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What You Are Likely to Find Online For Free:
- More federal than state materials, and more state materials than local government info
- More government information than privately generated content
- generally more primary than secondary materials
- More recent information (1990s to present) than older items
- More case opinions than case dockets or filings
- More "just the document" rather than items with additional editorial content
- More unofficial (can't cite to it) information than official
Information that You Probably WON'T Find Free Online:
- Comprehensive site featuring all types of materials collected from all jurisdictions
- Secondary sources that are excellent quality and from reliable publishers
- Digests, headnotes and other editorial content and finding aids
- Citator with broad reach
- Some free-to-bar members or low-cost resources, like Fastcase, have citators but they are limited in scope
Potential Pitfalls of Free Legal Resources
- Not Comprehensive
- Cover only a narrow subject matter
- Cover only a "snapshot" of time such as the most recent 5 years or may no longer be updated
- Limited Editorial Features
- May not offer keyword or subject searching options
- May not be indexed or tagged for easy sorting or filtering
- Possible bias or inaccuracies
- May provide only one perspective
- May not have an editor or a fact checker (especially crowdsourced sites like Wikipedia)
- Here today, gone tomorrow (“link rot”)
- URL may no longer be valid--site license has not been renewed or page has moved etc.
When to Use Free Resources
1. At the beginning of your search--for background information
2. To look up a discrete piece of information
- find a case/statute/regulation by citation
- look up an article by name
- locate a person by name
3. To pinpoint a citation for a case/statute/regulation to run through a citator on Westlaw/Lexis
4. To generate search terms
5. To locate news articles about a topic
6. To locate contact or other directory information for a person or business
Checklist for Evaluating Free Resources:
1. Authoritativeness/Accuracy—who’s the author/publisher?
2. Bias—is there an agenda?
4. Timeliness—when was it last updated?
5. Interface design/user friendliness
-How can you search?
-Can you narrow or expand your results?
6. Editorial features
-Links to additional resources?
-Other ways to expand your research?
The American Association of Law Libraries has put together additional criteria and searching tips that you may want to consider.