#ResourceThursdays: Life After Free Access to Premium Legal Research Tools

When I think back to law school, there isn’t an extremely long list of things I miss. However, one benefit of being a law student definitely included having free, unlimited access to not just one, but many online legal research platforms: Westlaw, LexisNexis, and Bloomberg, to name a few. Now that I’ve been out of school for a year, my free access has dried up – including, the free extended account you can activate following graduation for about six extra months.

It’s been difficult. I don’t live or near my law school. So, going back to the law library and accessing the databases through the library’s open access portal isn’t a convenient option. I used to use WestlawNext’s docket feature to navigate the latest copyright filings and Bloomberg Law to pull entire federal dockets for reading.

The following are the resources I’ve started using as alternatives to the above-mentioned commercial legal databases. They aren’t as simple, but they can get the job done when necessary!

I honestly can’t believe I made it through law school without creating my own PACER account! I think all students should learn how to use PACER, both for their own purposes (rather than relying on a commercial platform) and for when they enter the working world.

PACER is an acronym for “Public Access to Court Electronic Records” and allows for any registered user the ability to find electronic records relating to virtually any federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy court. Here’s the secret – all users are given a $15 credit to their account each month for free! I use this to download filings and other documents from a docket. Be careful – I don’t recommend wasting your credit with searches (see about Justia below) because, at $0.10 per page (capped at $3.00), it can eat away at your $15 very quickly. Rather, use PACER when you have a specific case filing number to reference and go directly to the listing to pull records.

When you register for PACER, you don’t have to provide a credit card or any billing information.  Instead, I chose the option to have an access code mailed to my office and then I was able to activate my PACER account.  I did this for two reasons: 1) I didn’t want my credit card on file with the PACER system in the event I somehow accidentally racked up charges; and 2) I didn’t want a temptation to arise when I really wanted to find a document and would simply pay the small charge to download it. Now, keep in mind that I’m not in a law practice environment where I have clients who depend upon my legal research skills; otherwise, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay the fees in the interest of best serving my client (and yes, potentially charging it back to them).

Lastly, make sure you also check out the RECAP add-on for Google Chrome. It helps automatically submit any documents you pull to the RECAP the Law database so that others can access the filing for free!

Justia.com is often times one of the highest ranked Google search results when searching for a particular case. Justia offers full docket results for many cases, but not necessarily every filing within a docket. They also have a lot of full PDF opinions available for free. In addition to case law, you can find codes, regulations, articles, and blogs on a variety of legal topics.

What’s great about Justia.com is their mission to provide legal resources for free. I recommend using the site as a way to begin your legal research efforts and, if necessary, jump over to PACER or Google Scholar for a full document download using the case number you find on Justia.

Google Scholar & Google Patents
The powerhouse behind the web’s search results brings to you the power of its flagship product with a growing collection of scholarly articles, legal documents, and patent filings. Google Scholar is an incredible resource when searching for articles about virtually any topic. What most people don’t know is that Google Scholar houses a large database of case law covering judicial opinions.. I dream of the day Google gains access to the entire PACER database and puts it online.

Google’s patent search is a robust tool that allows searching by one of many variables – patent number, inventors, companies, classifications, and more, through the full text search function. It’s database is comprised of information from the USPTO, EPO, and WiPO. Find out more about Google Patents.

CaseText & Free Law Project’s Court Listener
Crowdsourcing a legal research database is quickly becoming the next frontier in legal research.  At the forefront of the pack you will find CaseText and Free Law Project’s Court Listener.  Their platforms operate in a slightly different manner, but the underlying theme is free access to legal resources generated by a community. I don’t necessarily have the time to dedicate to assist with either platform, but I encourage others to check them out and explore in your free time! Any effort to promote free access to legal resources is a true winner.

Other Options
Local bar associations often provide access to research platforms, such as FastCase. I’ve not really explored Fastcase, but there are a lot of people that seem to enjoy the features it provides for basic legal research without fees building up. I’m a member of the Association of Corporate Council, which maintains an impressively large database of standard forms, agreements, law summaries, and other valuable resources.

I encourage you to explore any originations or associations where you have a membership. There can be great resources hiding right under your nose!

Do you have any legal resources you use that are free (or very low cost)? Share them in the comments below!