Internet Legal Research on a Budget
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According to the American Bar Association’s 2013 Legal Technology Survey Report, 96% of respondents report they conduct legal research online, but that they are less satisfied with free resources than with fee-based resources. The 2012 Research Intelligence Group’s “New Attorney Research Methods Survey” found that new associates (five years or less) spend about 31% (14.5 hours per week) of their time conducting legal research. For those in practice less than two years, the percentage rises to 35%. The new associates (reported that they used fee-based online resources for eight of their 14.5 hours of legal research per week while spending four hours per week using free or low-cost online resources. Fee-based resources are used more often by large firm associates (74% frequently/always) than small firm associates (46%).

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With cost-conscious clients scrutinizing legal bills, lawyers cannot afford to depend on fee-based resources the way they used to, especially if reliable free resources are available. That said, sometimes it makes sense to pay for data—especially if the pay databases have something the free ones are lacking (content or functionality) or when using the pay databases can save you time and money.

This article will highlight some of the most reliable free (or low-cost) online resources and give you some tips on how to use them. However, we don’t have the space to go into as great as detail as we’d like, so you’ll need to attend ABA TECHSHOW 2014 to hear us speak and ask us your questions or read our upcoming ABA LP book, Internet Legal Research On a Budget.

To begin with, every legal researcher should bookmark a few free legal portals. A good portal includes links arranged by topics and jurisdictions so you can quickly get to a useful site. But, a good portal should go a step further and provide “added value,” such as a full-text keyword searchable database of court cases or subject-specific articles about an area of law.

The most useful general legal portals are: Justia and FindLaw. [Note: FindLaw is undergoing some database changes and is not functioning as it should. We presume proper functioning will resume.]

For government portals, we’d choose a newer site that you might not be familiar with: the Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System (FDsys), which provides free online access to official publications from all three branches of the federal government. Another choice would be, not only useful for retrieving federal governmental agency documents, but also state, local, territorial, and tribal government documents.

Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII) is a portal that has some unique databases such as Wex, a free legal dictionary/encyclopedia sponsored and hosted by the LII, and its version of the U.S. Code, which provides links to the rules and regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) that relate to the U.S. Code section being viewed. This feature, which saves you from having to run a separate search at the CFR, is activated by clicking on the “Authorities (CFR)” tab.

The last legal portal you should bookmark is one that will assist you with your state and local research needs. Look at each of your state’s law school law library’s portals and decide which one suits that need.

Case law research is probably what most legal researchers do more than any other kind of research. One of the most overlooked “free” places for conducting case law research is your state bar association. Forty-seven state bar associations (plus some local bars and other legal professional associations) subscribe to legal research databases on behalf of their members. In turn, they provide their members with free access as a “member benefit.” These “member benefit to lawyers” legal research databases offer more sophisticated search options and broader date coverage than most other free case law databases, including Google Scholar. Typically, these “member benefit to lawyers” legal research databases include all federal and state (and D.C.) cases, codes and regulations. And, for some jurisdictions, you might find law reviews, attorney general opinions, and more. The state bar associations of California, Delaware, and Montana do not yet offer this member benefit.  Of the 47 state bar associations that do offer this member benefit, 46 subscribe either to Casemaker or Fastcase. The other state bar association, the Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA), offers access to InCite, a customized LexisNexis database created for the PBA. Be sure to visit your bar association’s website and look for a link to one of these databases.

Turning away from “traditional” websites, let’s take a look at other places where lawyers are finding useful legal research, such as blogs/blawgs, Twitter accounts, and apps.

Following the “right” blawgger or tweeter can help you keep up with your area of law without expending much of your own research time. To find a blawgger in your practice area, you can visit Justia’s BlawgSearch site, scan the list of categories, and choose one that fits your practice area or enter keywords into the search box at the top. After you review the list of blawgger results, subscribe to a few and then take some time to decide which ones are worthwhile. Another source for locating useful blawgs is The ABA Journal’s Blawg Directory, arranged by topic, author type (e.g., consultant, judge…), region (by court, state, or country), and law school.

To figure out the best people to follow on Twitter who write about your practice area, visit!/search-home. You can conduct searches there even if you don’t have a Twitter account. Enter keywords describing your practice area (e.g., ski accidents) into the search box to locate millions of individual tweets—from (roughly) the last two weeks. You can also use Twitter’s Advanced Search page to create more sophisticated searches.

Useful legal apps range in price from free (e.g., Nolo's Plain English Law Dictionary for iOS is free but the Droid version is $16.19) to $54.99 (e.g., Black's Law Dictionary). To locate legal apps, review ones recommended in:

By taking the time to read this article, you have made a great start at learning about some of the best free and low-cost legal research sources available on the Internet. To learn about many other sites and how to become a sophisticated researcher of those sites, look for our upcoming book, Internet Legal Research on a Budget. Our book will provide you with a high level of control over your searching and lead to better and quicker results.

This article was adapted from the book, “Internet Legal Research on a Budget” by Carole Levitt and Judy Davis (ABA LPD 2014). Reprinted with permission of the American Bar Association. All rights reserved. It also originally appeared on the ABA LP Division Law Practice Today Webzine.

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