The following blog post is an excerpt from our eBook “Guide to Using Google Scholar and Other Free Legal Research Tools” by Charity Anastasio. Download the complete 30+ page PDF for free!
There is a growing debate about whether lawyers should pay for legal research. Certainly there are more free legal materials, including case law and statutes, available on the Internet than ever before. But whether it’s possible to completely replace LexisNexis or Westlaw Next with one or more of these free online legal research options depends on your practice areas and the frequency with which you use different types of legal resources.
There are a number of factors that will affect your choice of platform(s). Lawyers who handle certain practice areas merely need to stay up to date on statutes while others often cite case law and are in court on a daily basis. The laws relied upon in some practice areas or jurisdictions seem to be fixed in stone while others are rapidly changing. And last, but not least, a cost benefit analysis needs to come into play. If the amount of work required to access the right cases and case treatment can be cut in half by using a paid product rather than a free one, it may very well be worth it.
More often than not, lawyers use some mixed form of free and paid legal research. One lawyer may start on Google Scholar to get the lay of the land, then move on to Lexis once ready to look for the most current case law and check case treatment. Some very nimble, smart lawyers who are just starting out and keeping their overhead to a minimum will use whatever platform is available at the library for a certain time until they can clearly identify that the return on their investment would be worth it and appropriate for the tasks they need to accomplish.
The bottom line: 21st century lawyers have lots of options when it comes to legal research. Read on to learn about free options like Google Scholar and, depending on your firm’s needs, the added benefits of using paid platforms.
The Google interface is a familiar one to most of us. In fact, it’s the preferred search interface for most people, since Google uses instinctual methods and an intuitive user interface. For that reason, the move to Google Scholar is often an easy one.
Another Google Scholar benefit is that Google’s algorithms are always evolving and improving. The infrastructure and money Google invests into improvements in other areas of search no doubt result in better legal search results as well.
While legal research is not Google’s only business, access to information is. Google’s mission statement is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” And it’s free. If you’re not already using Google’s legal research platform, you should make a point to investigate it first and then make an educated decision based on your experiences if you decide to rule it out as a viable research option. I think you’ll find after conducting due diligence that Google Scholar a powerful legal research tool, but it’s not without its limitations.
State Court Websites
Most state courts offer some caselaw, with limitations. The “Guide to Using Google Scholar and Other Free Legal Research Tools” covers examples for Washington State Courts, Maryland Courts, New York Courts and California Courts free legal research tools.
Bar Association Legal Research Platforms
Most state bar associations offer free legal research either through Casemaker or Fastcase. Each bar association’s contracts may include varying degrees of access to features, so all features shown here may not be available in your state. The prevailing market would lead one to believe that Fastcase is the superior product because it has a larger share of the marketplace. But as someone who has used each platform, I would suggest that there are benefits to both.
Fastcase uses automation and data to quickly update its system and visually show the history of a case. Fastcase 7, which was recently rolled out in some states, has an interesting way of mapping cases, which will be discussed below.
In comparison, Casemaker provides a better interface for showing the treatment of a case (though the analysis is done by human brains which may be more fallible than the automated methods of Fastcase). It offers a daily digest and CiteCheck, permitting users to upload a brief into Casemaker and check all of its citations automatically. (See CARA in Casetext for a similar feature).
Let’s take a look at each of these legal research platforms.
Fastcase is used by the majority of bar associations. It currently has two versions (6 and 7), and you can toggle between them by using the button on the left hand side of the top tool bar. Here is what
Fastcase 6 looks like:
Bars without Fastcase generally offer access to Casemaker. Oftentimes you log into Casemaker on the homepage of the bar association. For example, the Washington State Bar Association Casemaker login can be found here.
One drawback is that the Casemaker interface is more traditional than Fastcase’s. However, Casemaker claims that it provides the most up-to-date information, with all changed and new laws appearing on their site within four days of the passage of the law.
Searching with terms and connectors on Casemaker is a little different from other products. You can use natural language, but the results improve if you use terms and connectors in your search. Special search terms and tips can be accessed here.
FindLaw is a good resource for beginning your research depending on your practice areas and the jurisdictions in which you practice. It is a free clearinghouse of useful resources that is definitely worth investigating.
The PLoL is a free online database of caselaw created and run by Fastcase. You can search for cases using natural language or Boolean search terms. Authority Check is its case citation service and is similar to that found in Fastcase. Cases that are not available on PLoL will be available on Fastcase, for a fee. The first time you use the service, you will need to register.
Casetext was launched as a free platform for legal research that was basically a crowd-sourced legal research platform powered by input from other lawyers. It combined the Casetext database with the collective knowledge and expertise of the legal community in the form of annotations and insights from other attorneys. Recently Casetext changed to a fee-based service and released a new feature, Case Analysis Research Assistant (CARA) which utilizes machine learning and Artificial Intelligence. With CARA, lawyers can drag-and-drop a brief or memo into Casetext and obtain a list of suggestions for cases that are relevant to the issues addressed in the document.
If you perform a lot of legal research, Casetext may be able to provide you with better results with less work on your part, so it is worth investigating. Unfortunately, the free legal research functions of Casetext are no longer available.