Private Law Librarianship


Janet Peros and Jayse Sessi

Working as a research librarian in a law firm is often quite different from the same position in an academic or court setting.  This is true in both day-to-day duties, as well as the type of research performed.  Law firm librarianship can be challenging and very rewarding.

Research librarians are often called research analysts, research specialists, or a different title as many law firms have done away with the title “librarian” as well as the term “library” for the department.  Often, job descriptions outline the databases you need to learn or the specific job duties the position entails.  Other times, your duties change and can become more specialized once you are with the firm.

Key Concepts
  • Law librarianship in private law libraries provides opportunities to research niche areas such as patents, scientific research, and company research.
  • Cost-effective research can be interpreted differently depending on the culture of the firm you work for.
  • Quick turnaround times for projects mean there is no time to produce a custom, in-depth report, which is often done with competitive intelligence work.

Vendors for many of the databases mentioned in the chapter often provide trials or are willing to offer free training for their products. Networking with your local AALL (American Association of Law Libraries) chapter or other law librarian groups (SLA (Special Libraries Association) and ILTA (International Legal Technology Association) for example, is also a great way to learn new skills by attending educational programs and finding a mentor should you wish to pursue a career path at a law firm.  Lastly, once you are on the job, looking out for possible solutions that are low cost and can save time, can be a boon to firm management and attorneys, and might allow you to work on the project you want.  Possible solutions to save both time and money are always welcome!

Cost-effective Research

Cost-effective research can be interpreted differently depending on the culture of the firm you work for.  It generally means, don’t waste money when you don’t have to! Use databases that have a “flat fee” vs. those that charge the client for every search performed.  If you do have to use an expensive database, be conscious of how many searches you will need to run to get the results needed.

All that being said, researchers at law firms often bill their time, and time is money.  Often, the time lost in using subpar free resources might not be worth it when one quick search could have produced more accurate results.  When in doubt, check with your supervisor and other team members for best practices.  The rules that apply at one firm might be different at another firm.  Even individual attorneys or clients you are performing research for might have different preferences for how research should be handled or budgeted.  As part of the reference interview, check with the attorney on their budget for the research, particularly if you are considering running an expensive search or purchasing an expensive report.  Every request, attorney, client, and situation might have different meanings of what cost-effective research is.  It is critical to be aware of this as a researcher at a law firm.

When using costly databases that charge per search or per time used to, a useful tip is to contact the vendor helpline (these are often available 24/7 or at least during regular business hours via phone, email or chat).  The vendor will then be able to compose an effective search for you with your guidance and let you know if there are no results for the search or point you to a specific citation which is usually much less expensive to pull up than performing a global search.  This will save you the cost and time of running multiple, fruitless costly searches and allow you to only run one search or none at all.

Deliverables & Turnaround Time

Performing research at a law firm is a fast-paced job.  Deadlines for requests often range from a day, to several hours, to 15 minutes.  Part of the research analyst’s job is often triaging requests to ensure that deadlines are met, and requests are acknowledged in a timely fashion, even if they don’t demand immediate attention. Maintaining excellent customer service and flexibility to pivot from one task to another is often listed as a requirement in job descriptions because it is such a key feature of this type of work.

The quick turnaround times for projects means there is no time to produce a custom, in-depth report as is often done with competitive intelligence work.  That said, the days of sending 10 PDFs attached to an email with no explanation or analysis are gone.  Attorneys, paralegals and other clients you perform research for demand and expect some analysis of the results even if it is a short paragraph outlining the steps you took in your research, what sources were used, and the answer, if there is a clear one.  Often, an easy method to follow is listing sources attached or findings found in a clear, numbered or bulleted list in an email.  Again, the general format used and expectations for deliverables are greatly dependent on your department and firm. Often, the requestor might state their preference for the deliverable with the request, or you can check during the reference interview process to ensure that the client is happy with how your results are presented and packaged.

Business, Company, & Market Research

Company Information

In contrast with the detailed, strategic reports that competitive intelligence professionals provide and are discussed in the preceding chapter, attorneys often need information on companies, whether it be determining where a company is incorporated, financial information, executive bios or determining where a company has operations.  These queries are usually related to a client question that arise out of a litigation or transactional deal.

At many firms, who handles what research is often determined by whether the research is for an existing client (billable matter) or a potential one (non-billable) (most research analysts at law firms bill their time just as attorneys do).  Also, queries containing certain terms as “pitch”, RFP, or “potential client” often flag the request as best handled by the competitive intelligence team vs. the research analysts/reference librarians.

Lastly, a key distinguishing feature between competitive intelligence work and research is turnaround time.  While a request for an in-depth report composed by competitive intelligence usually has a deadline from anywhere from 24 hours to a week or more, a research request usually needs to be completed by end of day, or is often needed ASAP (i.e. the attorney is in court, has a call with the client in an hour, meeting with the lead partner on a deal in two hours, etc.)

How do you obtain this type of information once you determine that the research being requested is best handled by you/your teammates? A great starting point, whether the company is public or private, US based or foreign, is the company’s own website.  Depending on the size of the company, public status, and how much they are willing to disclose, you can often find press releases, annual reports, biographies of executives and board members, and geographic locations of the company.  Often, small private entities have very sparse information on their company website. That is no accident, as they are not required to disclose their revenue, major initiatives, or even who the executives are. These companies are often difficult to research.

In addition to the company website, fee-based databases have company reports available that can be downloaded into a PDF or Word document.  Capital IQ, Hoovers, Bloomberg Law, and Pitchbook (for private equity firms) are examples of these.  They are easy to search, and provide full reports which are easy to download.  Of course, the breadth and depth of the information available in the report will likely correlate to the pattern you already discovered by looking at public websites and searching the internet.  Large public companies have a wealth of detail and multi-page reports and small, private entities will not contain much information at all and the report may consist of several blank pages.

A common research question that arises either out of a litigation matter (in which jurisdiction should a particular entity be sued) or for due diligence on a transaction (what state or country laws govern an entity that is about to be acquired) is discovering the state or country of incorporation of an entity.

A company report from one of the previously mentioned databases should have the data to determine the country.  If the company is public and US-based, it will have the state of incorporation.

For private entities, the process is not as straightforward.  Searching for the state’s Secretary of State website and finding the company or business search is helpful. If the attorney has an idea where the entity is incorporated, that will be helpful.  Otherwise, looking at the company website or a company report to see where they are located is often a best guess.  Many companies (but not all) are often incorporated in Delaware.  This is due to tax advantages, flexibility in corporate structure, and privacy protections offered to business entities in Delaware. For this reason, the Delaware Secretary of State website is a good starting point to search if there are otherwise no clues.  If a company comes up as “foreign” that indicates they are registered in that state, but incorporated elsewhere.  The search will usually tell you where.  You can then search that state’s secretary of state website to get their record of incorporation.

As a final note for state of incorporation research, states vary widely in how much information is available for free or otherwise.  Most states are free to search (New Jersey and Texas are exceptions).  Some states offer the underlying documents free of charge, but most require you to order them either directly from the state, or through a third-party vendor (i.e. Wolters Kluwer or Cogency Global).  Although the vendor may likely charge more than the state, the turn-around time is much quicker this way (same day vs. several days).

SEC Filings

A great source for information on public (and sometimes private) companies are SEC filings. These are freely available through the SEC website, and certain subscription databases allow for more robust searching of filings.  What type of information can be found in SEC filings?

SEC filings are mandatory to be filed for US publicly-traded companies, as well as foreign companies that trade on a US exchange (foreign private issuers) and include annual reports (10-K), quarterly reports (10-Q) and a multitude of other documents regarding the company’s equity and debt, executives and board members and their compensation, shareholder proposals, etc.

In addition, to the filings themselves, exhibits to the filings offer press releases as well as detailed agreements outlining terms of a merger, executive compensation, license agreements, corporate governance documents like charters and bylaws, and much more.

Many third party databases such as Intelligize, Bloomberg Law and Westlaw Business allow for robust searching of SEC filings. Still, EDGAR is available through the SEC website free of charge to anyone.

Even if a company is privately-held, it’s parent might be public or it might otherwise have a relationship with a public company. There might be some information available on them such as basic financials, agreements, or major changes to the company’s structure. Hence, it is still worthwhile to do a quick check of SEC filings for any information that might be available.

Market Research

Performing company research often coincides with market research for a particular industry.  Some law firm librarians exclusively focus on competitive intelligence research and are more likely to perform market research regularly.  Analyzing peer firms for certain metrics is another task often handled in this realm.

Attorneys or marketing and business development professionals at a law firm often need industry data or statistics when competing for a new client.  In addition, they may have questions about the law firms they are competing against, such as if they have tried many cases like the one of interest (asbestos, securities class actions, etc.) as well as their experience in a particular court or before a particular judge.

Certain databases such as IBIS World, Statista, and analyst reports on a particular company or industry can be used to assist attorneys who are investigating a potential client before a client pitch or need to know more about a client’s industry for any number of reasons.  These industry reports contain market share information, colorful pie charts, and graphs that can be excerpted (with permission) in a slide show or report that is being compiled internally.  This type of data is usually quite difficult to obtain from free resources.  If your firm does not have a subscription, market research reports can often be purchased individually, although they can be quite costly (several hundred to several thousand dollars).

Public Records

Often in the course of litigation or company research, there is a need for public records research of all types, from real estate deeds to data on individuals, both current and historical.

Many public records, like real estate deeds and criminal records, can be found online free of charge depending on the jurisdiction.  Occasionally, there is a nominal fee you can pay for via credit card and do not need a subscription for.  Coverage varies greatly depending on the state, city, or county you are interested in and can range anywhere from getting full PDFs documents for leases and mortgages to having to go to the county registrar or clerk in person to search microfiche.

Public records can also be obtained via Westlaw, Lexis, or Accurint.  The advantage of these resources is the searching capability and ease of retrieval.  When using individual websites from a particular jurisdiction, you often need to submit a captcha, download each record individually, purchase records individually, etc.  In the interest of saving time, running a search in a subscription database, although sometimes costly, can save time and money.

News, Current Awareness, Monitoring, & Alerts

News & current awareness

The universe of free and fee resources to both search and monitor current awareness is vast and constantly growing.  We will touch upon different categories of tools frequently used for this purpose.

Searching news and press releases and setting up alerts is a frequent task of the law firm librarian.  One tool in a law firm librarian’s arsenal is a news aggregator.  This tool allows you to set up RSS feeds to share on your firm’s intranet or send targeted, curated newsletters to a client team or practice group that may be monitoring.  Examples of these tools are Convergence, Manzama, and Osmozys.

News aggregators are helpful to compile and disseminate news from multiple sources on a specific topic.  They allow you to filter targeted publications that you subscribe to, as well as free resources.  They also allow you to create RSS feeds to monitor a particular website for any changes.  A useful example is any government agency that you might be monitoring for a particular release that will only be published on the agency website and not in a news source.  If the site has an RSS feed, you can paste the URL into your aggregator tool and receive emails whenever the site is updated.

Newsletters often are needed to monitor the news for a particular client, industry, or competitors.  In addition, attorneys often want to stay abreast of news in the legal industry from industry publications such as Law360 and the American Lawyer.

Setting up Alerts

If you decide to pursue a career in law librarianship at a law firm, your job might entail setting up alerts and ongoing maintenance of the alerts.

News alerts can be created to monitor current and potential clients, industries, or topics of interest.  Depending on how broad the topic is, or how large the company is, you may need to restrict sources feeding the alert and add additional terms to the search.  By contrast, an alert for a small entity, in a particular location, or a very narrow topic, may likely have little to no news. In this instance, you will want your search to be as broad as possible to capture anything and everything.  It is often necessary to revisit the alert parameters a day or week after you set it up to ensure that it is capturing what you need.

Cases are also often monitored through third-party databases such as Bloomberg Law, Westlaw, or Lexis.  Often, an attorney wants to see any new court filings in a particular matter, or anytime an opinion of interest is cited in any new opinions.

Alerts can also be created to capture new cases filed against a particular entity or individual that may be a client.  In addition to the databases already mentioned, Courthouse News is a database used to monitor new complaints across federal and state courts.  In some instances, setting up multiple alerts on different databases is advisable due to court coverage issues if that is a concern.  Some courts that offer electronic filing for attorneys on record for the case still do not make these filings publicly electronically available. When in doubt, check the coverage scope of the database or contact the database help line directly.

Although federal cases are easy to monitor and search for (through PACER), state court coverage is limited.  In fact, among the over 3000 state and local courts across the US, less than half have any electronic access at all and often only for dockets and not for actual case filings. This poses a challenge when monitoring cases in certain jurisdictions. It is important to communicate with the requestor so that they are aware of the limitations of the alert and how wide or narrow a net is being cast.

Scientific Literature

Open Access Databases

Researching scientific articles and searching scientific literature databases is very different than general legal research.  One of the main differences is that the research is primarily for publication information (i.e., citation, abstract, and index terms) since most scientific literature databases are not full text. Though some databases are multi-disciplinary, many scientific literature databases are subject-specific. There are some open-access databases such as PubMed (medicine / biotech), TRID (transportation) NTIS (national technical reports), Agricola (agriculture), IEEE Xplore (computer science /electronics). It is imperative to ensure that the search conducted is in the appropriate subject database. The Smithsonian Libraries’ website has a list of free databases, which can be very helpful when looking for an appropriate scientific database.

Subscription Databases

Some databases can be purchased with a subscription; prominent ones include Dialog, Scopus, and Web of Science.

Dialog has multiple databases, that cover a wide range of business and scientific fields. Record levels vary based on the specific database. One advantage with Dialog or another platform aggregator, such as ProQuest, EbscoHost, or Ovid, is that multiple databases that are appropriate for the subject area can be searched at one time, often with the ability to remove duplicates.

Scopus is a source-neutral abstract and citation database curated by independent subject matter experts. Scopus indexes content from 24,600 active titles and 5,000 publishers and is rigorously vetted.

Web of Science is a platform consisting of several literature search databases designed to support scientific and scholarly research. It includes publisher-neutral research across the sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities from journals, books, and conference proceedings. There are 34,000 journals indexed, some of which go back to 1900.

SciFinder or SciFinder-n, as the new/updated platform is called, offers a small set of databases: CAPlus (CAS chemical abstracts), CAS Registry (CAS RN records), CAS React (CAS chemical reactions), chemical suppliers, and Medline. Patents are included with PatentPak. SciFinder is a unique database for chemists where the user can run searches based on chemical structures and retrieve results containing articles, abstracts, and patents. This add-on combines both articles and patents on a topic, eliminating the need to run two separate searches.   SciFinder is a flat fee database.

Cited Reference Search

 The cited reference search is unique to scientific literature. Not all scientific literature databases have this feature.  Historically, the Science Citation Index (SciSearch) or Social Science Citation Index (Social SciSearch), have been the primary databases for this type of search.  They are now part of Web of Science. As it’s becoming more popular, other databases like  PubMed (limited to PubMed Central [PMC] articles, only), IEEE Xplore, and SciFinder are starting to include cited references.  Search a vetted database like the above for the most accurate results, rather than rely on Google Scholar. The algorithm Google uses can be multiplicative and skew results very inaccurately. See Deep Dive section for articles that address these Google Scholar issues.

Full-Text Scientific Articles

Once a scientific literature search is completed, the next step is to obtain the full-text article. Unlike colleges and universities, companies or law firms may not subscribe to databases containing scientific publications. Some scientific journals are open access and are readily available online through a simple search. Others may be available in manuscript version on a platform such as PubMed Central (PMC). Many publishers have article purchase options directly on their websites.  Another option is to use a document delivery vendor to consolidate article purchasing and billing and mitigate any download issues.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

In the mid-1990s, when scientific articles were first published on the Internet, it was common to find broken article links.  These would happen whenever a publisher changed a website, migrated a publication, or merged with another publisher. To solve this problem, persistent interoperable identifiers were created.  In the publication world, these are known as digital object identifiers (DOI) and are registered with the International DOI Foundation (IDF).  In 2000, the static identifier DOI was introduced for scientific and government literature, research, and reports. By including a DOI in a scientific article citation, there is a permanent link to a publication no matter where it may be housed on a webpage.

Industry Standard Research

Industry Standards

Industry standards foster cooperation, compatibility, and conformity assessment procedures across a wide variety of industries, including communications, computers, automotive, mechanical, industrial engineering, etc.  There are many industrial organizations that have engineering specifications and standards for an industry.  A few of the most well-known are ASME, ASTM, IEEE, ISO, SAE, and UL, but there are many more.  Some standards may be a collaborative effort between multiple organizations, may have joint authorship, or may result in the adoption of international agreements.  Some organizations make their standards freely available, while others are available for purchase via their website.  In some cases, a membership may be required to access any standards or other publications. NIST has a wonderful list of organizations that have free access, free access with registration, or standards included in the membership.

Standards Stores

There are also standards stores such as The Document Center Inc., IHS Markit Standards Store, and Techstreet, where one can purchase standards from just about any industrial organization.  Using a standards store can simplify standards purchases since they are one source covering multiple organizations and have access to both US and international standards. . They can obtain both historical as well as current versions of standards. It is important to know the time period for the research so that the correct standard in effect during the correct time period is purchased. Prices for standards can vary greatly, from under $50.00, to several hundreds, to even several thousand dollars, for a single user copy.  If standards need to be shared and a pdf version purchased over a print copy, then multiple copies or a multiple access license/subscription will need to be purchased.

Patent Research

When searching for patents, it is best to use a resource dedicated to patents.  A wealth of information is available on open access patent databases such as the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) Public Patent Application Information Retrieval database (Public PAIR). For European patent information, there is the European Patent Office’s (EPO) Espacenet patent database and European Patent Register. There is also the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) PATENTSCOPE patent database.  These are free to search and retrieve a variety of patent documents.  US patents can also often be found on Google Scholar. These databases are useful when the patent number or the patent application number is already known, and you only need basic information such as the published document. Espacenet has an advanced search function that can be useful for more detailed search requests but still has limitations for complex patent searches. The key to successful searching on these types of databases is to understand the difference between the various types of numbers:  application number, first publication number, granted patent number,  provisional patent application number, re-examination number, PCT number, etc.  International patent numbers can require historical knowledge, especially when dealing with older  Japanese Emperor style numbers.

Examples of US numbers one may encounter:

  • US granted patent number: US 6,287,704
  • US Application number/ serial number: US 09/171,558
  • US Re-exam serial number: 90/006,211
  • US Earliest Publication Number:  US 2003-0207133
  • US Provisional serial number: US 60/456,294 or US 61/763,403
  • PCT number: PCT/US2002/020249

Some popular subscription-based patent databases include Questel Orbit, Minesoft PatBase, Lexis TotalPatent One, and Derwent Innovation. These subscription databases are very powerful search tools and provide excellent searching capabilities for complex requests.


Researching patent families can have different results based on the database family definition.  There can be differences between a Derwent patent family and an INPADOC patent family.

If multiple resources are available when researching patent litigation, it is imperative to check multiple databases.  There have been occasions when the results for a set of patents vary depending on the database, as some databases cover different courts or time periods.

Patent Litigation

Texas, California, and Delaware are the major courts for patent cases, and any appeals will be filed in the Federal Circuit Court. This also includes Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) cases.

Some excellent subscription resources are Docket Navigator, Lex Machina, Bloomberg Law, and Lexis CourtLink.  Subscription patent databases like Minesoft PatBase are also starting to include litigation information. Darts-IP is a database for international patent litigation.

Other Intellectual Property: Copyright, Trademark

Other intellectual property areas include copyright and trademark. To have a clear picture of a company’s intellectual property, copyright and trademark should also be included in any research or due diligence.

US copyright records may be searched on the US Copyright Office’s website.

Some open access trademark databases include The United States Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) and WIPO Global Brand Database. The WIPO Trademark Database Portal has links to many countries’ trademark databases.  Like the open access patent databases, these are useful for simple, straightforward searching. For more complex searches, there are many subscription-based trademark databases such as Corsearch, Marquesa MQ3, Orbit Trademark, to name a few.

Finding Opportunities for Niche Work

Law firms with Intellectual Property groups or patent and/or trademark groups will have a need for these types of research skills to support patent prosecution, the filing of new inventions for patents with the USPTO, patent, trademark, and/or copyright litigation.  Also, law firms with product liability or medical malpractice groups will have a need for research skills in scientific/medical database searching. Other firms that support medical, scientific, or engineering companies will have a need for these types of skills.

  • Peter Jacso “Google Scholar’s Ghost Authors” Library Journal, November 1 2009, pp. 26-27
  • Jacsó, Péter. “Google Scholar duped and deduped – the aura of ‘robometrics’ “ Online Information Review; 2011, 35(1);154-160.
  • Beel, J. and Gipp, B. “Google Scholar’s ranking algorithm: the impact of citation counts. An empirical study”, Proceedings of the 3rd IEEE International Conference on Research Challenges in Information Science (RCIS ’09), 2009, pp. 439-46. DOI: 10.1109/RCIS.2009.5089308


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Introduction to Law Librarianship Copyright © 2021 by Janet Peros and Jayse Sessi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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