Free Websites for Legal Research (book excerpt)

Adapted and excerpted from Internet Legal Research on a Budget: Free and Low-Cost Resources for Lawyers by Carole A. Levitt and Judy K. Davis, published by the ABA Law Practice Division.

WEBSITES FOR GENERAL LEGAL RESEARCH

When conducting legal research, lawyers are usually searching for primary law, such as court opinions, statutes, and regulations. But, sometimes it is easier and quicker to begin your research project using secondary law, such as articles, sample plead­ings, and briefs, because these resources explain and analyze primary law and point you to the primary law relevant to your project. For that reason, we will begin this book discussing secondary law websites. We will also discuss websites that contain neither primary nor secondary law, but contain important pieces of the legal research process, such as court rules, jury verdicts, and expert witness directories.

ARTICLES

Journals and Magazines (General)

  • Before using any pay sites, visit your public library’s website to see if it pro­vides library card holders with free remote access to pay databases that include articles from journals, magazines, and newspapers. See also informa­tion about free (and pay) articles via Google Scholar in Chapter 6.
  • IngentaConnect  allows visitors to advance search (by keyword, author, publication, etc.) the full text of articles from over 12,000 professional and academic publications. The article abstract results can be viewed free of charge, but to read the full text of most articles, visitors must pay via credit card (prices vary, but tend to be quite expensive).
  • In addition, sometimes you can find a free article by simply entering the title as a phrase into a general search engine’s (e.g., Google or Yahoo!) search box.

Articles (Legal)

  • Washington & Lee Law School’s Current Law Journal Content (CLJC) site () ceased being updated May 13, 2011, but the site is still useful to search for older law review/law journal articles. The site offers tables of contents from almost 1,600 journals back to the year 2000 for most U.S. law reviews and back to 2005 for other English language law journals. You can view the table of contents by one or more of these options: publication year, country (or all countries), or a specific review/journal. You can also search for an article by author, title, journal name, or keywords, but you will only be searching the article’s citation (not the full text) as listed in the table of contents. Links to the full text of articles may be provided, but not always from a free source, and sometimes you will only be linked to a catalog record of the review/journal, and not to the actual article. Wildcard searching and Boolean searching are available (for search tips, see http://linkon.in/a3xGvR).
  • The ABA Legal Technology Resource Center provides a Google-powered search engine to keyword search (for free) full-text articles from 400 online law reviews and law journals (mostly U.S., but some foreign and international). The database also includes some academic papers and publications such as Congressional Research Service reports. Coverage dates and online availability of the full text of articles varies from publication to publication. Some of the journals are online-only journals. In addition, if you scroll down the page, you will find a list of journal titles that are not part of this searchable database but can be searched/browsed indi­vidually at each journal’s site (by clicking the title’s link).

COURT RULES

Links to federal and state local court rules can be found at LLRX:

FORMS: COURT, AGENCY, AND TRANSACTIONAL

Numerous federal agency forms can also be found at USA.gov . The forms are listed alphabetically by agency name. On the left-hand side of the page, you will find links to tax forms (federal and state). Using the search box at USA.gov, you can also keyword search state, local, and federal forms (both agency and court).

For access to over 2,000 generic and state-specific business and personal forms, from quitclaim deeds to employment agreements to wills and name change forms, see Publiclegalforms.com, a product of the Internet Legal Research Group (ILRG) site. You can browse by topic or enter a key­word into the search box on the home page and then select a state from the drop-down menu. You will be able to view a free preview of the form, but it won’t be usable because it has a watermark. If you decide the form is useful, you will need to pay to download their “Professional MS Word and PDF formatting” version (at $9.99 per form), which is editable and reusable.

The ’Lectric Law Library’s Forms Room also offers free law practice, business, and general forms, but read their “Extreme Caution” warning below, which should probably be heeded for any free forms site.

“Exercise Extreme Caution when using many of our free forms—or any legal material. While they may provide general ideas on format & content, validity requirements can and do vary greatly from state to state. Many MUST be Properly Modified for your own location and circumstances. (Hint: If in doubt it’s usually safer to include unneeded clauses than to leave out necessary ones. . . . but it’s even safer to consult a competent source or use current, state-specific ones like ours men­tioned below.)”

The “state-specific ones” noted above will link you to pay forms at Rocket Lawyer  or U.S. Legal Forms. Another popular pay form site is LegalZoom.

For court and transactional forms (free and pay), visit the LexisNexis Commu­nities Portal to access 6,000 free Matthew Bender forms that can be browsed by topic or by jurisdiction. The forms can also be key­word searched if you scroll down the page. To use the interactive HotDocs software to fill in the forms, you will need to set up a free account. (Note that HotDocs only works with Internet Explorer.) Once filled in, forms can be saved in either Word or WordPerfect. Click on the Pay Forms link if you don’t find the necessary form in the free section. The Pay Forms require you to purchase a subscription to an inter­active HotDocs forms package.

LawInfo provides access to about 100 free forms in categories like Business & Corporation; Wills & Estate Planning; Debt & Finance; Trademarks, Patents & Copyrights; Family Law; Real Estate & Landlord Tenant; as well as a few general forms. After you select a form and click Get Started, you will be asked to register with your e-mail address.

We used to use LLRX for links to federal, state, and local court forms, but many of the links no longer work, so it’s best to visit the specific official federal, state, or local court web site and click on their forms link or visit LexisNexis Communities Portal noted earlier and browse by jurisdiction.

To access federal tax forms and tax publications (back to 1864), visit the IRS website and choose Current Forms & Pubs, or Prior Year Forms & Pubs, or Accessible Forms & Pubs for those using assistive technology such as screen reading software, refreshable Braille displays, and voice recognition software. After selecting one of these three options, you can search by one keyword in the Title (such as airline), a Product Number (such as 15-A), or the Revision Date (enter a specific date or a year). You can re-sort the results by clicking on the column headings (Product Number, Title, Revision Date, or Posted Date). There is an Advanced Search link located to the right of the search box in the upper right-hand corner of the home page where you can enter one or more keywords or phrases into various search boxes. You can also limit the search to Forms, Instructions, or Publications (among other choices) or limit results to a specific File Format (e.g., PDF). Many forms can be filled in online and saved to your hard drive. For those forms that are not fillable, you can fill them in and save them to your hard drive if you own the full professional version of Adobe Acrobat, which allows you to “typewriter enable” most any document.

For links to states that have tax forms online for free, see the Federation of Tax Administrators’ site and click on a state (or Puerto Rico) from the map of the United States.

JURY INSTRUCTIONS

In 2007, Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen published an article, Reference from Coast to Coast: Jury Instructions Update, with links to publicly available electronic versions of state jury instructions. Although it hasn’t been updated, the links will often take you to current state jury instruction web pages.

JURY VERDICTS AND EXPERT WITNESSES

Researching verdicts and settlements of cases similar to your case might help you assess a case’s worth and also find experts.

MoreLaw.com provides a free jury verdicts and settlements database. To locate experts who have previously testified in cases similar to one that you are handling, search by keywords describing your case and limit the search to the expert field. To research verdicts/settlements, search by key­words describing your case and limit the search to the case description or verdict field. You can further limit any of your searches by state.

Law.com has a pay database of jury verdicts at VerdictSearch.com. Annual subscription prices are based on law firm size. Day passes are available to any practitioner for $349 to view up to 75 cases.

JuryVerdicts.com is maintained by The National Association of State Jury Verdict Publishers (NASJVP).

While the site does not offer a searchable database of verdicts, it links to the sites of its members that publish jury verdict summaries throughout the United States. You must follow the links to the publisher(s) that cover the jurisdiction(s) in which you’re searching. Fees to access summaries of the cases, jury verdicts, or awards in which the experts testified vary from publisher to publisher. Access to the site’s expert witness directory (culled from jury verdicts) is free. However, it is only brow­seable by the last names of experts and includes an area of expertise with a link to the jury verdict publisher so you can contact them to purchase a copy.

Jurispro.com allows you to search for an expert witness by name or by expertise to get background information about the expert. Most experts’ profiles include the expert’s photo, C.V., list of published articles, ref­erences, and a link to their website. Some have even placed an audio or video file on their profiles so you can listen to their voice or watch them in action to decide if you want to contact them.

SAMPLES OF PLEADINGS/BRIEFS/ORAL ARGUMENTS

Instead of drafting pleadings and writing briefs from scratch, consider searching for samples to speed these tasks along. Samples can also serve as research guides to the leading cases and statutes on the topic. Some courts, government agencies, profes­sional associations, and law firms offer access to case documents (some free and some for a fee) which, in turn, you can use as samples.

Check the website of your professional association to see if it posts any sample pleadings or has a brief bank. For example, The American Association for Justice provides its members with access to its AAJ Exchange and Litigation Packets service.

PACER’s federal court docket site includes complaints, answers, and sometimes briefs (each document is capped at a low cost of $3) from federal district, bank­ruptcy, and appellate court cases, and can be searched topically using the NOS code or by party name if you know of a case similar to your case.

Various state and local courts also provide access to these case documents. For instance, for a fee, the Los Angeles Superior Court offers access to case documents at its LA Court Online site.

The ABA Preview of U.S. Supreme Court Cases provides the current U.S. Supreme Court term’s merit and amicus briefs for free while FindLaw posts select merit and amicus briefs from 1999–2007. Oyez  provides free access to many of the Supreme Court’s oral arguments back to 1955, which can be accessed by legal issue or alphabetically by plaintiff (you must choose a year first).

Stanford Law School’s Securities Class Action Clearinghouse database contains copies of more than 42,800 com­plaints, briefs, filings, and other litigation-related materials filed in federal class action securities fraud lawsuits since 1995. You can search by litigant’s name, type of litigation (e.g., any, mutual fund, etc.), ticker symbol, and a host of other options.

For more information about free and low-cost legal research resources, check out Internet Legal Research on a Budget: Free and Low-Cost Resources for Lawyers by Carole A. Levitt and Judy K. Davis, published by the ABA Law Practice Division.

About Lindsay Dawson

Lindsay Dawson (@lawpracticetips) is Marketing Manager for Book Publishing at the ABA Law Practice Management Section. A full list of books published by the ABA Law Practice Management section can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/uHTFmO.

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