There are an abundance of free or low-cost legal research sites available on the Internet. Some sites provide all of their content for free; others provide a mixture of free and fee-based information. Although each site is different, there can be significant overlap among the materials available.
Many of the free sites are “mega-sites,” which are ideal for accessing a wide range of information. Many universities and nonprofit organizations also provide legal resources on their sites, either as a free service to the public or as a free service to paying members. Government sites also are valuable for free legal research at both the federal and state levels.
This article discusses a few key sites from each of these categories. It provides an overview of the site, as well as some background information and the type of information that can be located through each resource.
Legal mega-sites provide access to a wide variety of information, including summaries of legal topics, cases, statutes, legal news, and directories of legal professionals and experts. Two of the most well-known mega-sites are FindLaw and Justia. Neither site charges users to access its content.
FindLaw, which is owned by Thomson Reuters, claims to be the “world’s leading provider of online legal information” and initially was launched in 1996 by two attorneys. FindLaw maintains two versions of its site—one for the public and one for legal professionals. Though each version is a comprehensive portal to legal information, this discussion will focus on the version for legal professionals.
FindLaw provides a number of high-level options for searching or browsing cases and codes, practice management topics, jobs and careers, legal news, legal blogs, and service providers. It also offers a number of “quick links” that lead users directly to main points of interest, including forms, law technology information, and newsletters. The newsletter quick link also contains case summaries and blogs.
From the home page, researchers can use the general search box to search across the entire site and retrieve the broadest number of results. A section called “Research the Law” allows users to narrow their search to find specific cases, contracts, or articles. The home page also enables users to browse research materials by type, jurisdiction, or practice area, and to review the latest blog posts and legal news headlines.
The “Cases & Codes” section provides access to federal laws, U.S. Court of Appeals opinions and resources, federal trial courts, and state resources. Coverage varies depending on the court. Additionally, researchers can use the “Search Opinion Summaries” feature to look for specific legal topics in selected courts.
Consider using the advanced search option when searching from the home page or from the cases and codes section. Use the operators AND, OR, and NOT and the proximity locator NEAR, which searches for terms within fifty words of one another. Use the asterisk (*)—which acts as the truncation symbol—to find multiple roots for the indicated search term.
Justia’s mission is to “advance the availability of legal resources for the benefit of society,” and its site is “focused on making primary legal materials and community resources free and easy to find on the Internet.” From the home page, users can search the entire Justia site by using the keyword search box, or can limit their search to a specific legal practice area by clicking on an area of law listed. Selecting a specific legal practice area brings up a custom search box, as well as an overview of the practice area and related information, including Web resources, important cases, legislation and regulations, articles, and news.
The Justia home page also has a legal research section where users can gain access to information regarding cases and codes, federal and state courts, federal and state government, blogs, legal forms, and podcasts. A section discussing cases that are currently in the news is accessible through the home page, as well.
Justia maintains a U.S. Supreme Court Center that is useful when researching information or cases at this level. It can be accessed by clicking on the “more” tab on the home page. Justia also provides the option to search dockets and court filings, which also is located under the “more” tab.
A unique feature of Justia is its Latin America section. Here, researchers can access laws, codes, and cases for Mexico and countries in Central and South America. Most of this information is provided in the specific country’s language but can be translated into English by clicking the “translate” button on the Google toolbar. Keep in mind that when using any type of free translation service, there may be nuances that are lost or errors in translation that may occur.
When searching in Justia, use the operators AND and OR. A space between keywords defaults to the use of the AND operator. To exclude a term from the search query, place a minus sign (-) directly to the left of the term to exclude, with no space in between.
In addition to FindLaw and Justia, mega-sites worth exploring are MegaLaw, the Public Library of Law, LexisOne Community, HG, LexisNexis InfoPro—Zimmerman’s Research Guide, and Google Scholar. As with any resource, users will discover that one is more valuable than another for particular types of research.
University and Nonprofit Organization Sites
Many universities and nonprofit organizations provide legal information online. Some organizations provide free access to all of the information on their site; others require membership to gain full access to their legal research tools.
Cornell’s Legal Information Institute
One of the best sites is the Legal Information Institute (LII), which is hosted by the Cornell University Law School. The site was created to further the school’s belief that “everyone should be able to read and understand the laws that govern them, without cost.” To that end, LII publishes laws, creates materials that help assist in understanding the law, and explores technologies that allow people to find the law easily.
Unlike many home pages on legal research sites, the LII page is clutter-free and easy to navigate due to its simplicity. From the home page, researchers can use the keyword search box to search across the entire site or can choose to explore one of LII’s sections in more depth.
Within the site’s “Read the Law” section, researchers can access both federal and state constitutions, laws, codes, statutes, and cases. Where applicable, the site provides links to other sites where this information is available, rather than creating a repository for the data. The “Popular Topics” section allows users to explore specific legal topics. In many instances, LII provides a narrative overview of the topic and supplies a list of relevant resources, including applicable statutes, recent court decisions, and other key Internet resources. In the “Learn More” section, searchers can access the online legal dictionary called Wex, the Supreme Court bulletin, the annotated U.S. Constitution, and the LII legal blog. LII also has sections to assist in locating a lawyer, asking a question, or following the site via a social network.
When searching within LII, use the operators AND, OR, and NOT. If an operator is not indicated, the default is AND. The asterisk (*) acts as the truncation symbol and finds multiple roots of the search term.
American Bar Association
Although the American Bar Association (ABA) is member-driven, the organization’s site contains both free and fee-based information. From the home page, researchers can use the keyword box to search the entire site. The home page also provides relevant news stories, a list of upcoming ABA events, and links to popular resources.
The “Resources for Lawyers” tab directs users to a page where they can access the career center, search practice management information, locate information based on the type of practice setting, and access the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Within the practice setting area, there is a section dedicated to solo practitioners that contains useful information. By clicking on the “Publications & CLE” tab, researchers can access the newsletters section. Many of these newsletters are available for free to non-ABA members.
Additional Nonprofit Sites
The Colorado Bar Association (CBA) website offers a variety of legal information in its “For Lawyers,” “For the Public,” and “From the Courts” sections. Some of the information is available for free to anyone, and some of it is available only to CBA members. Other resources to check are local state bar associations, the American Association for Justice site, and the WWW Virtual Library—Law site.
Most federal and state government entities maintain a website. These sites include general information about the entity and often more specific information about that particular area of the law. Government sites can be very useful for legal research, because they have a more targeted focus.
Government agency sites generally include the relevant rules and regulations, administrative decisions, laws, forms, and staff directories pertinent to the applicable legal area. The official sites for the U.S. government and the Colorado state government contain a list of all the federal and state agencies, respectively. In addition, the U.S. Government Manual contains a listing of all federal agencies, including information regarding the formation of the agency and its enabling legislation, a brief description of the agency and its responsibilities, the organizational structure of the agency, contact information, and other relevant facts. Users can search or browse the Manual, and its content is updated on an annual basis.
Researchers will find that some agency sites are better structured and easier to search than others. When encountering a site that seems particularly difficult to search, users should consider using the Google advanced search option. The Google advanced search page allows users to create a search query and specify the domain for the search by including the desired URL in the specified box.
Conducting legislative history research often is a difficult and time-consuming task. When engaging in federal legislative research, two of the best sites to consult are FDsys, the new online version of the Government Printing Office, and Thomas, provided by the Library of Congress. At the state level, researchers should consult the Colorado General Assembly site for information regarding legislation, as well as the Colorado Legislative Council site.
Other useful government-produced websites are those for particular courts. At the federal level, the U.S. Courts site is an excellent starting point. From the “Federal Courts” tab, researchers can access links to all the federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, Courts of Appeals, District Courts, Bankruptcy Courts, and Courts of Special Jurisdiction. Under the “Rules & Policies” tab, researchers can find information on federal rulemaking, codes of conduct, and subpoena regulations. Within the “Forms & Fees” area, users can access information regarding various filing fees and a variety of free forms. Under the “Court Records” tab, users can find a link to PACER, the system that provides access to federal case files and dockets.
At the state level, the Colorado State Judicial Branch site provides access to the Colorado appellate and trial courts. From the home page, researchers can access a wealth of information, including court opinions, the self-help library (which contains forms), the e-filing system, and court dockets.
There are an overwhelming number of free and low-cost legal resources available on the Internet. This article has provided an overview of some of them. Users often will turn to one resource more than another, depending on the type of information they need and their practice area, and it’s helpful to be familiar with what is available before starting a search. Free resources usually are a good place to begin one’s research, and supplementing this research with fee-based resources likely produces the best results.
Reproduced by permission. ©2011 Colorado Bar Association, 40 The Colorado Lawyer 103 (August 2011). All rights reserved.
The Colorado Lawyer, the official publication of the Colorado Bar Association, serves as an informational and educational resource to improve the practice of law. When you see the logo, you’re reading an article from The Colorado Lawyer. CBA members can also still read the full issue online at cobar.org/tcl.