Alternative Free Legal Research Tools

Legal research has gotten easier than ever thanks to the proliferation of online, access-anywhere-anytime databases. However, many law firms find that the price of utilizing multiple, full-featured legal research tools can quickly add up.

For those offices looking for a less expensive option, you’re in luck. While there are definitely some great, high-powered tools out there to fuel your legal research, there are many free resources that can help you prepare for a case, research an article that you’re working on, or just follow the rabbit hole of legal history. With a little practice, these free alternatives will become a regular part of your research process and a welcomed addition to your arsenal of tools. 

Primary sources

Case Law Access Project (Harvard Law) 

Combine case law with a beautiful, interactive map and data visualizations and what do you have? Harvard’s Case Law Access Project. From a functional perspective, it provides access to all official published case law between 1658 and 2018. (Yes, you read that right.) From a user experience perspective, the site makes research and contextualization an enjoyable process.

Google Scholar

Google Scholar is a fantastic resource for research case law – you can filter results by jurisdiction – and it allows you to see citation history, citation options, and citation uses. (So basically, it’s great for citation.)  

Looking for information beyond primary sources? Google Scholar provides access to secondary sources, as well. There are some limitations given that a good deal of content still remains behind paywalls, but with a little sleuthing, you can still glean a lot of useful knowledge. 

Govinfo (U.S. GPO) 

Free, no-frills, and comprehensive. That’s the best way to describe the U.S. Government Information website. It’s got everything you could possibly want or need to know about US policy, law, legislature, and history, both past and current. The amount of content here is truly massive, but it’s surprisingly user friendly for the scope of the site.

Legal Information Institute (Cornell Law) 

If Harvard’s Case Law Project serves up the law with a heavy side of design, Cornell Law’s Legal Information Institute is the opposite. It’s straightforward and direct access to legal resources, broken down by type: primary sources, original content, and subject guides. If you need a one-stop-shop for legal research, you can’t do much better than here. 

Core functions of the site: current and newly codified legislation; searchability by citations; and a legal encyclopedia.

United States Code

You know those shelves and shelves of books that lined the shelves of your grandfather’s library? This is the online version of that. This website carries the entirety of the United States Code in a searchable and easy to use format. 

Secondary sources

Directory of Open Access Journals

Community-curated, free, full text, AND quality controlled? These keywords tick all the boxes for a great secondary source database. This searchable directory covers a huge range of disciplines in multiple languages, making it useful no matter what your industry or practice area is. 

Emory Law Library 

Don’t let the streamlined appearance of the Free Electronic Resources page at Emory Law Library fool you. Click on any of the accordion menus and a whole treasure trove of free resources will come tumbling down. This site offers both primary and secondary sources, making it another useful one-stop-shop. We especially appreciate the Foreign Law & International Sources section. 

Law Review Commons

Do you need access to over 300 open-access law reviews, over 220,000 articles, and free current issues and archives from 1852? If you, you should probably bookmark the Law Review Commons. Its content repository is literally A to Z, with everything between the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana to Yale Law School. 

Nolo, Justia, and Findlaw

Need to break down some information without the legalese? These sites are meant exactly for that. They provide informative, thorough legal explanations that are easy to parse. While these sites accomplish similar things, they each have their strong points. (And their devotees!) However, they’re all credible and well-established sources of legal content. 

Social media

Social media is a necessity for legal marketing, but it can also be useful for case research. It’s free, it’s everywhere, and it can provide valuable insight into the behaviors and activities of defendants. The success of your social media research can depend on how parties have implemented their privacy settings, though. 

However, you do need to consider ethical obligations when using information pulled from social media research in your law practice. To stay in line with ethics rules, be mindful of the following: 

  • Competence is important – you need to be familiar with relevant sources of information. 
  • You’ve got to stay truthful. Don’t make anonymous social media posts when acting in a professional capacity. 
  • Don’t friend the opposing party – direct communication about legal matters is prohibited. 
  • Know your state rules on jury research – they can vary significantly. 

And from a practical standpoint, be aware of any traces you might leave when you’re conducting research: for example, LinkedIn members can see that you’ve viewed their profile if you’re not browsing in private mode. 

Finding quality resources is an important part of all legal work. There are lots of free options out there. The key to success? Finding what works best for you, your practice areas, and your research strategies. So pick a few of the suggestions above and dive in. Happy researching!

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