Innovative v. Illicit Ways To Cut Costs At Your Law Firm: Free Student Access To Westlaw/Lexis Controversy

Managing partners are always looking for innovative techniques to cut costs within their law firm.

A firm’s first choice—although not the most innovative one—is typically staff downsizing. Does each lawyer need his or her own assistant, for example? Are all your paralegals being used efficiently, or do legal interns suffice?

Those uncomfortable questions have been asked over and over in light of the current economic climate.

But, when layoffs start to negatively affect employee morale, law firm administrators look to shedding pounds and hard cash via hard assets. For example, the order for a second copy machine is put on hold. Equipment is bought second-hand. Attorneys move from printed paper to pdfs.

If these tweaks and tricks are still not enough to stave off financial failure, outside counsel may be brought in to consult on streamlining revenue streams and cash flow.

Marketing services more effectively, creating a firm website or blog, and utilizing social media are great ways to attract new business. And, consultants may advise firms to create personalized legal services to retain old clients.

To keep the firm solvent and successful, administrators may consider moving billing from monthly to bi-weekly invoicing.

With careful consideration, there are myriad methods that law firms can take to cut costs.

However, after much less consideration, some law firms have found a non-traditional and now illicit measure to cut costs by hiring law students for their free access to Lexis and Westlaw.

“A lawyer who uses law students to access free online research violates ethical rules, according to the Nov. 15 opinion by the Utah State Bar Ethics Opinion Advisory Committee. The Legal Skills Prof Blog has the story,” reports the ABA Journal.

According to the opinion, “Numerous students have reported that practicing attorneys have conditioned initial or continuing employment as a law clerk upon the student’s violation of the agreement with the research services. In other instances, lawyers have knowingly used information retrieved from the electronic services in violation of the student’s contractual agreement.”

Because Westlaw and Lexis contracts restrict students to conducting free research for educational and nonprofit purposes only, the opinion states any such use for revenue-earning firms (i.e., clerkships or paid internships) puts students at a legal violation of the agreement and puts firms at a violation of its ethical obligations. 

The opinion appears to be just, but is it practical?

An anonymous commentator of the Legal Skills Prof Blog report counter-argues:

“…A student will use their free account because they’re used to it. In fact, West and Lexis allow accounts to be customized and arranged in ways that create incentives to use the same account you always use.  

“I guess what I am getting at is that this opinion seems to be mostly about the shady practices of some small law firms and solos. These are the same folks who likely hire ‘unpaid interns’ in clear violation of labor laws.”

One of the many reasons behind giving law students free access to Westlaw and Lexis is to advertise online legal services to would-be, future attorneys. Once these students pass the bar and transform from their student cocoon into a full-fledged lawyer, they will likely pay for the full services of these two technologies.

In sum, is it worth arguing over a few bad seeds in the fruitful field of law?

Whatever your stance on the issue, firm administrators should be sure to pay attention to the everyday happenings of their law school interns and clerks.

A plethora of states, including New York, California, and Oregon, have launched investigations into the violations of minimum wage laws and, now, online activity.

The Department of Labor’s wage and hour division has stepped up enforcement nationwide, especially in light of the rise of internships and “innovative” legal (and illegal) cost cutting.

These days, it’s vital to ensure your firm is in compliance.

And, whether residing in Utah or beyond, firms should remember that the ethical standard for the practice law is as meaningful as any legal one.

-WB

Consider the C4CM recordings, “Interns and the Law: Structuring a Compliant Internship Program that Meets Wage and Hour Guidelines,” or “Interns and the Law: Legal Ins and Outs of a Compliant Internship Program,” which both include a CD recording and accompanying materials.

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