June 2018

Free online legal research options robust and growing

Ever face the task of conducting online legal research and confront a pay wall, or a wall that doesn’t let you move forward without a subscription?

Doing it can be difficult, but on the ABA-sponsored webinar, “How to Conduct Free Legal Research Online,” Barbara Bavis, Bibliographic and Research Instruction Librarian for the Law Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., breaks down the many resources available. For free.

Bavis provides a general overview of the Law Library of Congress’ website and what’s available with the creation of an account using an email and password.

Here are some of Bavis’ go-to sites for free online legal research:

Law Library of Congress You can choose to use the Guide to Law Online, a legal portal of over 9,000 links to free legal and legislative resources; In Custodia Legis, the Law Library’s blog that contains a research guide based on the items the library gets the most inquiries for; and Law.gov, which can be a great starting point for free online legal research.

Legislative resources To research bills and resolutions, legislative history, public laws and United States Code, check the following websites:

  • Congress.gov contains bill texts and summaries as well as congressional records since 1998, member profiles since 1973, nominations since 1981 and appropriations tables since 1998. The site also links to founding documents, all of which can be downloaded to your personal files upon signing into the website.

  • GovInfo offers free online access to official federal government publications, public laws, congressional reports, U.S. Code, congressional records and hearings and Code of Federal Regulations, all made possible through the Government Publishing Office. This is a great tool for those doing any historical congressional research.

  • U.S. Code is prepared and published by the Office of Law Revision Counsel. Encompassing the 1994 U.S. Code to the present, Bavis calls this, “The best free resource for U.S. Code research.”

Judicial resources – To find judicial opinions, citators, records and briefs, check the following websites:

  • Google Scholar can be used to find U.S. Supreme Court opinions, U.S. Federal District, appellate, tax and bankruptcy court opinions; U.S. State Appellate and Supreme Court opinions, as well as scholarly articles, papers and reports. In addition, you can also research U.S. patents and the European Patent Office and World Intellectual Property Organization on Google Scholar.

  • Casetext is noted for its citing cases option and legalpad feature, which allows users to add quotes from Casetext primary source content (with legal citation) into a text editor.

  • Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute (LII) links to U.S. Supreme Court opinions, Federal Court of Appeals opinions, U.S. Code, U.S. Constitution, LII Supreme Court Bulletin Preview and Wex Legal Encyclopedia, “The closest thing to a free legal encyclopedia,” Bavis says.

  • Court Listener is operated by the Free Law Project, a nonprofit organization striving “to provide free access to primary legal material.” Bavis notes its citedby feature: open source and open access, which allows users bulk downloads of the cases on site; RECAP Archive, which contains documents from PACER and audio oral arguments for certain courts, mostly from 2013 to present.

  • FindLaw is one of the best options for Supreme Court case research, according to Bavis. On the home page you can search for summaries of opinions by topic and court as well as find links for court opinions, statutes and regulations by state.

  • Justia is a good resource for finding downloadable PDFs about case law, regulations, legal articles and more. Once you have created an account through Justia, you can annotate cases and save them to your personal files.

Executive resources Research regarding presidential papers and regulations can be made easier using the following websites:

  • The American Presidency Project provides executive orders, proclamations, presidential signing statements, public papers of the presidents, messages and papers of the presidents, State of the Union addresses and assorted documents related to elections since 1960.

  • Regulations.gov provides selected documents from the late 1800s to the present regarding proposed and final regulations, supporting and relating materials, notices, scientific and technical findings, guidance, adjudications and the Unified Agenda and Regulatory Plan.

Sheila Slocum Hollis, a partner at Duane Morris LLP in Washington, D.C., moderated this program, which was sponsored by the Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division and the Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress.

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