Doing Legal Research Online—Free

Public Library of Law pools many resources in a new tool for nonlawyers.

The Public Library of Law
By + More

In law school, aspiring attorneys learn how to construct complex queries using Boolean logic. Until recently, they needed that skill to search massive, expensive databases of laws and court cases. Then along came Google, with its breakthrough in simple Web search.

Google used the shared wisdom of the Web to make searching more effective: What do other Web users think is important? To which authoritative sites do other Web pages link?

Turns out that law, much like the Web, lends itself to Google-like link analysis. "The law has this beautiful information architecture," says Ed Walters, a founder of Fastcase, a fast-growing online service.

Fastcase exploits the links between cases to help lawyers navigate court precedents. "Citation analysis" is a key to Fastcase, which offers new searching tools in a legal database that's also cheaper than longtime stalwarts Westlaw and LexisNexis.

This month, the success of Fastcase gave rise to a free version that offers legal data to lawyers and nonlawyers alike: Public Library of Law. The site offers a Google-like search field that scans an array of legal resources, including all U.S. Supreme Court cases, Circuit Court cases back to 1950, statutes from all 50 states, regulations from selected states, and state appellate court cases back to 1997.

Much of what the new site offers was already available via free government websites. PLOL simply takes your query to sites where, for example, states have posted their laws and regulations. But it pulls the disparate sources together into what Walters calls the most comprehensive source of free legal research on the Web.

The court cases come from Fastcase, started eight years ago, where workers have keyed in decisions to build a proprietary database. But Walters and his team recently contributed 1.8 million pages of federal cases to a nonprofit site, Public.Research.Org, that is building a free source of government-related data. Taxpayers pay for the courts to reach their decisions and have had to pay legal publishers to get access to those decisions. "We pay for it twice," Walter says.

Other free sites worth checking out take different approaches to legal research. They include FindLaw.com, which compiles and outlines sources by topic, such as "defective and dangerous products." A joint effort of several universities, atlaw.com offers Google-like searches of U.S. Supreme Court and Circuit Court cases, as well as the federal code, that might turn up different results than does PLOL.

None of the free services offer the depth of sources, help, and assistance of Westlaw, LexisNexis, or even PLOL's pay sibling, Fastcase. "PLOL lacks the bells, whistles and red flags of Fastcase and other commercial research services," writes attorney Robert Ambrogi on his Lawsites blog. "But for simple, bare-bones research, you can't beat the price."

Ads help pay the freight on PLOL, which is also a loss leader for fastcase.com. Search results on the free site mention how many other cases—typically hundreds—might be germane and are available through Fastcase, where monthly rates start at $65. The PLOL results also get listed by relevance, indicating how important key words are to their content. But Fastcase offers numerous other benefits, including that Google-like link analysis.