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When is print better than online?

Cost is a major element of this: online access to a treatise (a compendium of legal research, opinion, etc. that’s an extremely useful resource for understanding an area of the law before diving into more specifics) can run to around $825 an hour, while the print version of the same treatise costs $499 per year (or less, if you don’t mind out-of-date treatises). But it’s more than simply the straight-up cost of access – print research can be more effective and time-efficient for many tasks.

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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Greg Lambert at 3 Geeks and a Law Blog writes:

Generally, the discussion has tended to lean toward the idea that online research will trump print research due to the convenience of the format and how the upcoming generation will prefer online over print media.

via 3 Geeks and a Law Blog: Legal Research Metrics & Ethics: $499 a Year Or $825 an Hour?.

But Lambert points out that many researchers have discovered that in certain situations and with certain kinds of material, even young lawyers are discovering that online access – at least, as delivered by the current providers – just doesn’t work as well.

Cost is a major element of this: online access to a treatise (a compendium of legal research, opinion, etc. that’s an extremely useful resource for understanding an area of the law before diving into more specifics) can run to around $825 an hour, while the print version of the same treatise costs $499 per year (or less, if you don’t mind out-of-date treatises). But it’s more than simply the straight-up cost of access – print research can be more effective and time-efficient for many tasks:

Then along comes a recession and all of a sudden it becomes apparent that online research is “expensive” and for some forms of research – specifically treatise research – online research doesn’t work very well. Take a poll at one of the practice group meetings you attend and ask the attorneys point blank: “When researching in treatises, do you find you are more efficient using the print version of a treatise, or the online version of a treatise?” I’d almost give you 2 to 1 odds that the print version will be the preferred method.

via 3 Geeks and a Law Blog: Legal Research Metrics & Ethics: $499 a Year Or $825 an Hour?

Myself, I find that online case-law research so much more effective than the print alternative that I strongly support eliminating the print versions of decisions completely. There is simply no point in filling libraries with dead trees holding out-of-date case law that’s difficult and time-consuming to cross-reference.

However, treatises are a different story. The longer, more in-depth format, combined the the benefits of browsing vs. searching when it comes to broad areas of the law, make the print versions far more attractive than their current online counterparts.

This is essentially the same reason why I do not read books on my computer screen: it is uncomfortable and limiting.

The Kindle and other e-readers substantially reduce this argument, however, and that is exactly what I see for the future of treatises. The benefits of “online” access (especially linking) simply do not outweigh the per-hour charges or the inefficiency of search vs. browse. Electronic readers, with one-time charges like print, add effective electronic searching while preserving much (but not all – flipping back and forth between sections, or having multiple volumes open at once are still not possible) help bridge this gap.

My prediction: treatises will move to electronic media, and “online” access via LexisNexis or Westlaw will be reduced to quick scans and database searches, with researchers then taking it “offline” to their Kindle. (Of course, the “online” vs. “offline” distinction is inaccurate, since the Kindle has built-in wireless networking – so we need to find a better term to capture the distinction.)