In recent years, approaches to legal research have changed with new technological developments. While many lawyers still pay for some of their research tools, there are a growing number of high-quality free research tools available.
Most law firms now use a combination of paid and free research tools, and which tools they use tends to vary by topic. Finding the right combination for your firm will depend on your practice area, but research tools are constantly changing, so it’s always worth checking back in.
Below, we delve into some of the most popular legal research tools, both free and paid.
Legal Information Institute
Through Cornell Law School, the Legal Information Institute (LII) functions as a nonprofit legal research tool.
It provides free online access to:
- U.S. Code
- Supreme Court cases
- Federal regulations
- Regulations in all fifty states
- State statutes by topic
- Executive orders
- Uniform Commercial Code
- American primary law materials
- United Nations materials
- Wex Legal encyclopedia
While it doesn’t cover everything, LII is making a real push to expand free access to legal resources online.
Westlaw and Westlaw Edge
Westlaw is one of the most popular paid research tools. If your firm pays for Westlaw, you get access to a proprietary database of case law and up-to-date information on precedent. When you look up case law, it comes with notes, which allows lawyers to scan a summary of legal points covered in the case.
Lawyers can also find information about statutes and trial transcripts and briefs. Westlaw also gives you access to a legal encyclopedia and legal reviews.
In all these categories, it covers almost every possible practice area, and you can pay for additional tools, such as tools for citation checking and formatting, as well as searchable court docket information.
That said, Westlaw is one of the more expensive research tools.
Additionally, while its organizational system, the Key Number System, is effective and standard in the legal world, any paralegals doing research for your firm may not yet be familiar with this system. It works well once they know it, but it can be a steep learning curve. Westlaw does offer training courses and certification in the Key Number System.
AI-powered research tools
Artificial intelligence (AI) tools help lawyers stay efficient and effective in their work in a variety of areas. From analytics to legal research, AI saves you time.
ROSS is a paid research tool, but what makes it different is that lawyers can also take advantage of its AI offerings to shape their research.
In particular, ROSS helps lawyers focus their research if they’re finding too many cases or too few. If an overwhelming amount of cases are coming up, lawyers can use ROSS to help determine which ones will best support the matter they’re researching. Alternatively, if not enough cases are coming up, ROSS helps law firms make sure they’re using the right line of inquiry.
Casetext provides another AI option for lawyers.
Once you put your complaint or brief into the AI system, it will find you cases and other resources on the same legal issues and facts as your matter. It will also focus on your specific jurisdiction.
Government websites are a great source of free information for lawyers.
Law Library of Congress website
The Law Library of Congress’s website offers lawyers free access to legal research in federal, state, Indigenous, and foreign jurisdictions.
For regulatory docket information, Regulations.gov is an excellent source of free information, including materials that can help lawyers determine the intent of regulations.
Fastcase and Casemaker
Casemaker—now merged with Fastcase—offers a paid option, as well as a free mobile device platform for legal research. It gives law firms access to case law, statutes, and regulations.
Some lawyers’ state bar dues provide access to the paid version of Fastcase, effectively making it free.
Lawyers can use the Findlaw website to research for free.
With Findlaw, you can find information on:
- State and federal statutes
- Case law
- A comprehensive directory of lawyers
- Legal news
- Legal blogs
- Analysis of legal news
Caselaw Access Project
Harvard University’s Caselaw Access Project gives you free access to more than 6.5 million state and federal court decisions. In other words, it’s a free case law bonanza.
It includes access to an interactive map, which can make the research process more enjoyable.
Lexis Advance is LexisNexis’s legal research tool and includes access to case law and statutes. You do have to pay for it, but the tool is intended to streamline your research with the help of search parameters, filters, and predictive insights.
In general, Lexis Advance tends to be most helpful if you’re conducting specialized research as opposed to something more fundamental.
Google Scholar is a free resource for case law. It provides access to primary and secondary sources, and you can filter results by jurisdiction.
Along with access to federal and state legal opinions and journals, it’s especially helpful for citations.
Tailor your tools to your firm
Ultimately, most law firms use a combination of paid and free research tools. What you use will be shaped by your practice area, but whatever research you’re doing, we do recommend taking advantage of some of the free resources.
We also recommend periodically reassessing the tools you use. There’s been a big push to expand free legal research tools, and you may find you’ve been paying for information that’s now accessible for free.
Likewise, there’s something to be said for efficient research that doesn’t eat up all your time. Even if AI-honed research doesn’t make sense for your firm right now, technology is changing so quickly that you may find yourself with a different opinion a year from now.
Our best advice? Stay flexible and keep an open mind.