Blend Your Legal Research

Swizzle Cup Stirring Blur by david at Morguefile.com

[originally published on Law.com, July 25, 2005.]

Cost-saving services complement West and LexisNexis

Thomson Corp.’s Westlaw and LexisNexis’ research services both offer indispensable tools and resources for any legal researcher. For a long time, they offered the only real options for current primary law. Now there are a number of mature legal research alternatives that can complement your Westlaw or LexisNexis subscriptions. They are not replacements, but you may save on your research costs by adding them to your mix. Some may even be free!

First, let’s dispel a persistent myth — that all recent case law is freely available on the Web. Many jurisdictions have improved case law access, both published and “unpublished,” by offering opinions on their Web sites. Even state courts, which as a group tend to lag behind federal courts in technology adoption, are succeeding in providing access to high court opinions, and often appellate court decisions as well.

For easy access to the free case law that is out there, your best option is to go to a site that aggregates as much of it as possible. For example, LexisNexis’ LexisOne allows searching by jurisdiction and combining multiple jurisdictions together. Thomson-Findlaw contains links to court Web sites that may have opinions on them, as well as a search against case summaries from federal appellate courts and California and New York state appellate courts.

But even the opinions provided by the courts do not represent the complete universe of opinions they publish, and opinions issued by trial courts are not consistently available even at the federal level.

ALTERNATIVE SERVICES

Enter the mid-tier legal research services. These systems provide a wide variety of tools and content that places them somewhere between free case law sites and Westlaw/LexisNexis. They includeFastcaseLoislaw.comVersusLaw and the bar association consortium product, Casemaker. What unites these products is inexpensive access to primary case and statutory law. In some cases, the service is free with a bar association membership.

Casemaker boasts more than 20 state bar associations using its product — and four more on the way — with each state bar paying for, and selecting, the jurisdictions they want included. As bar associations opt for Casemaker, its content is aggregated with the other bars’ content, creating a growing body of case law available to everyone in the consortium. Casemaker also incorporates rules, jury instructions, bar journals and statutes, depending on the jurisdiction.

DIRECT TO YOU

Lawyers can subscribe to the other services directly, and the options vary greatly from service to service. Fastcase, Loislaw, and VersusLaw all offer 50 state case law and statutes, and federal case law and statutes. But just as with Casemaker, a firm can access just the parts they want. VersusLaw lets you add just case law for as little as $11.95 a month. For $34.95 a month, you can also get statutes, tribal case law, court rules and regulations.

Similarly, Loislaw can be purchased at a national level or with a state plan (one state plus all federal), including statutory codes, court rules, regulations and published and unpublished opinions. Loislaw is also the front end of many of Aspen Publishers Inc.’s treatises, so you could select their “state and all federal” plan and supplement with their employment law treatise specific to your state.

Fastcase provides two plans, on a monthly or annual basis. The national appellate plan includes statutes, regulations, and Federal and state appellate case law. The premium plan, for $995 a year, adds district court and bankruptcy court opinions.

Bar associations have also chosen to create relationships outside of the Casemaker consortium, so check to see if your bar is working with one of these other products. For example, Florida Bar Association members can access Fastcase free; Arkansas bar members access VersusLaw free, and other state and local bars offer discounted access to one of the three.

WIDE, BUT DEPTH VARIES

Where cost is a motivator, all of these products have much to offer. There remain substantial differences with Westlaw and LexisNexis. The most significant is the opinion coverage. Case law for any given jurisdiction might only go back 10 years or 100. For example, Ohio Supreme Court opinions are available back to 1923 on Loislaw, 1950 on Fastcase and VersusLaw, and 1914 on Casemaker. But another jurisdiction will be completely different. United States Supreme Court reports are available since 1935 on Casemaker, 1923 on Loislaw and 1886 on VersusLaw.

The services have tried to add more functions to distinguish themselves, for example, to approximate the Westlaw KeyCite and LexisNexis Shepard’s citators. Loislaw users can use GlobalCite to find citing cases, and Fastcase’s search interface automatically notes how many cases cite the one being viewed. Loislaw’s LawWatch approximates the customization available through a Westlaw WestClip or a LexisNexis Eclipse, while VersusLaw offers a weekly e-mail called AdvanceLinks on particular substantive areas.

RESEARCH TOOLKIT

These services improve the legal research purchasing landscape by offering new options for lawyers. The mid-tier services discussed here do not match up to LexisNexis or Westlaw head-to-head. And they do not mean to. They offer a cost-effective way of having electronic case law access that is better than what’s available for free on the Internet, without the cost of the more powerful top two.

Adding one of these services to your firm’s legal research toolkit may mean savings if you can drop (or use less) comparable resources from Westlaw or LexisNexis, or cancel print titles that duplicate electronic ones. Instead of an all-or-nothing approach, consider wrapping your Casemaker or Loislaw subscription inside a Keycite or Shepard’s subscription, and throw in some of the analytical material from Westlaw and LexisNexis (or the Bureau of National Affairs or Commerce Clearing House, both of which have substantial online treatise collections) to complete your online legal research collection.

As legal research costs continue to increase, it is a terrific time to retool your legal research toolkit.

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