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. 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.