By Judge Robert Durham, Cookeville
In my early days as a lawyer, I would often take up quill and parchment and walk next door to the Legal Aid office where I could obtain my own personal legal charity—access to an honest-to-goodness law library. Ah, the good old days. Row upon row of casebooks, digests, and treatises where I could while away the hours delving into the mysteries of my chosen profession. Is there any better definition of heaven on earth?
Well, of course there is. Anyone who remembers having to use books to do legal research knows that it was cumbersome, time-consuming, likely to produce mistakes and, if you didn’t have someone you could mooch off of, expensive. (Pocket parts. Does anyone miss pocket parts? Anyone?)
Fortunately, today’s workers’ compensation lawyer doesn’t have to put up with such nonsense. Thanks to the Internet, the paths to legal precedent are only a few keystrokes away.
First, we have those two giants, LEXIS and Westlaw. Much like PCs vs. Apple, the debate rages on as to which is better. Truthfully, either one will be more than adequate for your needs. Both provide not only the Appeals Board decisions but also the trial court opinions. (This, in my opinion, isn’t really fair. It’s quite disconcerting to have your own decision cited back to you, particularly if you’re leaning toward a different result. Want an exercise in mental gymnastics? Try distinguishing yourself sometime.) However, both have quirks that might cause problems if you don’t know about them.
The Tennessee workers’ compensation courts use LEXIS as our research tool. (Funny, I’ve been an attorney for twenty-five years, and I’m still using someone else’s resources to do legal research.)
LEXIS is great. It’s fast, reliable, and provides a nice search engine that really lets you narrow your search to the most relevant cases. For example, I always narrow the database to only search Tennessee workers’ compensation cases. However, as I mentioned earlier, there’s a quirk. You might search the name of a recent Appeals Board decision only to be told that no such case can be found. Don’t worry; it’s there. You just have to look a little harder. Go to the “Select Category” icon, and click the arrow. You’ll see the subheading “Administrative Materials.” Click on that, and voila, there are your cases.
According to an attorney who uses Westlaw, its search engine is very like LEXIS and may be tailored to find relevant cases quickly. Like LEXIS, Westlaw also requires you to search under “administrative decisions” to find opinions from the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims or the Appeals Board.
Of course, LEXIS and Westlaw have one serious drawback: they’re expensive. If “free” is more to your liking when it comes to research expense, you might want to try TRACE, a database available through the University of Tennessee.
Just like LEXIS and Westlaw, TRACE has every decision from our court and the Appeals Board. They can be found here. Did I mention TRACE is free? TRACE has a search engine, which allows you to narrow your search somewhat; however, it’s limited to only key words and can’t be further tailored like LEXIS and Westlaw (or at least I don’t know how to do it.) Also, it doesn’t sort the cases chronologically. On the plus side, it’s free and accessible to anyone. These features can be very important to self-represented parties who don’t have access to databases like LEXIS and Westlaw.
While the way to do research may have changed since when I first came out of law school, the fact remains that it’s still required if you want to win your case. I hope this helps get you started.
Of course, if you’re reading this blog, it probably means you’re already better at computer research than I am. But if the digests ever make a comeback, I’m your man ̶ as long as I don’t have to pay for them.