Friday, May 1, 2015

Alternative Legal Research Databases

When you think of online legal research, LexisAdvance, WestlawNext, or BloombergLaw probably spring to mind. With summer fast approaching, it may be worthwhile to explore some alternative legal research databases. As a general rule, no other service provides the depth and breadth of coverage of primary law as the three big names. Additionally, editorial enhancements, like case headnotes or statute annotations, are limited on other services. Similarly, these alternative services have minimal coverage of secondary sources (that means sources like American Jurisprudence 2d or Washington Practice are not available). Nevertheless, you may find that  these services provide sufficient access to primary sources of law in a cost-effective manner. At the very least, it does not hurt to occasionally survey the competition to the industry leaders.

A good starting point in exploring alternative legal research services is the Gallagher Guide to Low-Cost Legal Research Services on the Web. That guide focuses on Casemaker and VersusLaw.

CaseMaker logo
Casemaker partners with bar associations across the country to provide access to their members. The Washington State Bar Association allows students to register for a free account for academic use and the WSBA provides Casemaker to its members for free. Among the services that Casemaker provides is CaseCheck+, a limited citator service, akin to Shepard's or KeyCite, that indicates when case law has received negative treatment. Casemaker also offers a subscription to secondary materials published by the WSBA, which includes a variety of deskbooks on topics like appellate practice, civil procedure, and real property, to new attorneys for $1,200 a year. WSBA deskbooks are available online to students and other library users when accessed through the library's network (a link is provided on the library's website). Students who wish to access the deskbooks remotely should contact a reference librarian for login information.

VersusLaw, which is free to law students for academic use, provides access to state, federal, and tribal court decisions. Additionally, access to state and federal statutes and accompanying regulations is available under various subscription plans.

While Casemaker and VersusLaw are prototypical legal databases with functionality that should be familiar to users of BloombergLaw, LexisNexis, or Westlaw, the following services try to deliver legal research in innovative ways.

Casetext logo
Casetext is a free service that provides access to a large variety state and federal decisions; its coverage starts in 1925. Casetext users are encouraged to provide annotations to judicial decisions in order to identify or explain key points in the decision. Another notable feature is ReCite. ReCite examines how other courts have summarized or explained a judicial decision and compiles those descriptions for easy review in a pane alongside the decision. This may be a helpful way to gain a quick sense of a how principles from specific cases have been practically employed.

Mootus is another legal research product that is trying to build its knowledge database through user participation. Unlike the services previously discussed, Mootus does not provide access to case law and other primary law sources. Rather, Mootus allows users to post questions about legal issues, such as whether the First Amendment protects a person from criminal prosecution based on threats made via Twitter, and other users answer the question by providing quotations, citations, and annotations that support their stance. While not offering the resources of a typical legal research database, Mootus allows you to explore novel or unresolved legal issues, either as someone asking questions or providing answers. Gallagher Blogs covered Casetext and Mootus in April 2014.

Ravel Law visualization screenshot
Finally, Ravel Law is a legal research database that uses visualization to present search results in unique ways. Ravel Law tries to show the connections among cases and areas of the law in a way that is appealing and comprehensible. Ravel Law is free for law students, and subscriptions are available for attorneys. Ravel Law's visualization features provide an interesting way to see the impact of a judicial decision over time. See this previous Gallagher Blogs post for an in-depth discussion of Ravel Law.

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