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Although most often used to research case law and study treatises, online legal research tools can also provide background checks, people searches, data aggregation, and even memo and brief analysis.
Many online legal research services will take public and proprietary information (purchased from institutions like Equifax and TransUnion), store it in their databases, and allow users to search the aggregated information.
Each law firm will have differing legal research software needs. Some will only need case law research, while others will rely heavily on treatises and secondary sources. Still, others will mostly be searching for personal information, or running background checks. To determine what is right for your firm, you’ll need to assess what information you’ll need access to, and find the service that provides that. Many solos and small firms will simply need case law research with the occasional secondary source access.
Many bar associations across the country have deals with online legal research services to provide discounted, and even free access to their databases. Usually, this will include access to primary material, with few secondary sources. For attorneys who only need occasional access to legal resources, this may work wonderfully. However, these platforms are becoming increasingly competitive with big players in the space.
Choosing an online legal research service provider for your law firm is difficult. For example, there is the fear that if you choose one, you’ll miss out on some incredible functionality in another. There is also the brutal sales pressure, the ever-escalating pricing structures, and the nagging feeling that you’re paying too much and using it too little. You’re probably annoyed with multi-year contracts and expensive add-on features. All of this may leave you bouncing from one legal research tool to another. It can be challenging to know what software, and which specific features, you need to keep your business running smoothly. We’ll try to make it easy.
1. Determine your law firm's online legal research needs
Some tools offer limited research sets, while others allow you to explore secondary sources, check your citations, and more, and either for free or at an additional cost. Decide whether you’re only going to use a legal research tool for a particular practice area. Maybe you don’t need any other offerings.
2. Assess the available features
Read through our Features List and determine what functionality and tools your firm needs for its online legal research software.
3. Research your options
Then, devour as much information as you care to about the legal research software offerings that most interest you. Visit the product page for each, including pricing options. At a minimum, pricing should be forthright and easy to understand. After all, no one likes hidden fees. Jump into the comments and ratings below or into our Facebook group to learn how Lawyerist and its community feel about each. If you have a sales representative, ask them for references.
4. Try before you buy
Finally, sign up for a trial account with one or two likely options, put them through their paces, and select the one that you think will work best for your firm.
You’re a bit like Goldilocks here. Some research tools give you far more firepower than you will ever need. Some will offer too little. Try to find one that is just right for your practice. In our view, you should be able to try before you buy. Ask for a free trial of whichever online legal research tool most interests you before you buy it. Be sure it is right for you and your practice before you drop money—or sign a multi-year contract—with your chosen provider. And be wary of companies that try to charge you before you can test the product. Some companies may give you a 30-day money-back guarantee or demand your credit card to get started with a legal research tool (and will begin billing you if you don’t cancel before your trial expires). While this isn’t ideal, any “free trial” is better than nothing.
AI legal assistants can help you identify relevant cases and statutes, and may even help you draft your brief.
Can you search by entering a question in normal language rather than keywords or Boolean connectors and phrases?
With Boolean operators like AND, OR, and more, you can precisely target your search query.
A citation checker helps you identify whether a case or statute has been overruled, modified, or reversed or repealed.
Can you restrict your search to certain parts or features of cases and statutes, like the date, judge, or jurisdiction?
Research history makes it easier to find the results of previous searches or see if the law has changed with new results.
Organize your research history into folders.
Download cases and statutes as a formatted PDF or Word document.
When you run a search, get suggestions for additional searches to run or material you should look at.
Flag key cases so that you get an email notification if it is cited in a new case, statute, or secondary source.