When I started working as a contract attorney, law firms were just starting to have in-house email. One of my friends had an account on some long-gone ISP, and couldn't find the words to explain to me precisely what it was he was doing. Even if the internet existed in those dead and gone days, I knew nothing about it, and it was not yet a useful tool for anybody but the geekiest.
For me, legal research meant arming myself with a well-funded copy card, boarding BART, and heading to the San Francisco Bar Association's law library in the historic Monadnock Building. For particularly sticky research projects, I'd get off BART a couple of stops early and go to the better stocked library at Hastings Law School.
Trips home could be tiring, as I'd be weighed down with about a hundred pounds of photocopied pages, not to mention the guilt of all that wasted paper. What all of this meant was that, despite the home office, I wasn't home much.
Things changed when computers started having affordable CD drives. (And I bet many of you remember the times before, when loading a new software meant feeding in up to 50 floppy disks.)
I immediately jumped on the opportunity to get law libraries on CDs. These were three disk sets that were updated monthly. The currency of cases could be a little worrisome by the end of the month, but it was wonderful to sit at my desk, in my home, doing legal research, just as if I was a big time attorney with access to Lexis or Westlaw (which were still on dedicated computers, not on the internet).
Things only got better when Lexis went on line. I was one of the first to sign up. While I'd never liked Lexis (and I still don't), I was thrilled to have instant access to current California cases and, even better, the "push of a button" ability to Shepardize my cites. A lot of the stress went out of my practice at that moment.
Eventually Westlaw went on line too. I actually thought long and hard about signing up for it, since it was (and is) significantly more expensive than Lexis, but I simply could not resist the lure of the key number system. For that reason, I have a Westlaw account to this day. I've discovered that, for my day to day practice, a limited account suits me just fine.
The databases I use are California cases, the Rutter Group, and California Trial Court Filings. The latter is a fairly new database that has complaints and points and authorities that lawyers have filed in courts throughout California (although they're very heavy on Southern California filings). I find this database extremely useful, since it saves me from having to reinvent the wheel everytime I write something. I never rely blindly on anything these briefs say, but they're a very useful short cut to procedure, forms, and both general and specific issues. Incidentally, Lexis has a similar database.
If I have to do federal or out-of-state research, my clients are usually very agreeable about giving me access to their Lexis or Westlaw. They know that I won't abuse the privilege, but will use those passwords only for the client's specific research project.
Another wonderful tool is the internet itself. As with the Calif. Trial Court Filings database, I never accept anything I find this way at face value. Instead, I use it as a shortcut to consolidate information that I then check against reliable sources. Still, I do assume that Court websites are reliable, and if they say "X" as to their own practices and procedures, I believe that "X" is true.
Looking back over the years, I feel singularly blessed to be a solo attorney in cyber times. The research options available to me now were simply unimaginable back when I started. Without ever leaving my home (and dog), I can conduct legal research into every area of the law, nationwide. And my research is more comprehensive and reliable than it could possibly be 20 years ago. Frankly, without the internet, it's doubtful that I could maintain my simultaneous existence as a part-time lawyer and full-time mother.