The Best Free Legal Research Tools

illustration of a magnifying glass looking at legal documents

Free legal research tools used to be a dream. High-quality legal research is a necessity for all law firms—after all, finding the right precedent or statute could give you the edge to win your case—but does it have to be expensive?

In the past, paid research platforms were the only choice, so we accepted legal research tools as a costly-but-necessary expense for law firms. Today, however, the landscape of the industry has changed dramatically, with numerous excellent free tools available online—making free legal research a viable option for law firms looking to allocate funds to other areas of their practice, without compromising the quality of their research.

The only catch? You have to know where to look.

Below, we’ve collected some of the best free legal research tools for law firms. Whether you want to add in new resources to you legal research portfolio or paid legal research is straining your firm’s budget, these free tools will help you present your best case—without the big financial investment.

7 Free legal search engines and databases

The combination of more legal resources being digitized and the development of new technologies means that there’s now an overwhelming amount of legal information that can be found online. The good news? Many of these legal research resources can be found online for free (If you want to really dive deep, browse this comprehensive resource for an in-depth listing of free legal research options.)

Below, we’ve curated seven of the best free search engines and databases help you sort through the information to find exactly what you need for your legal research:

1. Fastcase: For an online law library

As one of the largest online law libraries in the world, Fastcase provides online access to case law, statutes, regulations, constitutions, court rules, and law review articles—making legal research and analysis faster and easier.

And, thanks to an integration with Clio, using Fastcase makes it simple to accurately monitor the time you spend on legal research and keep your research well-ordered. Without ever having to leave Fastcase, the Clio integration allows you to:

  • Create Clio time entries for time spent on research
  • Save your results as case documents in Clio
  • Keep your research organized according to each case

While Fastcase offers a variety of paid desktop plans (you can try a free trial to test them out), their free mobile app is available for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone—and anyone with the app can access Fastcase’s comprehensive legal research database on the go, for free.

Fastcase also has the most member benefit deals with bar associations of any legal research provider. You may already have access through your bar dues.

2. CourtListener: For legal opinions

Sponsored by the Non-Profit Free Law Project, CourtListener is a legal research website featuring millions of legal opinions from federal and state courts. Search CourtListener by case name, topic, or citation—the data is all free to access and updated daily.

3. Caselaw Access Project: For book-published case law

As part of a mission to make all published US court decisions freely available to publish online, the Caselaw Access Project (CAP) offers free access to all official, book-published US case law—every volume designated as an official report of decisions by a court within the United States through June 2018 (Fun fact: The earliest case available is from 1658.). The 360 years of United States case law data was digitized from the collection of the Harvard Law Library.

4. FindLaw: For searchable Supreme Court decisions

Designed to make the law more accessible to all, FindLaw’s FindLaw for Legal Professionals division offers free online legal content including case law from state and federal courts, case summaries, statutes, and legal news.

FindLaw also offers a browsable, searchable database of US Supreme Court decisions since 1760. Browse Supreme Court opinions by year and US Reports volume number, or search by party name, case title, citation, full text, and docket number. FindLaw also features an archive of Supreme Court opinion summaries since the year 2000.

5. Legal Information Institute: For US law online and a legal encyclopedia

Legal Information Institutes (LII) are a global resource that offers open access to law knowledge. There are over 46 LII associations around the world that publish source law through their own search engines, providing freely accessible case laws, regulations, and statutes unique to those countries.

The Legal Information Institute (LII) at Cornell Law School provides access to most US laws online for free, making it a good resource when you need to find a statute or regulation, while also providing online access to legal materials like the:

  • Supreme Court Bulletin
  • State statutes by topic
  • US Code
  • Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (e-CFR)
  • Constitution
  • Federal Rules
  • Uniform Commercial Code
  • World law

Another free research resource hosted by LII is Wex—a free, community-built legal dictionary and legal encyclopedia created and edited by legal experts.

6. Casetext and ROSS: For AI assistance

Technically, number six on this list isn’t free, but low-cost artificial intelligence-powered options for legal research can make a huge difference for your bottom line. Powered by AI to help you conduct legal research better and faster, Casetext’s search finds you cases and other authorities on the same facts, legal issues, and jurisdiction as your matter.

The process is simple: Drag and drop a brief or complaint, and Casetext’s artificial intelligence search, CARA, finds relevant cases—whether to enhance your research for your own drafts, or to check for missing or omitted cases within opposing council’s briefs and complaints. The practice is even smoother via Casetext’s Clio integration, which lets you send a document from Clio to CARA in a single click.

Casetext’s AI search is a paid-but-low-cost option for legal research—though you can try for free with a 14-day trial.

A paid subscription to ROSS Intelligence is another way to leverage AI to enhance your legal research. Ross’s AI-powered tool lets you focus your research by emphasizing the unique facts of your case, and helps you identify cases with the same procedural posture presented in your case, plus much more.

7. Justia: For the latest summaries sent straight to you

Research case law, codes, statutes, regulations, and articles related to federal and state cases with Justia’s extensive, free database.

And, for staying effortlessly well-informed on specific practice areas, Justia will send the latest straight to your inbox with an array of free newsletters ranging from daily summaries of opinions from all federal appellate courts and all 50 state supreme courts to weekly summaries of opinions in certain practice areas.

Beyond legal databases: Other free research resources

As valuable as legal databases are for your case research, there are also other alternative sources where you can find information and resources to support your legal research. Below, we offer a few free and cost-effective options for help build your case.

1. Primary sources: For going straight to the source

Sometimes, the easiest way to get the information you need is to be direct. You can find many case law and court documents online for free. Legislatures and courts are publishing their own materials, which are sometimes available online as downloadable PDFs—a convenience that until recently has never existed. However, keep in mind that some online versions are not considered “official” and can be refuted by the print version, even though they come from the same source.

Here are some resources you can access directly online:

Keep in mind, however, that while this information might be easy to access through primary sources, you’ll likely miss out on the advances search functions or analysis features that you’d find with legal search engines and databases.

Also, older legal information may not be available online yet. In this situation, visiting a library may be helpful as you will be able to find archived legal information that is unavailable elsewhere. Also, you may find potential collaborators in your colleagues (and the librarians) who will be researching there as well. These collaborators will be a great source for information on what arguments worked in the past, and may help you find local knowledge you might not be able to uncover yourself.

If you are a member of a bar association, you should also make full use of the resources available to you through your member benefits, such as:

  • Courthouses
  • Law schools
  • Bar Association headquarters
2. Legal blogs: For keeping up-to-date

One of the best ways to become a more efficient legal researcher is to stay ahead of the game. The best way to do that? Maintain your subject matter competency by keeping up-to-date on the latest developments in your practice area by regularly reading legal journals and legal blogs.

A great place to find the best of the best when it comes to legal blogs is through the American Bar Association (ABA)’s annual list, which started in 2007 as the Blawg 100 list of blogs, and has evolved into the Web 100 list of favorite law blogs, podcasts, tweeters, and web tools—a.k.a. a list of the best free law-focused resources and people to follow.

LexBlog—an online network of over 22,000 legal bloggers—is a hub of the latest commentary on the law. Sorting blogs by channels, LexBlog makes it easy to find and subscribe to legal blogs that focus on your specific area of law.

The direct research benefit of staying in the loop? By maintaining subject-matter competency, you’ll already have certain cases and ideas in mind—so that when you’re presented with a case, you won’t be starting from scratch every time.

3. Google Scholar: For searching legal journals and published opinions

While not specifically tailored to legal research, Google Scholar allows you to broadly search and access scholarly literature—which means it’s an effective, free way to find legal documents like patents, legal opinions, legal journals, and articles.

Want the simplest way to search case law? On the Google Scholar main page, select the “Case Law” button under the search box to easily search case law, filtered by jurisdiction.

Conclusion

Conducting smart legal research that’s thorough, accurate, and time-effective makes a big difference to the success of your law firm—but it doesn’t have to be expensive.

Whether paid legal research platforms are out of the firm’s budget or you just want to find cost-effective ways to conduct thorough research for your cases, today’s free legal research resources help you be more efficient so you can serve your clients more effectively—and stay a step ahead of the competition.

Categorized in: Business

Get key data insights to drive law firm success

Learn what makes today's legal consumer hire and recommend you (and much more) in the 2018 Legal Trends Report.

Get Your Free Copy