It used to be that legal research platforms were a costly but necessary expense for most law firms. The two main companies that had access to federal and state caselaw and statutes had cornered the market on legal research and were thus able to charge a small fortune for access to the data.
How times have changed! Readily available internet access and initiatives designed to democratize access to justice by making laws and cases accessible online have reduced – or even eliminated – legal research costs. Lawyers and laypeople are now able to conduct free legal research online using a number of different methods. The key is knowing where to look and understanding the types of information that is available on the different platforms.
What follows is not an extensive list, but offers a host of options, one of which will be sure to be a good fit for your legal research needs.
Free case research tools
For starters, there are a number of really useful, and free, legal research tools that will allow you to search and access federal and state caselaw archives online. First and foremost, if you haven’t already looked into using Google Scholar for caselaw legal research, you’re missing out. It’s a free, robust legal research tool that’s easy to use. Learn all you need to know about using it here.
Another option is the PLoL, a free online database of caselaw created and run by Fastcase. With it, you can search for cases using natural language or Boolean search terms. Another option from Fastcase is their mobile app (iOS, Android), which allows you to conduct legal research on the go using your mobile device– and you don’t even need a Fastcase subscription to use it.
Finally, don’t overlook your local or state bar associations benefits. Most state bar associations and some local bar associations offer free legal research either through Casemaker or Fastcase. Each bar association’s contracts include access to specific plans and features, so make sure to have a thorough understanding of what’s offered, since not all features may be available in your state.
Legal statute research
You can also access most U.S. laws online for free. So, if you’re looking for a statute or regulation, look no further than Cornell’s Legal Information Institute or Justia for free access to vast amounts of federal and state case law, statutes and regulations. Both sites cover a tremendous amount of legal information, including the most recent decisions, legal forms, and more.
For example, the Cornell’s LII provides access to a fully searchable archive of federal court opinions, a topical index of state statutes by topic, and access to Wex, a comprehensive legal encyclopedia.
Much of Justia’s case law and statutory offerings overlap with that of Cornell’s LII, so both are great resources for that type of information. In addition, Justia also offers an extensive legal blog directory, a directory of interesting and relevant legal podcasts, and a free daily newsletter which includes weekly practice area opinion summaries newsletters and opinion summaries for all US Federal Appellate Courts, all 50 US State Supreme Courts, and the United States Supreme Court.
If you use PACER often in your practice, then make sure to check out RECAP, a free alternative to PACER. RECAP provides access to millions of court documents, dockets, and every freely available written order and opinion available in PACER. As of October 2018, the collection contained approximately 20 million PACER documents. Accessible data includes more than 1.8 million cases and 3.4 million orders and opinions from approximately 1.5 million federal district and bankruptcy cases dating back to 1960.
Brief analytics tools
An emerging trend in legal research is using artificial intelligence tools (AI) to streamline your research and provide faster, more on-point results. There are two companies that now offer similar, free legal AI tools that do just that and are worth checking out. First, there’s Casetext, which allows you to upload a brief or memorandum into CARA A.I., and it will then analyze the content of the document and provide you with relevant authorities.
A similar, but more recently released product is EVA from Ross. Again, you upload a legal document and the AI software analyzes its contents and provides additional legal resources on the topics addressed in the uploaded document.
So, no matter what you legal research needs, you’re sure to find a way to access the information you need online for free. Certainly the bells and whistles offered by a paid legal research subscription service may make sense depending on your law firm’s needs, but the free tools discussed above are a a great option for lawyers just starting out or for lawyers in more established firms who are seeking one-time access to legal information not typically used in their practices. So regardless of your needs, there’s a free legal research tool – or two! – that just might fit the bill.