Computer-Assisted Legal Research
Most judges, lawyers, and law librarians continue to rely on the traditional fee-based giants of online legal research—Lexis, Westlaw, and Loislaw (owned by New York-based Aspen Publishers, Inc., a subsidiary of Dutch publishing company Wolters Kluwer). However, more law-related professionals are turning to free Internet sites to conduct their legal research. A number of Web sites now provide free access to a variety of legal materials that include federal and state case law, codes and regulations, treatises, law reviews, scholarly articles, mainstream news stories, as well as legal forms, public records, and attorney directories.
Examples of Internet sites that provide free access to at least some of these legal resources are numerous, though the depth and breadth of coverage offered by each site varies. Among the myriad of such providers, FindLaw generally remains the benchmark for comprehensive quality. Many law school Internet sites also provide free access to a wide variety of information. One such example is the Legal Information Institute, a site maintained by Cornell Law School (www.law.cornell.edu). This site provides a range of primary and secondary source materials, as well as directories to locate additional information on the Web.
FindLaw provides multiple channels to access information from its portal and caters the information to specific types of end users. These include channels for legal professionals, students, businesses, and the public. Material specific to these targeted audiences is made available as well as resources for all users, such as cases, codes, articles, and guides. Within each channel users can drill down to the area of law that interests them.
For example, students can look at outlines and examinations for a variety of legal courses, view employment opportunities, or learn about study skills. Business people can gain insights into starting a business, review different types of business organizations, and look into bankruptcy provisions. For the general public, topics include employment, immigration, personal injury, education, estate planning, and real estate law. FindLaw also continues to provide an excellent federal case law database that is searchable by title, citation, and full text. All cases from U.S. Reports from 1893 to the present are included.
While boatloads of legal information can now be obtained on the Internet free of charge, the information typically consists of unanalyzed, non-value-added material such as primary-source documents stripped of the editorial enhancements provided by pay services. Such enhancements include case synopses (editorially created summaries of the procedural history and holding of a case), case headnotes (editorially created snapshots of each court ruling in a case), statutory annotations (editorially created indices listing every case that has interpreted or applied a particular statute), and legal citators (editorially created reference guides telling users whether a legal authority may still be cited in court as good law), among others. Because these editorial enhancements can be so valuable in making legal research more efficient and successful, most law-related professionals remain willing to pay significant subscriber and user fees to access them.