opposing counsel, and much more.
You could also delegate the research issue to an associate (if available). But given that he or she probably has a few other things on their plate, your assignment may not be a top priority.
What judges think of your work
In addition to your dilemma, consider what judges think of the quality of your research and writing.
A recent survey conducted by Casetext showed that judges have exceptionally consistent thoughts of the work they see from attorneys; they say that attorneys frequently miss important cases. When this happens, it has real ramifications in the course of a litigation.
A survey of over 100 federal and state judges found that every single judge surveyed said that they or their clerks have discovered relevant precedent that the parties before them missed, and 27% said that they or their clerks catch missing precedents the attorneys should have cited “most of the time” or “almost always.”
The majority of judges (83%) responded that they experience this issue at least some of the time. Remarkably, not even one of the more than 100 judges surveyed said this wasn’t a problem at all. The researchers noted that if their survey was limited to just federal judges, the statistics would be even worse!
A 2017 American Judges Association blog post noted that Minnesota Judge Kevin Burke said that sometimes even briefs that seem “facially plausible” are—upon further research by the judge and their clerks—in some instances “contrived of BS.”
The point is that the average attorney isn’t doing a spectacular job at research according to judges.
Free research tools from your state bar
You can save thousands of dollars on legal research costs as online legal research is offered free-of-charge as a member benefit. This may take some pressure off you, when you know that every minute isn’t costing an arm and a leg on one of the big commercial databases.
For example, Arizona State Bar members have full access to all of the law offered on Fastcase, a comprehensive legal research database with access to millions of cases, statutes, and regulations. The service is usually priced at $995 per attorney annually, but members of the State Bar of Arizona enjoy comprehensive and complete access to Fastcase free of charge. And in Colorado, state bar members have access to Casemaker’s libraries covering all 50 states and federal materials, along with the company’s premium services, Casecheck+, CiteCheck, and Casemaker Digest.
Again, if you use one of these programs, at least you won’t be generating exorbitant research charges that you may or may not be able to pass through to your client.
Outsourcing your legal research projects
Another alternative is to hire a competent third-party research service, with an attorney who specializes in legal research and writing.
There are numerous companies that offer this type of assistance. These companies are staffed by attorneys who specialize in legal research and writing. Many have worked as practicing attorneys, at law schools, or with the large online research providers, Westlaw and Lexis.
Consider farming out your research and writing to a very capable research attorney who does this full-time and who will be as expedient and as efficient as possible. Think of it as having that senior associate at your beck and call, ready to devote 100% effort to your assignment. He or she can give you a first draft of your brief from your outline of your arguments or notes—this will save you countless hours of research and composition.
Statistics show that more than two-thirds of judges said that missed cases by the attorneys before them have materially affected the resolution of a motion or proceeding.
You can take advantage of inexpensive or free legal research tools available from your bar organization. Or perhaps a better solution is to hire a very capable research attorney from a third-party company to help you take some of the heat off and save you time, effort, and money (and even embarrassment in court).
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