This post was one of the sections of a CLE that I taught (Find it Fast and Free on the Web) in King of Prussia in December of 2015.
FINDING FREE LEGAL RESEARCH SITES AND FREE CASE LAW
There are a variety of reasons to use free legal research sites instead of paid sites like Lexis or Westlaw. Obviously, cost is one reason; ease of use is another; and you may prefer the layout of the free sites as opposed to the pay sites. The layout may make it easier to cut and paste or just to print and read. However, these sites should always be used with caution, as there are no guarantees that they are complete, accurate or up-to-date. When you have a choice of whether to use a free site or a pay site, you need to assess your needs and develop a game plan. If you just need a quick citation of a law to cut and paste into a memo, then a free site is probably the easiest way to go. If you need to make sure that you have the most up to date law on a matter, then you are going to need to be sure that you have a trusted source to verify it. In the end, a mix of the two is probably going to be your best bet. You can do a general topic search on google; read some of the cases that will pop up on the free sites; and then use that information to do a good targeted search on the pay site.
However, there may be times when you have to use a free site because you either do not have access to your login information, or if the information you need is outside of your plan. Some of the situations when you may be likely to need the free online materials:
• Speed – if you already have a citation, you put it into your web browser’s search bar and it will likely lead you to the case if it is available for free. Then you can check the links to make sure that you are going to a website that you trust. This can be especially helpful if you don’t have your password readily available, for instance if you are away from the office and just need to get a quick overview of what a particular case is about.
• Persuasive Authority – smaller firms that only focus in particular areas will often have state and circuit specific plans. For example, my firm has a plan that gives us full access to Pennsylvania, 3rd Circuit and Supreme Court cases. But cases from other states and circuits are billed individually. If there are no cases in Pennsylvania that discuss a particular issue, then it can be helpful to find some persuasive authority from other states or circuits that have addressed the issue in order to argue to the Court that the same principal should be applied in your case. You’ll want to make sure that the cases you are finding are going to be relevant before you pay to read them; especially if you will have to justify your expenses to a managing partner, office manager or client. For example, we had a landlord/tenant action where we represented the tenant. We wanted to add a claim for retaliatory eviction, but did not find any case law from Pennsylvania that supported a cause of action on that basis (all of the PA cases used retaliatory eviction as a defense only). We did find a California case that laid out the argument for why retaliatory eviction should be allowed as a cause of action, and used that case to survive preliminary objections on the matter.
• Choice of Laws – The internet has given people the ability to do business with partners and clients around the country. When a client brings you a contract to review, or enforce, that has a clause stating that the contract will be interpreted under the laws of a different state, you need to be able to at least have a basic understanding of how those clauses have been interpreted in that state in order to give your client the best advice on how to proceed.
• Jurisdictional Disputes – If you are in a position where an opposing party seeks to transfer the case from your jurisdiction to another state, it may be necessary to cite both cases from Pennsylvania and the other state. Especially if the other party has cited cases from the other jurisdiction, you need to be able to find and read that case to address the issues that it raises.
Who Can You Trust?
I would hope that at this point, everyone knows and follows the adage that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet. So when you find a site with free legal materials, you should ask yourself several questions:
1. Who is the Author or publisher?
a. Do they have an agenda?
b. Do they have credentials?
2. Is it an official site?
3. How comprehensive is the information provided?
4. How accurate is the information provided?
5. Is it open source? Can the information be edited by the public (i.e. Wikipedia) or is it controlled and supervised?
6. When was the information published? Is it regularly updated?
Free Legal Portals and Meta-sites
A. FindLaw for legal professionals – lp.findlaw.com
FindLaw has information for both laypersons and professionals. It is owned by Thompson Reuters, so you can place a certain level of faith that the information it has is accurate and unbiased. The regular site provides news updates, information to find an attorney and message boards where questions can be answered. The professional site can be accessed by either clicking in the upper right hand corner of the main page under Are you a Legal Professional?
The site contains links to Court cases for the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Courts of Appeal as well as cases from the following state Supreme Courts: California, New York, Texas, Illinois, Florida and Delaware. It also has links to appellate cases from the California Court of Appeals, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the Illinois Court of Appeals. Once you are on the site, you can search by topic, by citation or by party name.
FindLaw for Professionals also includes links to the U.S. Code (search by either Title Name or by Popular Name) and selected State Codes and Statutes (Alabama; Alaska; California; Delaware; Hawaii; Illinois; Indiana; Montana; New York; Texas).
B. Justia – www.justia.com
Justia aims to make primary legal materials available to the public, free of charge. However, the site does allow a user to annotate cases, so notations should not be the only items used. The site has overview sections of a variety of legal topics which are helpful if you need a basic understanding of something before you begin further research. Justia’s best aspect is the ability to do a google-type search by typing a word, phrase or citation into the box at the top. It also provides all U.S. Supreme Court cases, which are searchable by year; as well as U.S. appellate and district court materials (including bankruptcy courts). Justia provides case law from state courts as well. By clicking on a particular state, you can receive demographic data, links to State statutes, local governmental sites and case law.
Justia provides reproductions of the U.S. and state constitutions, statutes, codes and regulations. However, due to the breadth of information available, it is unclear how often these materials are updated. So it would be wise to follow-up and make sure that your statute or case law is the most current version.
C. Legal Information Institute (LII) – www.law.cornell.edu
The LII is run by the Cornell law school and provides access to mostly Federal statutes, codes and regulations. Of note, Wikipedia’s compilation of the U.S. Code provides links to the text at the LII. It also provides Supreme Court cases and links to materials from the cases. Finally, LII provides links to state materials, but for the most part does not reproduce them on the site.
D. Google Scholar – https://scholar.google.com
This is a Google based search engine that focuses on written materials. You can enter a citation, case name or other information in the box and then choose “case law” or specify which courts you want to search by clicking on the blue Select courts hyperlink. By entering a search term and then clicking the Articles radio button, you can find what has been written on the topic. As you would with a regular Google search, be aware of indicators of the trustworthiness of any articles you may find on Google scholar.
E. Open Jurist – www.openjurist.org
Open Jurist is another open source compilation which has a goal of bringing the ability to research laws and opinions to the masses. Its features U.S. Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal cases, as well as the U.S. Code. The case law seems to only go up to 2005 on the Supreme Court Cases and 2007 on the Appeals Court cases, so this is not the place for up to date research. The useful part of Open Jurist is that by clicking on the Supreme Court link, you can find a link to the very earliest case reporters. So, this website offers an easy way to review historical decisions or just understand the scope of the United States common law.
F. Washburn University – www.washlaw.edu
The Washburn University website offers links to a variety of Federal and State official materials on the web. This includes links to official webpages of Courts, Agencies and Legislative bodies. The Washlaw site also offers links to materials found at some of the materials we’ve discussed in this section, like the LII. It can be a helpful starting point if you can’t figure out where to find official sites. By using sites that are linked to from Washlaw, you can also have a measure of trust in their authenticity.
G. Public Library of Law – www.plol.org
The Public Library of Law is a compilation of cases from the U.S. Supreme Court (1754-present), U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, and state cases (1997-present). It also provides links to Federal and state regulations, rules and codes. A free account is required to access the cases. The nice aspect of the PLOL is that the links to official materials open up within the PLOL website, so you can quickly determine if it has what you need and then search again within the PLOL universe.
H. Rutgers School of Law – http://njlaw.rutgers.edu/collections/courts/
This is a full-text archive of the Opinions of the New Jersey Courts, including the Supreme Court, from March, 1994 to date, the Superior Court Appellate Division and the Tax Court from September, 1995 to date.
Poor Man’s Shepards
Once you find relevant law or cases, you likely want to know how it has been cited to ensure that it is still good law. Unfortunately, there used to be a greater number of free options like FindLaw and LoisLaw to help you do this, but at this point those companies have either gone to paid formats or stopped offering the services.
Google Scholar – https://scholar.google.com
Once you have a case up on Google Scholar there is a link on the upper left hand side of the screen that says How cited. Clicking the link will take you to a page that is split into three portions: the first, main section (How this document has been cited) will give you brief quotes from key cases that cited the original case; on the right hand side of the screen (Cited by) a list of cases, with citations (including year and court) is presented, with an option to see all of the cases which cited your case; finally, on the bottom of the right hand side is a Related documents section which gives you other cases which may touch on similar principles. Finally, you have the ability to set up a Google alert, which will tell you if any new cases cite your case. To do so, click the link to all of the documents that cite your case (on the right hand column, under the “Cited by” cases). When the new page opens up, click the link on the bottom of the left hand column that says “Create alerts”. At that point, you can enter your email address and receive updated information.