Back in the dark ages when I started my firm, the only legal research options available were the library and a $600/month LEXIS subscription service, which actually had a cap on number of searches. Fast forward fifteen years and Lexis costs have declined considerably, though not as much as one might expect in light of technological advancements and the rise of free and low cost competitors. Still, according to the ABA’s most recent Technology Survey, more lawyers rely on free rather than fee legal research services.
The change is attributable in large part to the fact that many state bar associations now offer online legal research services free or at low cost as a benefit of membership. Fastcase and Casemaker dominate the free offerings, though at least one bar – the New York State bar – now offers Loislaw. As between Fastcase and Casemaker, Bob Ambrogi gives Fastcase the edge in this detailed review at Law Tech News. Still, Bob notes that both services suffer from one deficiency: there’s not equivalent of Shepards to allow a user to quickly determine whether a case remains good law. And while there are work-arounds, they can be time consuming.
If you don’t belong to one of the bar associations that makes Fastcase or Casemaker available free (you can see the run down here), you might be able to join one of those bars even if you’re not licensed to practice in that jurisdiction. But a far better deal is to join the Jenkins Law Library which for $150 per year offers the best of both worlds: access to Fastcase and 20 minutes of LEXIS a day. That way, if you’re researching a brief, you could compile all of your case results and in 20 minutes, zap them through Shepards on the Jenkins’ LEXIS account. Also, if you find cases that are important and you think you may use again, you can use some of these excellent tips from the Delaware Employment Law Blog to retain and organize your research.
Still, if you’re a regulatory attorney as I am, the low cost services won’t be of much use to you because they don’t carry the administrative agency decisions that are critical to a regulatory practice. And though most agencies now publish decisions online, there’s no reliable mechanism for searching them. At least with Lexis, there’s a compromise: the “specialty” libraries for topics like energy, employment, securities, etc…provide access to regulatory decisions and court cases for fairly reasonable rates – under $150- per month. And even in this age of free, I consider my Lexis account a bargain compared to the rates being charged when I started out.