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New to Legal Research on the Web? Researching in an Unfamiliar Area? Start with a Guide
When starting a new research project, it is often helpful to get an overview of the available resources. Try a basic google search for "law library guide" and your subject area: copyright, evidence, employment law, whatever.
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 (law review articles are the exception)
- Digests, headnotes and other editorial content and finding aids
- Citator with broad reach
- Some free-to-bar members or low-cost resources, like Fastcase or Casemaker, have citators but they are limited in scope
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 acitator 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.
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.