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Free Online Legal Research

This guide includes resources and tips to do online legal research for free.

At the Library

Although this guide focuses on free online sources for legal research, it is important to remember that a lot of research can be done for free by taking a trip to your nearest public law library.  You can also contact the law librarians for assistance or to make sure that the library has what you need.

A Message for Law Students

At some point in your legal career, you will need to do legal research without using Westlaw, Lexis, or Bloomberg.  You or your employer may not be able to afford those services, or you may have clients who will not pay for them.  You may only have access to certain content from those services, but need information outside of your subscription.  If you learn how to do legal research for free now, your future employers will thank you.

Benefits of Free Resources

  • Organization -- Because free resources are not all located in the same place, you must be more organized about your research from the start.  You have to think about what exactly you need and where you can find it.
  • Efficiency -- Westlaw and Lexis will often give you an overwhelming number of results when you are searching for something simple.  Free resources can sometimes direct you to only the most important or relevant information, or will enable you to more easily see which results are the most relevant.
  • Format -- There is a wealth of information contained in formats that are not supported by Westlaw and Lexis.  For example, you can find statistical data and audio or video of oral arguments, none of which is available on Westlaw or Lexis.

Keep This in Mind

  • The location of free online legal resources often varies by what type of resource you are looking for and what jurisdiction you need.  You will likely have to search in multiple places to find all of the pertinent information.

  • Shepardizing cases is difficult without using Lexis or Westlaw.  Free case law searches, such as Google Scholar and Ravel, often have ways to at least look at other cases that have cited to the case you are trying to Shepardize, but this will not identify cases that may be overruled by implication or find cases on the same issue that are conflicting but do not cite each other.

  • The older the information that you need is, the harder it will be to find online.  This is particularly true for federal materials prior to around 1995.

  • Many free online resources are not official sources, and so may contain errors.

Evaluating Online Resources

Sometimes, searching for information online can lead you to some questionable websites. Whenever you are doing research online, make sure to evaluate the information you find.  The following criteria can help you determine whether the information is reliable.

  • Accuracy -- The truthfulness and correctness of the information.  What evidence supports the information? Can the information be verified from another source?  Has it been reviewed or refereed?
  • Authority -- The source of the information.  Who wrote, published, or sponsored the information?  What are the author’s qualifications?  Who maintains the website (a university, government agency, or commercial organization)?
  • Objectivity -- The reason for providing the information.  Is the information designed to teach, sell, entertain, or persuade?  Is it fact, opinion, or propaganda?  Are there political, institutional, or personal biases?
  • Currency -- The timeliness of the information.  When was the information published or posted?  When was the website last updated?  Do you need the information to be current, or will older sources be sufficient?
  • Coverage -- The scope and relevance of the information.  Does the information help your research?  How much information about your topic is provided?  Who is the intended audience for the information?

If you have any questions, ask a reference librarian!