There’s a weird paradox in legal research. Many documents—cases, statutes, journal articles—are freely available online. Cases and statutes are in the public domain, and most law reviews distribute their articles at no charge on platforms like SSRN, Bepress, and their own websites. But somehow legal research remains expensive, sometimes insanely so: lawyers pay hundreds of dollars (or more) each month to access Westlaw or Lexis—and then they pay again to download or print a document, read a journal article, Shepardize a case, or do any number of other routine research tasks. Lawyers and their clients will pay, if they can afford to, while Westlaw and Lexis happily clear $8 billion in annual revenue.
This paradox is especially strange to recent law school graduates who grew up with the internet. Imagine if Google charged a subscription fee and, on top of that, charged again each time you clicked a link in a page of search results. It would fail, of course. So why is this tolerable in the legal world?
To some, it’s not so tolerable. Several nonprofit projects—like Cornell’s LII, CourtListener, and Public.Resource.Org—aim to bring legal information to the public at no charge. And some companies are trying to build business models on the same idea—for instance, there’s Casetext, whose Google-inspired mission is “to make all the world’s laws free and understandable.”
But Westlaw and Lexis remain indispensable for most practicing lawyers for at least two reasons. First, their databases are comprehensive. Lawyers can’t afford to miss key cases, especially if their opponents might find them. Second, they’ve built tools to sift through the expanses of legal information and to help lawyers figure out which documents are still authoritative. When you read a court opinion, it’s impossible to tell from the text alone whether the holding is still good law. It might have been overruled or distinguished, and you’d never know unless you could find and evaluate each citing reference.
The value of Westlaw and Lexis is that they help lawyers locate the right legal materials—even when those materials are available for free somewhere else. Many lawyers don’t have the time or skills to comb the web for free copies of the documents they need. It’s usually more efficient to pay for access and pass on the cost to the client. That’s fine in some cases, but it’s a problem for equal justice: wealthy clients can afford to pay, while legal help becomes less accessible to those who need it most.
When I was in law school, I built a free app to make legal research on Westlaw and Lexis easier and faster. It’s called Bestlaw. It adds features like an automatic Bluebook citation generator, clickable tables of contents, and a clean, readable view. Since it launched, over 16,000 attorneys and students have used it to enhance almost six million legal documents.
Now, I’m excited to launch a new version for practicing attorneys called Bestlaw Pro (most of which I built while procrastinating on studying for the California bar exam). For $5 per month, it gives free printing, free downloading, and free access to secondary sources. It’s one attempt to solve the problem described above: you can use Westlaw or Lexis to find the right materials, and then you can use Bestlaw to open them on the web to avoid the extra fees. You could do this without Bestlaw, of course. For each item you find on Westlaw or Lexis, you could Google around until you find a free version. But that quickly becomes tedious and time-consuming. Bestlaw automates this process, making the research process faster and cheaper. Here’s a quick video showing how it works:
Likewise, Bestlaw eliminates the cost of downloading and printing cases. Instead of printing a case through Westlaw or Lexis, you can click a button in the Bestlaw toolbar to automatically download a PDF of the case from Casetext. I chose the Casetext for several reasons: most cases are available in its database, it publishes cases online for free, and its PDFs are nicely formatted with beautiful typography. Again, you could do this without Bestlaw—you could navigate to Casetext, log in, search for the case, and generate the PDF. But Bestlaw speeds up this process substantially, letting you get to the PDF with a single click.
The normal version of Bestlaw will stay free. My hope is that the paid version, Bestlaw Pro, will make legal research easier and more affordable for practicing lawyers. We have a long way to go before the law is online in a usable, accessible, comprehensive way—but hopefully this is a step in that direction.