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.