Learn Multiple Legal Research Platforms

Regardless of where you are on your path to a legal career, you should try to master the variety of legal research tools at your fingertips.

During my 1L legal writing course, our law librarians empowered me with fundamental legal research skills. We learned to apply these skills to the archaic online databases of Westlaw and LexisNexis, and I presumed they were the only games in town.

There are, of course, alternatives to so-called “Wexis.” Here are some recommendations based on the type of research query.

  • Federal statutes and regulations: Cornell’s Legal Information Institute
  • Legislative record, history and reports: Library of Congress’ THOMAS
  • Supreme Court cases, information, analysis: LII or SCOTUSBlog
  • Fishing for cases by keyword and jurisdiction: Google Scholar, Fastcase, or Public Library of Law
  • Boiled-down background information by legal issue: treatises in  your law library, Justia, or NoLo
  • Deep secondary source research and multiple specific jurisdiction inquiries: Westlaw or LexisNexis
  • Examples of real legal documents, forms, court filings: JD Supra
  • Constitutional history and event-oriented background information: Wikipedia

Law school is the perfect time to experiment with the plethora of alternative legal resources available online. Writing and research assignments provide students with precise legal issues and fact patterns with which they can compare and contrast legal research tools. For instance, a natural language search for “drunk driving law Texas” on Google Scholar, Westlaw, and the Public Library of Law will garner widely different top results. For instance, while Google’s search algorithm might know to interpret “drunk driving” as equivalent to “operating while intoxicated” or “driving under the influence” and translate “law” into “cases” or “statutes,” Westlaw is not so smart.* Think about why there are such differences, and adjust your searches accordingly:

  • What sources do the searches include (case law, statutes, secondary sources, all of these)?
  • How are results ranked (priority, date, name or are they sortable by the user)?
  • Who is the target audience (general public or legal practitioners)?

There are many other legal resources out there, and I invite you to share your favorites!

*However, just this kind of smart searching is one of the touted features of WestlawNext, which I had an opportunity to test in January, and which does employ vastly improved search.

Subscribe

Get Lawyerist in Your Inbox, Daily

Current Articles
Current Lab Discussions
  • Randall Ryder

    Great post, I used almost all of those resources during law school, especially the SCOTUS blog and Lil Cornell resources.

    I would also recommend just plain Google searches. Sometimes you will come across something helpful (although not usually something you can cite).

  • Thanks for this post! I have shared it on the LinkedIn and Facebook pages for NC Certified Paralegals as I belive it offers good advice and references for them as well as lawyers.

  • I would add Jenkins Law Library ($150/year) to this list, as well as SSRN. SSRN has law review article drafts, while Jenkins has Hein Online and law reviews can be a great resource for “lay of the land” type of research and citation.
    Also, as comprehensive as your list is, it really doesn’t help much with regulatory research – tax, energy or SEC reports. Sure, you could search the agency filing sites, but that is not entirely reliable. As such, those of us who practice in these fields will always be captive to the dark side.

  • With all of the free resources out there today, I wonder how long West and Lexis will be able to keep prices up. Another great resource that both students and attorneys should utilize are the many Listservs out there…Solosez, Bankruptcy Bootcamp, NACBA, etc. A lot of these Listservs have members from all over the country, and they can be a great resource of documents and information. In addition, they give you access to something some of those other search engines can’t provide: human experience and answers related directly to your specific questions and circumstances.

  • Jason Grimes

    While Lexis / West are not the only online research tools savvy researchers should use, it is risable to call them “archaic” or to suggest that they are not the primary place serious legal researchers will spend most of their time in the future.
    Why? Because COST is rarely the most important issue — TIME is. The premium services add so much value & efficiency to most types of legal research. E.g. – Headnotes, Case Summaries, Annotations, Shepard’s, and Linking to treatises, forms, law reviews, and other jurisdictions’ materials.
    Sure, Lexis & West cost money — around $90/month for a basic state package for a solo — but so does your hardware and your office space. It’s the cost of doing business.
    Every time there’s a blog post about online legal research, the comments are full of lawyers who are angry at Lexis & West for charging subscription rates to use their complex and value-added services. Why would I (or anyone) hire you for a non-routine matter — particularly litigation? Between the time you’d waste using a half-dozen “free” sites, and the potential malpractice of not finding all relevant cases/Shepardizing them, no thanks….

  • Time—and the added services Lexis and West provide—is valuable, for sure. Just not as valuable as Lexis and West seem to think it is.

    I am not angry about Lexis and West; I just don’t need them.

    (Mr. Grimes left a lexisnexis.com e-mail address, for what it’s worth.)

  • Jason Grimes

    Yes, I should have clearly disclosed that I work with LexisNexis. In my haste, I thought that my email address was going to be visible with my post.
    Mr. Glover, you are correct – not every firm needs Lexis or West. I would argue that one or the other is essential at any firm where a significant amount of legal research, due diligence, or factual discovery is conducted.