LibSource researchers never know what their next research request will be. And they may or may not have access to a preferred data source, depending on client resources or other constraints.
Because of all the variables, they have learned to find other ways to get the information the client needs, when they want it. That includes free resources, although their use does come with a few caveats.
According to James Hurley, LibSource Deputy Director of Research & Intelligence,
“Free resources have their place, but they are not as authoritative as pulling from Lexis, Westlaw or Bloomberg. They are great jumping-off points for case law and statutory research, but I think it’s necessary to turn to one of the subscription services for validation.”
Pros and cons of free case law and statutory law resources
A great deal of free, reliable data is publicly available on the internet, yet ‘free’ always come with a price. The general pros and cons include:
- Fast, easy access
- Can be used by any one, no log-in credentials required
Free resources can be a great supplement to subscription services. For example, by turning to them for initial research to gain knowledge and determine the focus, they can they help control research costs. Then, once the research is narrowed down or additional leads have been gathered, more targeted research can be conducted on pay resources.
- Lack features and finding aids, relying on browsing and keywords
- Can take more time, especially for inexperienced researchers
- Results may not be comprehensive
- Results may not be current
Free resources covering federal-level legal data are considerably more common than resources available at the state level. Yet almost any state code is available online through the respective legislature’s site. What varies from state to state is the ease of navigation and searching within those codes.
While free resources have improved, we don’t believe they can fully replace the capabilities of LexisNexis, Westlaw and Bloomberg for most law firms, because most of the free resources only do a single thing. They generally can’t refer researchers to other relevant sources. The big three databases are more referential than free resources, providing in-depth annotations covering treatises, law journal articles, pending legislation, other cases and other information that is materially significant. These valuable leads in legal research would take considerably longer to find by searching potential sources individually.
While a large number of free resources are available, following are just a few of the most reliable ones, including a couple that are the go-to choices of some of our legal researchers for case law and statutory law. These are mostly geared for federal law, though we do include a list of state resources that can be a helpful starting point. None of them require prior registration.
LibSource does not rely on free resources, nor is that our recommendation. And as vendor-neutral consultants, this limited list should not be seen as an endorsement. But with the variety of client situations and research requirements we encounter daily, we thought it would be helpful to weigh in on a topic that continues to gain interest.
Only recently has reliable free case law become widely available on the Internet, yet sources are limited in coverage. And even the big three pay databases aren’t equally comprehensive. They’re all working constantly to grow their case law holdings.
The higher the court, the more recent the case and the greater the determined precedential value, the more likely the case will be available for free online. So while a recent U.S. Supreme Court case is almost certainly going to be available, an older state court decision might only be available through a pay resource, if available in electronic format at all. None the less, they can be an excellent starting point for saving time and money searching for precedents.
FindLaw – FindLaw allows you to search opinion summaries by court and legal topic and browse Federal Laws, US Court of Appeals, Federal Trial Courts and Boards and State Resources. You can browse by year and U.S. Reports volume number, and search by citation, party name, and keyword.
Google Scholar – Search articles and case law with Google search algorithms using the legal partition of Google Scholar, where you can save to your library, create alerts and view Metrics to gauge the influence of recent articles in scholarly publications. Our researchers feel Google Scholar is good for cost-effective leads to pull information from elsewhere. According to one, Google Scholar is good for law journal articles, though many can be behind a paywall.
Another LibSource research analyst likes using Google’s resource for patent searching. “If you have the patent number, it’s easy to get to the same filings as USPTO, but with the power and speed of Google. In addition, I have used Google Scholar to confirm citations for experts.”
Justia – This Silicon Valley company makes primary legal materials free on the Internet, including a variety of information such as case law, codes, regulations, legal articles and even legal blogs and Twitter feeds. You can search practice areas, cases and codes, federal and state courts, law reviews, experts and more.
Statutes and Codes
While the United States Code and most state codes are freely available online, only the text is usually provided without annotations or case references. You must also make sure that the information is current, reflecting any recent legislative changes.
United States Code – Prepared by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the US House of Representatives, the US Code is a consolidation of general and permanent US laws. The database can be browsed by topic, with a number of advanced search features.
LibSource researchers find the “Popular Name Search” to be a great tool if you only have the name of the act, as it takes you right to the section in the code. “I also like the table of contents view as it allows easy access to visual browsing. Sometimes it’s good to have a sense of the hierarchy within the title or chapter.”
Legal Information Institute – Cornell University Law School makes open access to US laws, searchable by citation and keyword. Each code section includes updates, providing a list of recent modifications.
Georgetown University Law Library – For a compilation of state research guides, start with this list from Georgetown Law that includes resources for all fifty states as well as the District of Columbia, Guam and the Virgin Islands.
Many other free resources are available for legal research, yet this abbreviated list includes those that are most useful and reliable when needed. While free resources do not replace commercial resources, they can supplement or substitute subscription resources for jump starting a search, filling gaps and extending resources for researching cases, statutes and codes.