In his upcoming book Reflections on Judging (due out this fall), U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner urges his peers on the bench to embrace extracurricular web-surfing in order to better understand the cases before them. According to the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog (subscription required), which obtained a review copy of the work, Posner complains that judges' technophobia creates a vicious cycle of under-informed case records: "Judicial timidity about conducting Internet research has a negative feedback. Appellate lawyers naturally focus their briefs and oral arguments on what the judges have the easiest access to. […]The Web is an incredible compendium of data and a potentially invaluable resource for lawyers and judges that is underutilized by them."
For his part, Posner has used web searching to find common definitions of the word "harboring" (as many rising 2Ls will remember from this spring's LARW appellate brief), and also to obtain plain-English explanations of complicated technical processes. While Posner acknowledges the potential pitfalls of relying on community-edited websites such as Wikipedia, he also points out that the fact-finding process of courts can be equally flawed.
How can budding lawyers harness the Internet for fact-finding as effectively as Judge Posner does? It helps to keep a few reference guides handy. Zimmerman's Research Guide is a free online resource hosted by LexisNexis (no subscription required) which points attorneys to great starting places for a variety of research topics, including historical weather data, registries of website owners, and records for military personnel.
Several works in the Goodson Law Library's collection also help point researchers to online fact-finding sources. In particular, Carole Levitt and Mark Rosch's series Find Info Like a Pro (part I and part II) outlines a mix of free and fee-based sources for locating public records information.
Carole Levitt is also the author of Google for Lawyers: Essential Search Tips and Productivity Tools. While many of her advanced search tips in that book are still helpful, it also illustrates the fast-moving nature of online research. Several of the Google search tricks and tools which were highlighted in that 2010 book can already be found in the Google Graveyard of retired services (with another, the Google Uncle Sam government search engine, killed so quietly that it doesn’t even merit a virtual headstone).
It's hard to keep up with constant changes to existing products and the debut of new ones. So for help locating the best source for an online research question, be sure to Ask a Librarian.