Tips for searching
When starting your research process, try to do as much legwork as possible using print resources and/or free internet sources. By consolidating much of your searching in free resources, you save the sometimes exorbitant cost of searching fee-based legal databases that might not always have quality search engines. Once you find a citation on point, then use one of the sources discussed above to locate it.
Make your search more effective by using Boolean search terms:
- AND: use between terms to return results that only contain both terms—i.e., drugs AND illegal search will return results that have something to do with an illegal search involving drugs
- OR: use to broaden a search — i.e., crime OR robbery - will return results that have both search terms in the result
- NOT: use to limit results to exclude irrelevant results — i.e., rico NOT puerto will remove any results for the island
- “” or ( ): searching in either quotations or parenthesis will instruct the search engine to only look for the full phrase, not the individual words contained therein — i.e., “John Quincy Adams” will only return results on the 6th president, not the 2nd.
- *: wildcard, add within a word that you are not sure how it will be spelled — i.e., La*rence will return both Lawrence and Laurence
- !: root expander, add to the end of a word to return results that have a variety of forms — i.e., contract! will return contract, contracts, contractual, contracting, etc.
Tips for choosing a database
Check with your state bar association to see which products are offered to members; you may be able to use one of the fee-based services
for free, or have the opportunity to purchase access at a savings. For example, the New York Bar Association offers NY materials on Fastcase free to its members, while the New Jersey Bar Association provides free access to the complete New Jersey law library on Fastcase. For practitioners in other jurisdictions, check out this recent blog posting listing all state bar associations and the resources they provide.
When deciding which database will be best suited to your needs, spend the time to evaluate exactly which sources are included in your subscription. There will always be some sort of list available on the product’s website that details the types of material, jurisdictions covered, and date range of the sources included in any database. This hint also applies to those who already have regular access to Lexis and/or Westlaw before selecting and searching in a certain database, click on the “i” icon next to the database name to determine whether or not it includes the type of material/date range you need
Continue learning about the databases mentioned here by monitoring legal technology blogs and publications. Try, for example, the ABA’s Legal Technology Resource Center, Law.com’s Law Technology News, or Robert Ambrogi’s LawSites.
The following is a list of some legal databases that are either low-cost or no-cost alternatives to the traditional legal database options:
- Offered primarily through state bar associations, Casemaker provides access to a wide collection of state and federal legal research resources including current and archived caselaw, statutes, court rules, regulations, and, for some jurisdictions, additional content such as attorney general’s opinions, ethics opinions and jury instructions.
- A new, free platform that includes all U.S. Supreme Court cases, federal circuit court cases from 1 F.2d, federal district court cases published in F.Supp. and F.Supp.2d from 1980, and Delaware cases published in A., A.2d, and A.3d from Volume 30 of Atlantic Reports. This database seeks to enable user-generated annotations and citator services.
- This site offers all opinions of the United States Supreme Court handed down since 1992, together with over 600 earlier decisions selected for their historic importance, over a decade of opinions of the New York Court of Appeals, and the full United States Code and Code of Federal Regulations. It also publishes important secondary sources: libraries in two important areas (legal ethics and social security) and a series of “topical” pages that serve as concise explanatory guides and Internet resource listings for roughly 100 areas of law.
- A comprehensive online law library with all federal cases going back to 1 U.S. 1, 1 F.2d 1, 1 F.Supp. 1, and B.R. 1, as well as state and appellate cases for all 50 states going back to 1950 or earlier, statutes, regulations, court rules, constitutions, access to a newspaper archive, legal forms, and a one-stop PACER search of federal filings through our content partners. - consult their scope of coverage here.. Fastcase also provides access to federal and state constitutions, statutes, and administrative codes. Individuals can subscribe for as little as $95 per month, but if you are a member of the New York State Bar Association or the New Jersey State Bar Association you are eligible to access certain content for free.
- A perennial favorite of law librarians, FDsys is a service of the U.S. Government Printing Office that provides free electronic access to a wealth of important information products produced by the Federal Government including legislative resources such as Titles 1-50 of the United States Code, public laws, Congressional publications including reports, hearings, and the Congressional Record; administrative resources including the Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Register, and executive documents such as the Compilation of Presidential Documents. A new initiative is posting PDF copies of federal district, appellate and Supreme Court opinions online - see here for more information and some sample tips for searching.
- Google Scholar allows you to search and read opinions for US state appellate and supreme court cases since 1950, US federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy courts since 1923 and US Supreme Court cases since 1791. Cases are cited in Bluebook format, include internal page numbers, and are cross-linked within the database. The service also crawls other free case law providers and provides links to cases on these sites. In addition to case law, Google scholar provides links to secondary sources, such as law reviews and journals. To search, go to Google Scholar and click on the "Legal opinions and journals" radio button before running a search.
- Another new legal search, analytics, and visualization platform which contains all Supreme Court case law and federal circuit court cases from 1925 for free, and for an additional cost district court cases from 1933 and state cases from 1950.