Despite cost, law firms remain loyal to their online legal research services

By Anamika Roy
BridgeTower Media Newswires
BALTIMORE, MD — As law firms look for ways to offer legal services to clients more efficiently and with more predictable fee structures, the use of online legal research platforms remains essential – and it’s not cheap.

“It is a significant cost consideration for a firm – usually in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a large or midsized law firm,” said Kumar Jayasuriya, the “knowledge management attorney” at Baker Donelson’s Baltimore office.

LexisNexis and Westlaw by Thomson Reuters have long been the “big two,” starting more than a century ago and surviving in the digital age. But other platforms such, as Bloomberg BNA and Fastcase, are slowly coming into the fold. A recent survey on legal research tools showed that most users prefer Westlaw, Fastcase and Lexis, with each program receiving about 20 percent of the vote.

Nicole Ames, director of marketing and business development at Pessin Katz Law P.A., recently renewed the Towson firm’s contract with Westlaw for another four years – but not before engaging in four months of research and negotiations.

“Cost is a really big factor but we also look at the time it would take if we did switch,” Ames said.

Other factors, she added, included whether a different product could still serve the firm’s needs, whether that product was user friendly and whether it offered new features attorneys would use.

Pessin Katz looked into Bloomberg BNA and Lexis – which the firm briefly used several years ago – before deciding to stay with Westlaw.

“We will make the switch if the cost is worth it (and)’s a good opportunity for the firm to save money,” she said.


New option

Bloomberg BNA is the newest option available for legal research, with the Clio Legal Research Survey finding less than 1.5 percent of users calling it their preferred legal research tool.

Bloomberg is trying to make its mark in the legal research world by focusing on analytics and offering a different pricing model. Other platforms typically offer subscribers a base package and then charge based on usage, like a taxi meter.

“That was very frustrating for the firms,” said Scott Mozarsky, president of Bloomberg Law. “If you have a budget that you’re want some predictability and forecast ability in your budgeting.”

(Law firms are asked to sign non-disclosure agreements when getting a subscription to any of the legal research programs, so the exact cost to firms is not known.)

Bloomberg BNA is a combination of two businesses. About eight years ago, Bloomberg introduced Bloomberg Law, a terminal for the legal market with data and analytics about courts and law firms. The program offered one price for a year’s service to avoid the unpredictable “metered” pricing.

While the model resonated with the legal market, it did not provide enough value to justify the investment, Mozarsky said.

In 2011, Bloomberg bought the Bureau of National Affairs for nearly $1 billion to strengthen its legal research offerings. The combined platform now lets businesses looking for counsel find the best law firm using data about law firm success rates and areas of expertise. In turn, law firms can use that data to market their services.

“Our promise to our customers is, if you invest in us we’ll keep adding new stuff every week,” Mozarsky said.

That investment may also benefit law firms who do not use Bloomberg. While prices for legal research software have stayed stable, Ames said more competition would give firms more leverage during the negotiation process.

Subscription to legal research software falls behind insurance expenses in terms of the largest costs for a firm. But the software allows law firms to work faster and for more clients.

“The whole idea with law right now is efficiency because the market is so competitive,” Ames said. “Clients want to make sure that when you are doing legal research, that you are doing it efficiently.”


‘Democratizing the law’

Sheri B. Hoidra takes a different approach to research. As a Baltimore solo practitioner with a practice that largely focuses on the rapidly changing field of immigration law, Hoidra finds speaking with other colleagues and senior attorneys is a good way to get up-to-date information for a case. Hoidra also uses Fastcase, which is included as part of her membership with the Maryland State Bar Association.

“I’m a firm believer in mentorship and membership,” said Hoidra, who writes for The Daily Record’s Generation J.D. blog.

The MSBA was one of the first state bar associations in the country to offer Fastcase with its membership, Executive Director Victor Velazquez said.

“Democratizing the law is something that the MSBA is supportive of and something we share in common with Fastcase,” Velazquez said. “Having free access to the law helps with the administration of justice.”

Both Lexis and Westlaw offer packages for solo practitioners for a few hundred dollars per month, money Hoidra feels is better spent toward joining professional organizations

“If someone is a member of an organization, it’s best to discuss the specific issue with a person who is more senior than yourself,” she said. “Sometimes it just makes more sense to speak to each other.”

By being a part of professional organizations with other attorneys, Hoidra has access to listservs where she can post a legal question. For other research, using the right search terms online can also yield helpful responses.

“You’ll get more recent results and you just have to make sure it’s still good law,” Hoidra said.

Hoidra’s approach to research as well as the wider use of legal research tools signals an industry-wide shift away from law books.

In Jayasuriya’s case, he used to be the law librarian at Ober|Kaler, which merged with Baker Donelson earlier this year. With the new firm, he moved to the data management department and created different interface tools that include online resources the firm uses, including Lexis and Westlaw.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a time when Google is going to be able to provide legal research,” Jayasuriya said. Lexis and Westlaw “figured out how to do research well even in the paper system.”