Time-Saving Legal Research Tips

[This paper was prepared for the 2011 State Bar of Montana annual meeting.]

Updated:  this is the Prezi presentation I used during the session.

Legal research means different things for different lawyers.  In many cases, it means pulling a specific case or statute.  It may mean digging further into a legal precedent or concept but the reality is that most legal research tends to be relatively simple activities.  This is particularly true for lawyers who have considerable expertise in their practice areas.

Grab the Case

There are a number of starting points for recent case law that you can search and use for free.  The best of these sites are the Public Library of Law, powered by Fastcase, and Lexisone.com, powered by LexisNexis.[1]  Unlike Google Scholar’s large legal database, PLOL and LexisOne explain what they have in their databases and their data sources.[2]

If you use a free case law site, you should still use a citator to update the cases on which you rely.  If you do not have your own subscription to LexisNexis Shepards or Westlaw Keycite, you can use Westlaw by Credit Card, paying just for the Keycite updates you need.[3]

How does using a free site save you time?  First, you skip the login process.  Second, you can save the search engine into your Web browser!  For example, if you use Google Chrome, just visit the Public Library of Law and do a search.  The next time you start to type PLOL into your Web browser’s bar, it will ask you if you want to search the Public Library of Law.  If you do, hit your TAB key and type in your search and Google Chrome will run the search for you.

Super Charge Your Web Browser

The Web browser is your gateway to online information.  Whether you use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Mozilla’s Firefox, Google Chrome, or Apple’s Safari, there are ways to do more with your Web browser.  Here are some of the extensions you can add to your Web browser so that you can get more done:

  • Clip to Evernote.  You can organize your legal research in an online research notebook like Evernote.  This enables you to organize research found on the Web and in your legal research databases in one place.  If you use Evernote for your research notebook, you can use the clipping extension to grab any text or Web page and save it into your research notebooks.  The extension works for all major Web browsers, as well as many portable devices.
  • http://www.evernote.com/about/download/web_clipper.php
  • Bluebook Citations.  CiteGenie and CiteStack are two extensions that do essentially the same thing.  As you identify legal research, you copy and paste the cited material from the case or legislation into your brief.  CiteGenie and CiteStack will apply the proper Bluebook formatting for you, enabling you to forget one more thing from law school!CiteGenie (free, Firefox only):  http://www.citegenie.com/
    CiteStack ($70 year, Chrome only):  http://www.citestack.com/
  • Jureeka.  This extension looks at every Web page you view.  If it finds a citation on the page, it converts the citation into a Web link, and will take you to a free version of the case, statute, or regulation when you click on it.  For Firefox and Chrome.http://jureeka.blogspot.com/
  • IE Tab.  When you visit a Web site, like the Montana Supreme Court’s opinion database, that doesn’t work well with Web browsers other than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, you can use IE Tab from within Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome to emulate the IE experience.  It loads the functionality of Internet Explorer into your Firefox or Chrome window, so you don’t have to open up a separate browser.
    IE Tab for Firefox:  https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/ie-tab/
    IE Tab for Chrome:  https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/hehijbfgiekmjfkfjpbkbammjbdenadd

Focus Your Expertise

A vital skill for becoming an expert legal researcher is to understand how to do advanced searching in Westlaw and LexisNexis.  The same skill is applicable on the Web and specifically when using Google.  You can do many of the same types of power searches in Google with just a little bit of effort.

Make sure you are using only the words you intend to use.  Put phrases or terms of art within quotation marks, so that they are not interpreted as separate words.  If you want to specifically exclude a word, put a minus sign in front of it.  The same goes for a word you want to ensure is included just as you typed it; put a plus sign in front of it.

“chris manos” -dallas +”state bar

            First, you can start by using the advanced search form.  It will provide you with a template so that you can focus your search without having to remember how Google works.  After a while, however, you will start to remember the little tricks that will save you time.  Like:

  •  Proximity searching.  If you want Google to only retrieve results where your two words or terms of art are near to one another, you can type:

“notice to vacate” AROUND(10) non-profit

Capitalize the word AROUND and, in parentheses, type in the number of words within which your two terms should occur.

  • Site-specific searching.  If you only want to search a specific site, you can tell Google to look just at that site’s domain – courts.mt.gov – or even to a specific folder on that site.  For example, find forms made available by the State Law Library of Montana by searching:

custody  site:http://courts.mt.gov/content/library/forms/

First, type the word site followed by a colon.  Then type in as much of the Web site as you want to focus on.  You could look at the whole state court site by typing:

custody  site:http://courts.mt.gov/

This search limitation is particularly useful on large document sites that have poor or non-existent search engines on their Web site.  Another good site for this is the Internal Revenue Service forms and publications folder:

“schedule c” site:http://www.irs.gov/formspubs/

Remember Yourself

Whether you are doing paper research or online legal research, you may find that you need to return to research you did in the past.  You can use research notebooks (Evernote, Microsoft OneNote, Growly Notes for Mac) to save your research as you find it.[4]  These virtual notebooks can be organized into folders as well as identified by keywords, so that a single research result can be placed into multiple folders.

Your Web browser makes history.  Most current Web browsers will search your recent Web history to suggest sites that you have visited before, based on what you are typing in to your location bar.  Google will remember your Web search history, so that you can actually see what you searched and whether you clicked on anything after completing the search.[5]

The more you can use your online tools – Web browsers, extensions, research notebooks – to speed up your research, the more time you will have to devote to other parts of your practice.  Legal research tends to take up less than 20% of most lawyers’ practice and the more you can maximize that time, the better.


[1]   Public Library of Law:  http://www.plol.org.  LexisOne.com:  http://www.lexisone.com

[2]   Google Scholar’s legal information:  http://scholar.google.com

[3]   Keycite Credit Card Access: http://creditcard.westlaw.com

[4]   Evernote is a free notebook for Windows, Mac and many portable devices:  http://www.evernote.com.  Microsoft’s OneNote comes as a standalone application but also as part of their Office suites:  http://www.microsoft.com/office/onenote/.  Growly Notes is a free Macintosh equivalent to OneNote:  http://www.growlybird.com/GrowlyBird/notes.html.

[5]   Google History is a personalized search history for which you need a free Google account:  http://www.google.com/history/

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David Whelan
I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.