Bacal's Internet Legal Research Guide

The Reliability of Information

The disclaimers of accuracy and usefulness of written presentations on the Net about legal topics should not be ignored by the researcher. As the motive for offering free information is usually not altruistic, and as the vast majority of the sites on the Net are still free, there is clearly not as much incentive, as with a paid service, to be error free.

Generally, the more well recognized the law firm, the more confidence one can have in their substantive offerings. The better known firms recognize that if they provide misinformation, the firm’s error is more likely than a lower profile firm to be discovered by competitors, as well as by the press. This happened to one Silicon Valley law firm in the mid-1990’s, when a misstatement on a website caused a great deal of embarrassment.

But, as demonstrated below, whatever that level of care is, it will almost certainly be less than that provided for their paying clients, and the level of accountability will always be much, much less. So even when it appears that the information is authoritative, dignified, and contains some legal citations or other source attribution, there is still a need for the researcher to be wary and to follow up on his or her own.

This should be no surprise to anyone. Anything free always has the risk that you’re getting exactly what you paid for it. The fact is that the chargeable Internet and other on-line services for which you do pay (e.g., Dialog, Lexis-Nexis, Westlaw, Dun & Bradstreet, etc.) are generally more reliable, more comprehensive and more trustworthy than free Internet services. An example later in this article demonstrates this conclusively with respect to case law research. Freely accessible Internet sites are not a substitute for pay-as-you-go sites, and probably never will be. As a rule, free Internet research should merely supplement the basic factual and, to a lesser extent, the legal research done primarily on more reliable databases.

Be Wary of Anecdotal Information

The need to verify information escalates considerably if the information is not in the nature of a prepared work or compilation, but is instead more anecdotal, such as the extemporaneous communication exchanges in various chat groups. One can put out questions and seek information about virtually any topic by finding the right chat group or, occasionally, by participating in interactive seminars on the Net. But other than the seminar hosts, who will usually be identified along with their credentials, the suppliers of information are often anonymous, other than their e-mail addresses, which may provide only a bare clue to the information supplier’s true identity.

Virtual Anonymity

It is difficult when communicating on the Net to assess the credibility of the other participants in a conversation. At least in the real world, you can assess credibility of a person at a roundtable or a seminar by his or her demeanor, by his or her choice of language, and by the immediate reactions and responses of others who are present. This is not necessarily so on the Net. All of the visual clues are absent, and many of the linguistic and other clues about the speaker’s qualifications will be hard to detect. These may only appear later when someone more knowledgeable about the subject chooses to participate in the conversation.

It's a Pathway, Not a Destination

The greatest value of the interactive communication areas on the Net to the researcher is found in where they might lead, not in what they purport to share as the final word on any topic. Stories are already legion about the amount of sophisticated misinformation coming out of narrowly focused user groups. Thus, a researcher who is interested in Amex Corp. might put out a query regarding any experience in litigation that others have had with Amex Corp. Responses could lead that researcher to the courthouse or to identified human beings who might give more reliable information about Amex Corp. However, blind reliance on information found in the Internet would be foolhardy.

Using Search Engines

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