<p><strong><span style="text-decoration: underline;">Legal Research Tools Online</span></strong></p>
I was recently asked (via Twitter) about online research tools for attorneys. I've been using free alternatives to Lexis Nexis and Westlaw for quite a while, and decided to compile some of the best sites in a post. It's certainly easier than trying to fit all the links in 140 characters.
Generally, the past has been dominated by the two big players:
Lexis-Nexis (http://www.lexis.com/research), from Reed Elsevier; and
Westlaw (http://www.westlaw.com), from Thomson Reuters.
Why There Is A Demand For Alternatives
There are several reasons that solo practitioners, new lawyers, and even firm associates might want to use alternative services. The first concern I often hear is the price. With both of the big two services, you get what you pay for, and all-you-can-eat plans are out of reach for everyone except the largest firms. In the past, I've used both services and continue to use Lexis on a regular basis.
The second common concern is compatibility. At the office, I have a Mac and a PC on my desk, and at home I have everything from SGIs, Linux, and BSD to Win95. Of those platforms, only the PC is 100% functional with both of the big two services, and then only if I stick with a mainline browser. If you try to hit the commercial sites from Safari, Opera, Google Chrome, or other browsers, you can expect some pain. I've found that Firefox on the Mac and IE on the PC are the best shots for getting everything to work smoothly.
The third complaint is the interfaces. Neither Westlaw or Lexis appear to have been designed with a set of core UX principles. There are lots of legacy compatibility reasons why the workflow in these services has evolved in the manner that it has, but very few web apps outside the legal research arena would require hours of training to use. But step into a law school law library and you'll see schedules for incessant training (read: indoctrination) for each package. Having been through the training, I do appreciate the depth you get from these services as a power-user but I can't say that either is intuitive.
Finally, there's the simple fact that each is paywalled. You need to log in, and even with cookies and session-saving, you're bound to get logged out after a period of time. Which means that when you just want a quick answer, you have to pass through the login (and sometimes a lengthy search) process in order to proceed.
Free Online Tools I Found Useful As An Attorney
- Cornell Legal Information Institute ( http://www.law.cornell.edu/ ): Number One on my list is Cornell's LII site. It's very fast, and contains a wealth of resources on Federal Law, the Federal Rules, the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), the U.S. Code (USC), and many-many other U.S. Federal law resources. This includes the Constitution, commentary, the U.C.C., Uniform and Model Laws, and the list goes on. They also have topical sections, blogs, and other content. It goes without saying that if you find Cornell's efforts to be useful, you should donate.
- The Texas Legislature Online ( http://www.legis.state.tx.us/ ): Okay, not everyone practices law in Texas. But if you do, the TLO web site has a comprehensive list of Texas Statutes, Senate Journals, House Journals, and the Texas Constitution. This site is great for both Code access as well as legislative history research. Honorable mention also goes to the Texas Courts Online website for access to cases, oral argument, and local rules.
- Cornell LII's State Information Page: ( http://www.law.cornell.edu/states/listing.html ): Yes, this is a double-mention for Cornell, but no matter what state you're in, they have a good list of links to state-specific judicial and legislative resources.
- The Internet Archive ( http://www.archive.org ): The Archive is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that acts as a repository for web sites, media, and public information. I've used their "Wayback Machine" to obtain discovery, and they recently entered into a venture with the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton to make available "crowd-sourced" PACER documents via the RECAP plugin for Firefox. If that sounds like a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo, the short version is that it makes public access for court electronic records truly free. That includes pleadings, motions, orders, and opinions from most Federal Courts.
- Resource.org ( http://resource.org/ ): This site is also a non-profit and they work closely with both the Internet Archive and Princeton to make public documents and court records widely available. The bulk.resource.org site has machine-readable access to huge volumes of public documents, and the various sub-sites contain gems like streaming media access to the House of Representatives.
- Google Scholar ( http://scholar.google.com ): Google's scholar resource has long been available as a tool for searching scientific and scholarly publications. Recently, they added legal documents to their search, and as a result, you can now find many court cases simply by entering the name or citation. Prior to Google Scholar's update, finding accurate pinpoint cites via web search was a risky proposition. Google isn't perfect, and it is something of a meta-search, often linking to some of the resources I've already mentioned. So, they lose points for originality, but gain them for accessibility.
- The Federal Register (link): "Published by the Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Federal Register is the official daily publication for rules, proposed rules, and notices of Federal agencies and organizations, as well as executive orders and other presidential documents". As a bonus, the Federal Register can also be accessed and downloaded via XML.
- Texas Supreme Court Webasts: (link): I worked on this project at St. Mary's University School of Law and it's an interesting way to see the Texas Court "in person".
- Oyez.org: ( http://www.oyez.org ): Oyez was enabled through a grant from the National Science Foundation, and tracks the cases and developments of the U.S. Supreme Court. I've found their MP3 Podcasts of Supreme Court oral arguments to be very entertaining (for a law geek) and informative. They also have case summaries, transcripts, and other multimedia materials.
- Google Patents ( http://www.google.com/patents ): Although patent law is a somewhat narrow field, Google has done great work in making this practice area accessible to non-practitioners.
I may have left some resources out, but this list forms my "top 10" in terms of frequency of use, ease of access, and overall value added for attorneys looking to replace or supplement Westlaw and Lexis. Both attorneys and non lawyers should be able to find information on these sites that are viable free legal research tools. I hope this helps, and I welcome comments, suggestions, or additions via my Twitter account.
Updated: Fixed some broken links. Seems Posterous doesn't properly auto-link URLs in parentheses.