|Oregon State Bar Bulletin APRIL 2010|
In Search Of:
Evaluating Legal Research Tools
By Dee Crocker
Lawyers always seem to be in search of the perfect legal research tool — one that is easy to use, all inclusive and inexpensive. While there may not be one product or service that satisfies everyone, many options abound, and more become available all the time.
For years the traditional products from Westlaw and LexisNexis have been the best choices, but things are about to change. In its February 2010 issue, the ABA Journal reported that Westlaw is introducing a new, revamped version known as Westlaw Next (See “More Than a Makeover: Westlaw’s Great Leap Forward,” by Robert Ambrogi, in this issue of the Bulletin). In addition, LexisNexis is planning its own redesigned platform currently referred to as New Lexis Web. And to add to that, Bloomberg will introduce a new legal research product called “BLAW” later this year. These new products will look and feel like the Google interface — ease of use and search relevance are keys to making these changes. Instead of having to enter very specific search criteria in a particular database, users can type a simple query with natural language.
What prompted the overhaul of these longstanding legal search tools? Perhaps the biggest reason was the introduction of Google Scholar, a free search engine that claims to contain more than 80 years of U.S. case law from federal and state courts, as well as U.S. Supreme Court decisions dating back to 1791. But Google Scholar is not the only free, or almost free, legal research service available. The following is a short review of what I found with only minor sleuthing.
First, let’s take a brief look at Google Scholar, www.google.com. At the main screen, you can select a radio button to see only results from legal opinions and journals. Once you have entered the information you are searching for — which can be entered as a simple query with natural language — the toolbar allows you to filter the results by jurisdiction and/or date. Google has indicated that it is not trying to replace Westlaw or LexisNexis but is merely trying to organize the world’s information and make it useful and accessible for the average user. Google is careful to include a disclaimer: “Legal opinions in Google Scholar are provided for informational purposes only and should not be relied on as a substitute for legal advice from a licensed lawyer. Google does not warrant that the information is complete or accurate.” It does not provide the ability to check the validity of the case. However, it is still a very useful tool at a great price.
Members of the Oregon State Bar have free use of FastCase by logging in at the OSB website, www.osbar.org. The search page is intuitive and easy to use, with a quick-search bar much like Google’s. You can also find advanced search options for case law, statutes, regulations and other libraries, and your 10 most recent searches are each hyperlinked for direct re-access. Whether you choose Boolean and natural language queries or look up a case by citation, FastCase will search all jurisdictions or only those you designate. Cases may be sorted by relevance, case name, decision date, court hierarchy or frequency of citation. The federal library has a full archive of Supreme Court cases from 1754 on and federal circuit court opinions from 1925. U.S. district court opinions from 1912 are included, as well as bankruptcy cases, Tax Court decisions, and decisions of the Board of Immigration Appeals. State law includes all 50 states’ appellate opinions (starting dates vary from state to state), with access to statutes, regulations, court rules and other materials.
Public Library of Law.
This free service of FastCase, www.plol.org, includes cases, statutes, regulations, court rules and legal forms. It includes all Supreme Court cases, all federal circuit court opinions since 1950 and all state appellate opinions since 1950, but it does not include federal district court or state trial court opinions. It is simple and easy to use but lacks many of the bells and whistles of other resources.
This free service from LexisNexis, http://law.lexisnexis.com/webcenters/lexisone, provides access to a limited range of cases from the LexisNexis database. It includes Supreme Court cases from 1781 and all federal and state cases from the past 10 years. You can search by keyword or citation, or by specific party, judge or lawyer. The site requires registration for use.
This free service from Westlaw, www.findlaw.com, offers free searching of Supreme Court opinions from 1893, all federal circuits, with most circuits going back to 1995, and state appellate opinions from 1996. This site also links to many other sources of court opinions.
Another free service, Justia, www.justia.com, has full text searching, with the ability to browse decisions by state, court, lawsuit type (e.g., patent law) or party name. Its free features include a searchable and browsable database of all U.S. Supreme Court decisions since the 1790s, with links to secondary sources including legal blogs and online databases like Google Book Search. A link to Oyez.org provides access to mp3 audio of Supreme Court oral arguments and case summaries, and you can track new regulations of specific federal agencies.
Quimbee, www.quimbee.com, is a database for case summaries. It represents an effort to simplify and democratize case law by providing easy-to-understand case summaries at no charge. Summaries can be searched by case or subject.
This service, www.openjurist.org, provides free access to approximately 647,000 federal court opinions, including the U.S. Supreme Court, beginning with its first session in 1790, and the U.S. Courts of Appeals, from 1880 to present.
Willamette Law Online.
This free service from Willamette Law School, www.willamette.edu/wucl/journals/wlo/9thcir, provides weekly summaries of cases published by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals from 2004 on. Same-day summaries of certiorari granted, oral arguments and decisions published by the Supreme Court from 2002 are also provided. The certiorari summaries focus on the facts and decision from the lower court. The service also provides daily summaries of cases and news releases published by the Oregon Supreme Court and the Oregon Court of Appeals from 2004 on. Each week, Willamette Law Online electronically publishes a brief holding from all federal and state cases involving copyright, trademark and trade secret law, and from all federal circuit cases involving patent law (from 2000).
Several offerings in the App Store, www.apple.com/itunes, contain part of the U.S. Code, but law professor Shawn Bayern has just released a free app called U.S. Code that contains the entire text of the federal statutes. The app covers the basics and does it well. You can search by keyword or citation. The text is easy to read and includes historical and revision notes. You can browse backwards or forwards through statutes, bookmark a statute for later access, copy part of a statute or create an e-mail with the full text of the statute.
LexisNexis announced in November 2009 the release of its iPhone app called “Get Cases and Shepardize.” The app is free to download from Apple’s iTunes store, but you must have a LexisNexis subscription to use the app.
Not So Free Services
VersusLaw, www.versuslaw.com, is an affordable alternative to Westlaw or LexisNexis. The standard plan at $13/month includes opinions from the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals, federal district courts (current), state appellate courts, tribal courts, foreign courts and AdvanceLinks. The premium plan at $24.95/month includes access to the standard plan case law plus federal district court opinions back to about 1950, links to state statutes and regulations, and increased search engine functionality, including a citation search feature. The top-of-the-line professional plan, at $39.95/month, includes the online case law access, additional state content and online search capabilities. Also included is access to the U.S. Code, CFRs and selected special practice collections.
The FindACase Network, www.findacase.com, allows you to research state and federal case law, grouped by state. This free service provided by VersusLaw allows access to the same federal and state cases as the paid version, but it lacks key features. Cases do not list their citations or docket numbers, although you can purchase the full case, including the citation, for $2.95. Searching for federal cases state by state is somewhat awkward, but the network includes all Supreme Court opinions from 1886, federal circuit opinions since 1930, federal district courts from 1931, and appellate courts for all 50 states, plus D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam, some as far back as 1910.
Maybe you will never find that perfect research tool, but hopefully you now have some new ideas on where to look. Remember that many of these sites can be used as a first step in the process, with a much more thorough search on the more expensive sites after you obtain some preliminary results. None of the free services mentioned above guarantees the accuracy of the information provided, nor do they tell you whether your case is still good law. Before filing papers with a court or in any way relying on the continuing validity of a case, I recommend that you use either Shepard’s or KeyCite as a citator. I wish you well in your search.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dee Crocker is a practice management adviser with the OSB Professional Liability Fund. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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