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.
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 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.
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 (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.