A paralegal with good research skills is worth their weight in gold. All too often, attorneys hire paralegals and do not realize that the paralegal took at least one course dedicated to legal research and writing and at least one course dedicated to computer-aided legal research (CALR). Even when attorneys know, they can be a little hesitant to hand over this monumentally important task.
Yet, if you are able to produce well-researched projects from your classes and take some initiative and use free online legal research options, you may be able to show your supervising attorney that you’re able to help with the research portion. In this post, you’re going to learn some free legal research options.
Options for Free Legal Research
You shouldn’t use the law office’s paid legal research account without permission. If you’re still in school, it’s likely that you have been given access to Lexis or WestLaw. It doesn’t cost you anything to use your school account, but there’s something you should know. Both of those research engines do cost money. A lot of it. If you use your supervising attorney’s account without permission, you could rack up hefty fees for researching, downloading, and printing. So, never ever use the firm account without first obtaining permission (and also knowing how to use it so that you can do the most good for the least amount of money).
With that being said, there are some great options available for you to conduct free legal research. The thing to keep in mind here is that none of the options are necessarily going to replace Lexis, WestLaw, and other paid options. The free options are good, but they’re not always going to be as up-to-date. I have three personal free legal research favorites:
My state court homepage.
Yes, you read that right. If you’re an experienced paralegal, you knew that was coming. For paralegal students, go find the website that is devoted to your state court. Then, look on the webpage’s navigation menu for legal research. In my state, it actually just says ‘Legal Research.’ You may have to look under a few different menus. From there, you’ll have free access to state laws. You’ll still need to understand how to use good search tactics. You might also find access to legal forms and other helpful items. Bookmark that page.
Public Library of Law.
The website for this free legal search engine is plol.org. You do have to register for an account, but the account is free and it’s free to use for research. You can search on case law, statutes, regulations, court rules, constitutions, and legal forms. Do be careful with legal forms that you find online. They may not be properly formatted for your state (even if they say that they are state specific). I like PLOL because it provides a lot of resources for free and they have a tutorial on the right side of their homepage. If you like to keep up with Supreme Court decisions, you can even grab their RSS feed.
Google Scholar has to be one of the best ways to do free research. As a professional legal writer, I still rely on it to find cases that I can work into copy that I prepare for legal websites. It’s fairly easy to use (although it’s helpful if you know and understand how to use Boolean). Pro tip: I rely on quotation marks when I’m researching on Google Scholar. If I were researching something related to oilfield workers’ compensation, you can see how that could bring back far too many results. Am I asking about oilfield workers or am I asking about workers’ compensation for people who work on an oilfield? When I put “workers’ compensation” in parenthesis, Google keeps that together as one phrase. When you go to scholar.google.com, you’ll see a search box. Under the search box you’ll see two radio buttons. It will default to “Articles (including patents).” To prepare for legal research, click the next radio button that says “Case law.” Then, type in your search terminology and press the search button. The next screen that comes up will be very similar to what you see in paid legal research engines. You can adjust your search on the left. You can even save what you find to your Google account. If you’re in a dedicated field of law, you could even set up a Google Alert. You would do this at the bottom left of the screen.
There Are Other Options Available
There are a lot of other great options out there. Just make sure that you never take one site as the be all and end all of free legal research. Remember, a lot of the free options won’t have a way for you to verify whether or not the case is still good (shepardizing a case). At the very least, free legal research options can put you on the right track and cut down the time it should take for you or your supervising attorney to use paid legal research accounts.
A final note, if you get the chance while you’re in school, contact WestLaw or Lexis (depending on who your school works with for legal research) and ask how you can become certified to use their products. Sometimes they’ll send a rep out to visit with your entire class to show you how to best use their search engine.
When you’re a new paralegal or even as a paralegal student, it can be hard to find primary authorities during the research phase of a case. Yet, that’s not always easy to do in some areas of law; and even if you find some things that you think might be primary authority, how do you know for sure? Computer-assisted legal research platforms, such as LexisNexis or WestLaw, aren’t cheap. The free resources may not always be up-to-date. So, how can you find primary authorities in a way that is time and cost efficient?
It may sound like I’m crazy, but if you want to find primary authorities for a subject that you find difficult to research or if you want to make sure that you’re mindful of your research time, start with secondary authorities.
It’s easy to find secondary authorities that are fairly up-to-date online. Think about articles published by bar associations (even the ABA and their various practice pages), and law reviews. If you’re close to a law library (yes, the public can access them), go and ask the law librarian to help you find the right American Jurisprudence (Am. Jur.) or ALR book you need for your subject.
So, we all know that when we’re looking to cite cases or law to support a specific position that we really want primary authorities. Why are secondary authorities so important? Because those law review articles, articles hosted by bar journals, American Jurisprudence volumes, and ALRs will first teach you more about what you need to know in a way that’s easier to understand than reading long sentences in a statute or case opinion. More importantly, they will cite the primary authorities upon which the writing is based. From there, you take those citations and determine if they will fit your needs. Secondary authorities give you a starting point to locate and review potential primary authorities.
Aside from knowing what constitutes a secondary authority, there’s one great thing you should remember about how to get started with locating primary authorities. Other than knowing the facts behind what you need, take some time to think about the underlying descriptors. For instance, if you’re researching divorce, know what it is, exactly, that you need to know. Is it about spousal support? If so, what kind? Pendente lite? Permanent? The state guidelines for determining support? List out other terms that your descriptor may be known as. Back to spousal support, sometimes it is called maintenance and sometimes it is still referred to as alimony.
Taking some time to think about what you’re actually looking for and what you need to know about it can help you (and the law librarian, if you go) find what you need as a secondary resource.
Document Your Methods
As you gain experience in legal research, finding primary authorities for what you need will become easier. This because you’ve gone through a lot of trial and error and learned how to ask the right questions. When you learn what works and when you find great resources, document your find. Just start a Word document or use OneNote to make a list of your resources and the best ways to find certain types of information. You’ll be glad that you did.