When it comes to legal research services and databases for Big Law, the two leading providers are Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis. Not too long ago, they were essentially the only players in the legal research game — but that was before the internet and the lure of Fast, Easy and often Free access to information online.
Having recently touched on the differences between Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis, I thought it might be helpful to touch on the subject of low-cost and free legal research services and websites. We often get asked about less expensive options for gaining access to legal information, especially as it gets more difficult for law firms to recover the costs of these services. I have compiled a short list of six legal information resources on the internet today.
This is by no means an exhaustive list; nor is it a recommendation to replace Westlaw, Lexis-Nexis, Bloomberg or any other provider! In fact, those services continue to be a must-have legal information resource for many firms. Nonetheless, it is helpful to stay on top of other information options that are available to lawyers, firms and clients themselves.
Google Scholar provides an easy, free way to search and read published opinions of the United States Supreme Court since 1791; US federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy courts since 1923; and state appellate and supreme court cases since 1950. Select the “Case Law” button under the Google Scholar search box. There is also separate search functionality for patent information and legal journals.
Fastcase allows users to access federal & state law, appellate decisions, and statutes. It also includes visualization tools to portray the relationships between cases and a “bad law bot” to pinpoint cases which have received negative treatment. Fastcase has a relationship with HeinOnline to deliver content through Fastcase searches (HeinOnline subscription required.) Fastcase has excellent technology integration with Word, Outlook & Adobe products to enable extraction of citations and batch printing. There is a free mobile app for Ios and Android for pulling cases on the go. Fastcase has relationships with many bar associations to provide free access to a simplified version of the product. Annual subscriptions start at $695 for a single user, and the company also maintains a “Public Library of Law” website which provides free access to cases, statutes, regulations, court rules and constitutions.
This service of Wolters Kluwer offers pay-as-you-go options for access to primary legal content. You purchase either a 48-hr, 7-day, or 31-day pass, with no contracts or recurring payments. Pricing ranges from $29.95 for a two-day pass to Court Rules for one state to $184 for 31-day access to Primary Law National and Bankruptcy. For some services a one-year subscription plan is available. There are no hidden charges for printing, downloading or hyper-linking to material outside of your subscription.
FindLaw is a comprehensive resource with helpful content for both the legal profession and consumers. You can conduct a broad search for free on cases or contracts, and you can browse research materials by type, jurisdiction or practice area. In addition, the site offers an archive of published opinion summaries dating back to September 2000 by the U.S. Supreme Court, all thirteen U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals, and some state courts.
Justia, based in Silicon Valley, was created with the mission to “advance the availability of legal resources for the benefit of society.” The site provides free access to case law, codes, regulations, legal articles and legal blog databases. And if you want information to come directly to you, the company publishes a variety of free newsletters, including daily opinion summaries for all Federal Appellate and State Supreme Courts and weekly opinion summaries on a wide range of practice areas, essentially from ‘A’ (Agriculture Law) to ‘Z’ (Zoning and Land Use).
6. LEGAL INFORMATION INSTITUTE, CORNELL UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL
GetLegal in partnership with the Legal Information Institute Center at Cornell Law School provides access to U.S. federal materials including the full text of the U.S. Code and opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court, court rules, CFR and additional federal materials. The site also offers quick links to the current authoritative versions of the state statutes, constitution, regulations and court rules.
Comparing legal research services
When comparing legal research services and databases, cost is an important consideration, but not the only one. While free case law information is abundantly available on the internet, it can also be said that you get what you pay for. You will not get the kinds of research aids, secondary materials and treatises or enhancements that make the paid tools so valuable and effective.
You may not get the depth and breadth of legal content you need, nor know if the content is actually authoritative and legitimate. In addition, browsing and keyword searches consume a fair amount of time while possibly leaving you without crucial information that could help your client.
When time is money and the right information can make or break a legal matter, these shortcomings can quickly move the value gauge from free or low-price to quite costly.
The two most important research tools are the legal content service or resource and the person doing the research. When you need legal research help, our trained staff at In Propria Persona Aid are on call with the skills and the tools to find what you need.