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Free Sites for Legal Research : Evaluating Websites

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?

3. Comprehensiveness

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

-Commentary?

-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.