Vol. 76, No. 9, September 2003
Carol Bannen is director of information resources at Reinhart, Boerner, Van Deuren S.C., Milwaukee. She is a member of the board of directors of the Law Librarians Association of Wisconsin, and heads its project providing a series of articles on conducting efficient, effective research. Bannen is a frequent speaker to groups of legal practitioners and researchers.
Law firm and corporate librarians are asked daily to find "everything you can on X company and its officers and directors." The lawyer may be gathering background information on a potential client. Financial information may be needed to determine whether to sue a particular business. Perhaps the inquiry is made to determine just how litigious an opponent is. The inquiry may be whether a company is still in business or who was in business at a particular location at a particular time. There are many reasons to go looking for company nuggets, and many places to look. Here are a few places to start.
Probably the easiest and best way to find information on a company is to look for a company Web site. The companies that have Web sites offer varying amounts of information. Publicly held companies may provide information on and links to financial statements, executive biographies, recent news releases, and descriptions of their business and subsidiaries. Privately held companies do not have to release financial information to the same extent as publicly held companies but still may have a lot to offer on their Web sites.
To locate a company Web site on the Internet, try typing the company name followed by ".com" in the address bar (for example, harleydavidson.com). If this fails, try searching the company name in quotes in Google.com. Often the company Web site will pop up in the first 10 results (for example, "Reinhart Boerner," whose Web site is www.reinhartlaw.com). If you only have a Web site address and want to find the owner, try Network Solutions Whois database. This site tells you who owns a Web site and often includes the owner's address and phone number.
To locate a company address and phone number, try Switchboard.com or Infospace; for international numbers and addresses, try Infobel. Reverse phone directories are available, but they do not include information for unlisted numbers. Try reverse number searching at www.thinkdirectmarketing.com.
Directories and Financial Data
There are several business directories, including the Dun and Bradstreet Business Directory. This free database gives you an address, phone number, and Web site address. You can order Dun and Bradstreet reports with a credit card. The reports provide credit information, liens filed, litigation, company history, and background on the principal officers and directors. Hoovers provides certain company information, including links to Web sites and recent articles, for free.
If the company is publicly held, the Securities and Exchange Commission filings are accessible at www.sec.gov. In addition to annual reports (Form 10-K), you will find proxy statements, executive compensation (Form 14A), and registration forms (including S-1, S-3, and others). Only the first few pages of each filing is searchable in full-text. EdgarIQ ets you search the entire document and also allows you to limit your search by Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code and filing type.
If you need to check with a secretary of state to find a company's registered agent, there are some excellent sites to use. The National Association of Secretaries of State links to all 50 U.S. secretaries of state. Resident Agent Information.com tells you what is and is not available by phone, fax, and Web from the secretaries of state. The Business Filings Databases article includes an annotated list of links to business filings databases, and indicates cost.
Wisconsin has the Corporate Registration Information System (CRIS) database, that provides the official corporate name, registered agent address, principal office, state of incorporation, type of entity, prior corporate names, and notifications of merger or acquisition. The listing of corporate officers and directors may only be obtained by requesting the annual report from the Department of Financial Institutions for $5. Domestic and foreign business and nonstock corporations and foreign limited liability companies are required to file an annual report, but other types of entities are not. As a result, there is no information for officers, directors, managers, or members of limited partnerships, limited liability partnerships, or domestic limited liability companies. Nor do general partnerships and sole proprietorships have to file any reports with the Department of Financial Institutions. UCC liens filed in Wisconsin from 1965 to the present can be accessed at www.wdfi.org/ucc/search/.
There is a wide variety of databases available for other types of businesses. For Standard & Poors and Fitch Insurance Company ratings, go to www.insure.com/ratings/index.html. For A.M. Best ratings and to purchase insurance company reports, go to www3.ambest.com/ratings/Advanced.asp. Information on banks and other financial institutions is available from the FDIC at www.fdic.gov/bank/index.html. Information on U.S. thrifts is available from the Office of Thrift Supervision. Wisconsin bank information can be found at www.wdfi.org/fi/banks/.
The Guidestar Web site has information on charities and other nonprofit companies, including Form 990. The IRS Form 990 includes assets, income, federal employer identification numbers (FEIN), funding, and activities. About a third of nonprofits file a Form 990.
Thomas Register Online is a wonderful free resource that lists U.S. and Canadian companies and their brands. The site allows searching by company name, product or service, and brand name. Any available links to online product catalogs and company Web sites also are given. The site includes a link for similar information on European manufacturers.
Trademarks and Patents
Trademarks and patents can provide a great deal of background information on a company by describing company products and research. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has two databases: the patent database and the trademark database. European patents can be searched at www.european-patent-office.org/index.htm.
News From Outside Sources
A news story may provide your most valuable nugget of information. Local papers from a company's hometown may have information not found elsewhere. The Special Libraries Association - News Division offers a useful annotated chart of news media archives on the Internet. Arranged by state, the chart points to both free and commercial sources of historical news. This chart fills a much-needed gap, because many valuable news stories are not collected and indexed by search engines. In particular, a search engine cannot index the information on a site that requires a password or registration to access the site (as do the Wall Street Journal and New York Times sites, for example). Thus, you may get better results by going directly to a newspaper's Web site.
For Wisconsin business news, visit the Milwaukee Business Journal. Links to this and 41 other city business journals can be found at http://www.bizjournals.com.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction funds a Web site called Badgerlink. This is a real gem. You can search the full text of magazines of all types - business, medical, educational, scientific, and more - by choosing "Magazines and Journals." To search the full text of newspapers on Badgerlink, choose "Newspapers" from the Proquest link and gain access to more than 500 regional, national, and international publications. You may need to have a library card number and PIN depending on where in the state you are accessing Badgerlink. For more information, contact your local public library on how you can use this wonderful source. It is a great way to read the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, and other papers every day for free. The Wisconsin Newsstand collection in "Newspapers" on Badgerlink has 12 Wisconsin papers searchable for free.
If you want to find out if a company is involved in current or past litigation, there are a number of places to look, but no site will search all federal, state, and local litigation at once. PACER is the federal court docket database. Registration is required and the cost is $.07 per page. The site's Federal Case/Party Index (FCPI) includes most but not all of the courts. This is searchable by company or individual name. Most court records go back to the early 1990s. The Wisconsin Eastern and Western District are included in the FCPI, but the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals needs to be searched directly at its Web site. Think of all possible spellings and potential abbreviations for the parties, because court clerks enter company names in a variety of ways.
Wisconsin is one of a few states with access to state and county court dockets. The Consolidated Courts Automation Program, or CCAP, allows you to search all counties except Walworth. Some counties have only certain types of cases. For example, Portage County only has probate and Milwaukee County has everything except probate, which is currently being added. The counties started using CCAP at different times, so the dates covered vary. The site for the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Court of Appeals has dockets from the courts..
The Law Library Resource Exchange (LLRX) Web site has an excellent link to more than 1,400 court dockets, forms, and rules. It has not been updated since February 2003 but is still a valuable resource for jurisdictions beyond Wisconsin.
Search Systems is another very useful database of searchable public record databases. More than 14,385 free public record databases are listed, including all the real estate property record databases available for all 50 states.
Mining for more nuggets of information on companies can be done at the OSHA violations Web site, and FDA Product Recalls Web site. The EPA ECHO database shows EPA violations.
This list, though extensive, is hardly complete. For example, numerous databases are available for searching at a cost, including Lexis, Westlaw, Dialog, Accurint, and others that may have additional information on a target company.
Today, we are truly buried under a mountain of information. The challenge is to mine through the mountains with focused searches to find the treasured nuggets.