Marc Daffner needed to check his iPhone.
The Allegheny County judge was staring at him from the bench, waiting. As was the district attorney to his right.
But he really, really needed to check his iPhone.
The fate of Mr. Daffner's client depended on it, so he asked for a five-minute recess.
With his iPhone finally in hand, Mr. Daffner used an app to find session notes on a sentencing statute. The notes proved the DA was incorrectly applying the statute to put Mr. Daffner's client behind bars. "It saved five to 10 years of my client's life," he said.
Mr. Daffner, who graduated from University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1993, is part of a generation of lawyers taught to do research with these funny things called "books," at these funny places called "libraries." This same generation is now leading the legal industry's leap to the Web -- a revolution with major implications for clients, bringing more firepower to those who can afford it and more headaches to those who can't.
"Today, virtually 100 percent of practitioners use online research," said David Dilenschneider, who oversees content development for LexisNexis. "You really cannot practice in books these days. It isn't doable because of the risk of missing information."
LexisNexis and Westlaw provide massive databases of statutes and judicial opinions, plus proprietary goodies like analyses and explanations.
It's that proprietary content, along with advanced search algorithms and other fancy tools, that make the two services the most effective in the industry -- and the most expensive.
Spokesmen from both companies wouldn't comment on specific prices, but a Westlaw price sheet lists a $24-per-minute fee to search through court decisions. A Lexis price sheet references some tabs exceeding $200,000 per year.
Samuel Milkes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, recently got an e-mail from a colleague looking for help. The colleagaue's research subscription doesn't include the type of case she was trying to find, and she didn't know what to do.
"It can be an issue," he said, "so people have to get creative."
Offering free legal help to low-income Pennsylvanians, lawyers representing the Legal Aid Network usually find themselves out-funded by their opposition in court. "It's clear that there are mixed levels of access to this research across the entire legal service network," he said.
"Not everybody has access to it, and even the people who do have some limits on what's available to them. You can't just say, 'Well, I have online research.' The question is: How extensive is the library you can access?"
Rather than paying by the minute, lawyers can buy flat-rate subscriptions to access a specific nook of a database -- for example, Supreme Court decisions. Simpler plans like this can cost about $1,000 per year.
"Sure, a practitioner can say, 'I'm not going to use Lexis or Westlaw,' but there are certain risks with that," Mr. Dilenschneider said. "That's a decision he has to make, to weigh efficiency with cost and reliability."
John Stember, a partner at Pittsburgh's Stember Feinstein Doyle & Pain, says his midsize firm considers online research cheaper than old-fashioned book research.
"If you were trying to maintain some kind of library, you don't have those costs anymore. You don't have to maintain the space, the books would get damaged. You used to try to do research, and the book was missing, so you don't have that problem anymore," he said.
Those who best use the technology save enough hours of research to actually charge less in legal fees.
"While there's expense involved in purchasing a plan, you can zoom through thousands of cases online a whole lot faster than you can walking from book to book," he said.
Lawyers keep costs down by trying low-cost alternatives to Westlaw and Lexis, but think Yankees and Red Sox. Sure, there are other teams -- technically.
"For the proprietary stuff, there's still just one row to hoe," said George Pike, director of Pitt Law's library. "Certainly, there is an element of 'you get what you pay for' when using a free or low-cost service. It may not have as sophisticated of a search engine or have less content."
Mr. Daffner's iPhone app was run by Factcase, one of the many cheaper alternatives out there. A 2010 survey by the Law Library Journal lists products by Bloomberg Law and Loislaw as the most commonly used substitutes to Westlaw and Lexis.
These alternatives are increasingly encroaching on the market but still have a long way to go before taking a major share. In addition to the lack of proprietary content, one reason is a lack of visibility. Mr. Stember, like many lawyers, wasn't aware alternatives existed at all.
Many law schools focus their curriculums on the two major databases, resulting in waves of recent graduates most comfortable with them alone.
"Part of it is a practicality, really. These services are ubiquitous in the legal profession, so they must be ubiquitous to us," Mr. Pike said.
Law schools get big discounts when buying their students subscriptions to Westlaw and Lexis, which also provide in-house training.
Frank Liu, the director of the Allegheny County Law Library, teaches a legal research class at Duquesne University School of Law. "We teach students first to use print sources, and then focus on Westlaw and Lexis," he said.
Both companies offer point-system incentives to students for using their product. It's also commonplace to see the services set up promotional tables inside law schools.
Although law schools still teach traditional book research, most of a student's work is book-less. Duquesne Law's library isn't even a library anymore.
"We call it a 'center for legal information,' " Mr. Liu said, adding that librarians are specialists at accessing online databases.
And all those the books?
"They stay on the bookshelves," Mr. Daffner said. "They look good during commercials."
Correction/Clarification: (Published March 22, 2011) Allen Brunwasser is 89 years old. His age was incorrect in a photo caption Monday.
Drew Singer is freelance reporter and University of Pittsburgh School of Law student. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .