June 3, 2020 – Sixth century BCE Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, "The only thing that is constant is change."
The law is in a constant state of flux. This has been particularly evident during the coronavirus pandemic, with laws, regulations, and agency guidance rapidly developing and evolving.
When you complete legal research are you truly done? How do you keep tabs on pending and future modifications to the law?
A key yet sometimes overlooked component of thorough legal research involves staying current and tracking legal changes and developments. Automated alerting and tracking – within both subscription-based and free research tools – help you monitor the status of legal news, legislation, regulations, and cases and keep you informed on the latest developments in topics important to you and your clients.
This article addresses the value of using push-technology alerting and tracking tools and recommends key resources and strategies.
Alert Tools in Legal Research Platforms
Legal research platforms, including Westlaw, Practical Law, Lexis, Lex Machina, Fastcase, and Bloomberg Law, offer a myriad automated alerting and tracking functionalities.
Laura Olsen is a senior legal research specialist at Quarles & Brady LLP, Madison. She is a member of the Law Librarians Association (LLAW). LLAW's Public Relations Committee coordinates regular contributions by its members to InsideTrack.
When using any alerting tool, ensure you understand alerting options, update frequencies, and that you thoroughly test a search before automating it with an alert. "Garbage in, garbage out" (GIGO) is an adage in the online searching and computing vernacular, meaning poor quality input often produces faulty output. All queries automated through alerts and tracks, regardless of platform, should be tried and tested to produce thorough and on-point results.
Private legal publisher alerting tools allow you to alert on virtually any database, including case law, court dockets, SEC and IP filings, news, legislative and regulatory content, and secondary analytical sources. You may use these tools to track a case dockets as they move through the courts, the development of pending legislation and proposed regulations, and to be notified of new cases, bills, and regulations matching set criteria.
For example, suppose you want to track states that have enacted remote online notarization laws. You can use alerting/tracking tools to be notified of newly proposed bills, along with their status, and ultimate enactment. When done manually, this research could take hours and need to be routinely repeated – whereas, automated tools require an initial setup and then the information is delivered by email as databases are updated.
Fastcase, an online legal research service available as a benefit to State Bar members, uses an add alert tool that allows you to stay on top of your research.
To receive new cases based on a current search, simply click the "Add Alert" button at the top of the results list. You will receive updates when new documents are added to Fastcase matching search parameters. To track new case law referencing the legal aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, for example, run the query covid-19 or coronavirus or "pandemic flu" in your desired jurisdictional case law databases.
For a more focused alert add additional desired criteria to your search, such as force majeure, nursing home, insurance, election, or employee, and add the alert for your own personalized advance sheets.
Automated alerting and tracking tools save time and help ensure you are current on developing changes in the law.
Tracking State and Federal Legislative Developments
Automated legislative tracking allows you to track the status of pending proposals by bill number and identify newly introduced proposals based on subject or keyword.
The Wisconsin State Legislative Notification System (Notify) offers nightly personalized email notifications based on legislative activity, allowing you to follow legislation by subject, proposal, committee, authors, and more. Everything you need to know about using Notify is available via its help documentation. Most state legislatures offer a similar notification service.
Congress.gov allows users to create a personalized account, which can be used to create a variety of federal legislative alerts and saved searches. Alerts are used for updates to actions, bill text, co-sponsors, summaries, as well as new issues of The Congressional Record. This short video provides all the details you need to create a Congress.gov account and set alerts.
Monitoring State and Federal Regulatory Changes
The Wisconsin State Legislature notification service is also used for automated updates on Wisconsin administrative rules notices.
You may configure your account to be notified when each Wisconsin Administrative Register is published, or when specific types of documents are published, such as emergency rules, executive orders, or scope statements.
Additionally you may set your account to receive notices when specific Wisconsin Administrative Code chapters are changed or when rulemaking notices affecting chapters of interest are published in the Register.
Similar services for monitoring federal regulatory activity are available through the Federal Register (federalregister.gov) and regulations.gov.
You may create a personal My Federal Register account to subscribe to email notifications, including notifications on the table of contents of each day's issue, a particular agency's documents, public inspection filings by agency, saved search terms, and more. Simply look for the "subscribe" button on the Federal Register website for numerous subscription options. The subscribe button appears on the daily issue, with each search result screen, and with each agency.
Regulations.gov also allows you to track proposed regulations of interest. To sign up for an email alert search for a regulation of interest, open the docket folder, and select "Sign-up for Email Alert," and follow the prompts to subscribe. A subscription allows you to receive alerts about newly posted comments or documents related to the regulation of interest.
Following Court Dockets and Judicial Opinions
Tools for automated alerting and tracking of court dockets, court activity, and judicial opinions are widely available through commercial publisher legal research tools.
Many courts, including those in Wisconsin, offer the ability to track an existing court docket using an RSS feed. RSS (Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary) delivers updated web content via an RSS feed reader.
The Wisconsin Court System offers RSS feeds for news releases, Supreme Court opinions, rules, and dispositional orders, and Court of Appeals opinions and certifications. Details are available via the Wisconsin Court System's website. RSS feeds are also available for court dockets via the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access (WCCA) and the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Access (WSCCA) websites.
When viewing a court docket, simply click the RSS button to add the docket to your feed reader and you'll never miss an update. The State Bar of Wisconsin offers numerous RSS feeds to help you stay up-to-date on your favorite legal news and blog sites, including a new RSS feed for the Coronavirus and the Law Blog.
Google Alerts are used for updating Google searches, and are a quick and easy tool for receiving automated email updates on new web content. Instructions are available through Google Help. When setting an alert, test your query for optimum results and review available options, including update frequency, sources, language, geographic region, and more.
Google Alerts can be used to track clients and government agencies in the news, not to mention updates on virtually any topic of interest. Google Alerts serve as a good catch-all you can use for tip-offs on newly available information.
Going the Extra Mile
For critical ongoing research projects, a periodic manual review may offer an extra level of assurance that you have located all pertinent updates.
Automated alerting and tracking tools are extremely reliable; however, a manual search may yield additional content. It is important to develop an understanding of the lag time associated with specific alerting and tracking resources, as some fire more rapidly than others. In some research scenarios, a delay of one or two days is acceptable, while other research needs may require more swift updates.
Another tip when researching and tracking extremely important issues is to use various research tools for multiple vantage points. While redundancy can at times be inefficient, consulting multiple sources and using overlapping alerting and tracking tools can make the difference between missing or unearthing key information.
Under SCR 20:1.1, "competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation." Under SCR 20:1.3 "a lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client."
Staying abreast of changes in the law helps lawyers fulfill their professional duty of competence. ABA Comment , which follows SCR 20:1.1, recognizes that lawyers "should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology."
Using automated alerting and tracking tools to monitor key legal research issues is in alignment with these ethical obligations.
Automated alerting and tracking tools save time and help ensure you are current on developing changes in the law. These tools are available on both private publisher legal research platforms and via numerous government agency websites. Staying abreast of changes to the law helps you maintain a competitive research edge.