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Cost-Effective Legal Research Alternatives for Solo Attorneys - ThinkstockPhotos-468044606-c.jpg

Cost-effective legal research alternatives for solo attorneys

Performing legal research is an important and unavoidable aspect of the practice of law, but the costs of using the largest commercial legal research tools (namely, Westlaw and Lexis) are not insignificant. Thankfully, there are numerous no-cost and/or low-cost legal research options available that can help you cut down, or even bypass entirely, those costs, thereby offering your client legal service that is both top notch and cost-effective.

Google Scholar
Considering the fact that it is free, Google Scholar is a surprisingly powerful legal research tool. Without any charge or membership required, Google Scholar provides fully searchable access to full text state and federal case law and statutes, scholarly articles and patents. Using the advanced search option you can limit your results to opinions from specific federal districts or state courts. Citations within your results are hyperlinked to the relevant opinions making research even easier. In fact, it even includes a “How Cited” tab which shows the specific context in which the case you are reading has been cited by other authorities. The database includes all case law dated over 50 years old (80 years or more for federal opinions), but is missing significantly older case law. It’s also worth noting that aside from the “How Cites” tab, there is no quick and easy method to determine if a case is good law as you would on Lexis or Westlaw. Also, Google Scholar doesn’t provide keynotes to summarize a case’s important issues. Nonetheless, the price is certainly unbeatable.

Fastcase
Fastcase provides access to Federal and State case law and statutes. Fastcase has also partnered with 18 state bar associations to provide free legal research to members of those states’ bars. Even if you aren’t a member of those state bar associations, Fastcase also offers a free iPad app that provides free access to case law for all 50 states and access to statutes for most states and the federal government. There are some holes in the offerings including only access to select codes and regulations (and no access at all to statutes for Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, Ohio, and Pennsylvania). Membership provides online access to their database without the need of an iPad, and runs between $65-$95 a month (or $695-$995 a year) depending on the plan you choose.

Casemaker Elite
CasemakerElite provides access to Federal and State case law and statutes. Casemaker has partnered with 25 separate state bar associations to provide free legal research to members of those states’ bar associations. Their website provides intuitive interface that immediately calls to mind WestlawNext. Memberships are $49.95 a month for basic membership or $69.95 a month when coupled with Elite Pro which offers CaseCite (to check for negative citation of a case) and CiteCheck (for analyzing citations in your brief).

Jenkins Law Library
Membership with the Jenkins Law Library includes online access to the Fastcase database of cases and statutes, HeinOnline, LegalTrac, Nolo Guides and Forms, and several other useful legal research databases. Jenkins has even negotiated a deal that allows them to provide 20 minutes of daily access to Lexis. That’s certainly enough time to verify your search results and Shepardize the cases you located on Fastcase or Google Scholar. (Update: Jenkins is no longer able to offer Lexis access.  See the comments section for more details). They also provide helpful YouTube videos explaining how to use the various databases available through their service.  And although it isn’t free, it is ridiculously cost effective. Membership is $165 a year per attorney for the first four attorneys in an office.

Are there any good research tools I missed?  If you have a favorite or any insight you’d like to share about any individual service, please let me know in the comments section.

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3 Comments

  1. Regina L. Smith, Executive Director, Jenkins Law Library says:

    Hi Matthew,
    This is a great article. I wanted to let you know that on December 31, 2011, Lexis pulled the plug on our “Lexis Thru Jenkins” program where solos and those with firms of 10 or fewer attorneys who are members of our library could search Lexis for 20 minutes a day. We tried to negotiate with them by offering to pay more money or to just subscribe to Shepard’s since that is what was used most often but they refused to negotiate with us. This program was in place for 6 years and it was a wonderful service for solos. They want to sell directly to solos. We tried to get them to offer a special cost effective deal to our to our members and they came up with an offer that we later found out was not as good as one that they were offering nationally. I am disappointed because my dealings with Lexis through the years have always been positive. They told me that they have a new management team and that they only want to do direct sales. Through the years we have tried to get Westlaw to offer a similar program and they refuse to even discuss it. We still offer Fastcase and many of our solos are beginning to use it and we have recently enhanced our HeinOnline offerings. We like to think of ourselves as the Library without Walls, as our members have 24/7 access to our databases.

    • Matthew Hickey says:

      Wow, that is unfortunate. Sorry to hear it. Thanks for the update Regina!

  2. Ronald Cruz says:

    Thank you for posting this! I am an attorney with a small firm. Do you have any updated opinions on these services since first posting this article?