Affordable (or free) online legal research services

Online legal research magnifying glass computer

Author’s note – January 22, 2019: One of the most perennially popular blog articles has been a post we published back on March 25, 2014 on free and affordable online research services. We’ve updated the list, which includes an acquisition and two new additions.

When it comes to legal research services and databases for Big Law, the two leading providers are Westlaw and LexisNexis. 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 LexisNexis, 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, LexisNexis, 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.

1. Google Scholar

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, bankruptcy, claims, customs, trade and patent 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.

2. Fastcase

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 partnered with HeinOnline to provide case law and other content to HeinOnline subscribers. Some basic Fastcase features are included free with all HeinOnline core and academic subscriptions.

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 and Windows phone 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 are divided into tiers and start at $695 for the Appellate plan, which includes state and federal statutes, regulations and appellate case law; an interactive timeline view; authority check and dual-column and batch printing.  The Premium plan is priced at $995 a year and comes with everything included in the Appellate plan plus federal district court opinions and federal bankruptcy courts. For a plan more customized to your organization’s needs, you must contact Fastcase for pricing.

Fastcase offers a free 24-hour trial of the Premium plan.

The company also maintains a “Public Library of Law” website which provides free access to cases, statutes, regulations, court rules and constitutions.

3. Loislaw Libraries on Fastcase

Back in 2014, Loislaw was part of Wolters Kluwer. In December 2015, Loislaw was acquired by Fastcase and became Loislaw Libraries. As part of the transition, existing Loislaw customers retained access to Wolters Kluwer’s diverse library treatises that were not made availble to Fastcase subscribers at the time. As of January 2018, an expanded collection of treatises and other secondary sources from Wolters Kluwer are now available through the Fastcase platform.

Loislaw Libraries offers pay-as-you-go options for access to primary legal content.

4. FindLaw

FindLaw is a comprehensive resource with helpful content for both the legal professional and consumers. You can conduct a broad search for free on cases or contracts as well as federal and state statutes and legislation, 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 a handful of state appellate courts. and a library of law articles.

5. Justia

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.

  1. Lawpipe

Lawpipe calls itself the “largest case briefs database in the U.S.” promising to make legal research “faster and easier”.

The website’s mission is to make case law information more available to the general public. According to the Lawpipes website,

“You can search from 2,000+ legal terms keyed to our case briefs and articles, for each term, we show you every case summary and article in our database that relates to that term.”

In addition, the Lawpipe website states that its database contains the most important rulings and decisions for faster, more efficient legal research, with results focused on highly relevant case summaries, rulings and articles.

  1. Docket Alarm

This is a federal and state docket research database for $99 per month (excluding PACER fees) for unlimited document access, real-time alerts and case tracking. It also offers a pay-as-you-go membership with a la carte pricing based on search needs, described as best for casual users who only need several documents a month (e.g., $4 per document, $2/day for docket tracking), with PACER fees included.

Comparing legal research services

Once upon a time, law firms relied on two information services: LexisNexis and Westlaw. Today, thanks to evolving research needs and digitization, a wide range of electronic information resources (EIR) are available, and this new competition has been helpful in reducing the costs of legal and business research.

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. Our spend management experts can help ensure your legal research costs are in line with industry standards and offer strategies and advice on how to reduce them. When you need legal research help, our trained staff are on call with the skills and the tools to find what you need.

The two most important research tools are the legal content service or resource and the person doing the research. At LAC Group, we are adept at using the tools our clients request and open to augmenting those resources as needed, to ensure we paint a complete picture and deliver the most reliable information.

Have we missed anything? What are you favorite low- or no-cost research tools? Let me know your thoughts.

James Hurley

James Hurley

James Hurley is the Director of Research Services at LAC Group. His expertise covers legal and business information services, including complex legal and business research, competitive intelligence, project management, technology applications, resource development and training on numerous research topics and cost-effective methodologies.
James Hurley

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