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George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

Summer Intern & New Attorney Research Survival Guide

Tips for new attorneys to smooth their transition from researching as a law student to researching in a professional setting.

Work Efficiently

Billing for research tools?

In addition to learning what research tools you have access to, you will need to know whether your employer’s resources will be billed to clients. This is more the case in a firm setting, where billing research tools is still a frequent practice. You may need to change the way you think about your research strategies based on billing practices.

How you adjust will vary depending on how billing is structured, but the most common practice is to start with non-billable tools. If/when you do move to a billable tool, plot your research strategy in advance of signing on. If your searches will be billed, start broadly and then use the filters to narrow your results.

A word to the wise - if you are using billed research platforms, you should spend some time learning how the billing works. In a good number of large firms, the pricing structures are still somewhat complex, with usage billed by the search and types of documents accessed. It is better to spend time before you start learning how research will be billed than to spend time after you complete your task explaining your research charges to a billing partner.

Sign up for training

Some larger firms will include Bloomberg, Lexis, and Westlaw (“BWexis”) research strategy classes in their orientations. Even if you are well-versed at using these tools, you will benefit by attending these trainings. The vendors or librarians should address billing and identify ways to use these tools cost and time-effectively. Likewise, seeking out training would be worthwhile if you find that you need to use an unfamiliar tool. In the long run, sitting in on training will usually pay off.

Starting with secondary sources can save time

How many times have you heard this? Hopefully, many because it's often true. A good secondary source will cite relevant primary law and may provide analysis that helps you get up to speed. A relevant treatise or practice guide also helps with context and terminology (terms of art) for that practice area or jurisdiction. If there is not a treatise specifically addressing your issues, think of the larger area of law where these issues would be addressed and find the “go to” sources. If you cannot find a good secondary source for the area of law, see "Researching in a new area of law or unfamiliar jurisdiction?" under "Plan Your Research"  in this guide.

Note: If you are using a billable firm account for Westlaw or Lexis, it helps to know whether the firm has an arrangement for a specific access point for secondary sources which is not billed – frequently called an E-Library (Lexis) or Non-Billable Zone (West). The same content may be accessible by two different routes, one billed and one not. If your firm has one of these plans, you should definitely learn the access points.  (Especially when you consider that secondary sources are sometimes billed in the neighborhood of $40 - $50 per section.)

Staying on track

For complex projects, it may be helpful to ask the assigning attorney if they would be available for periodic check-ins. While you are self-sufficient, checking-in may help if you run into unanticipated questions or findings. It is better to meet to re-calibrate the project than get too far off course – especially if the project is labor-intensive or time-sensitive.

Spinning your wheels?

There will be emphasis put on the value of your time. Do not fritter it away by spending hours searching for materials on the Web because you do not want to use any billable research tools. “Testing the waters” by starting with a Google search can often help identify specific terminology or possibly relevant primary law. It is okay to go this route at the beginning of your research, but then go to trusted research platforms to move your research forward or verify what you found on the Web.

If you have spent 15 to 20 minutes and feel like you are no closer than when you started, ask for help. If your organization has a librarian, they will likely be able to help you get on track. Your request is not a bother, as they are there to help with all information needs. However, understand that because they work for the entire office, your request may not receive immediate attention.

Again, you can also reach out to the GMU Law Library Reference Staff at 703-993-8076 or lawref@gmu.edu. Or, contact the tele-help numbers for West (800-REF-ATTY), Lexis (800-45 LEXIS), or Bloomberg (888-560-2529).

Dealing with interruptions 

Your search history can expediently help you find your place, if something interrupts your research. If you are using billed research tools, navigating to a prior search result from your history is usually not billed, if done on the same day. However, re-running a search from scratch or accessing one in your history from one or more days prior will likely result in a new billable transaction.

Research folders can be used to save good search results for viewing and filtering later on Westlaw, Lexis, and Bloomberg. There may be access charges for viewing billable items in a folder, like secondary sources. It depends on the document. Any item that is billed to access will be billed the first time that it is opened, whether in a list of search results or folder. After that, the document can usually be re-accessed for 1 year with no additional charges, if it has been saved to a folder.