Conducting case law research is foundational to your work, no matter what level you are as a lawyer. After all, knowledge equals value. The more that you research cases and grow familiar with precedents and decisions, the more you can better advise clients and build winning strategies.
That’s why lawyers need access to reliable tools with which to conduct case law research. The most useful case law research tool enables you to winnow down queries quickly and accurately. It will provide a way to absorb content via a well-organized, easy-to-follow informational system that will also allow you to connect the dots, in terms of inter-related cases.
But while there’s a wide variety of case law research tools out there to explore and implement this method, what’s essential is to know which tools will be of most value for you.
What defines a good legal research tool for case law?
What are the best legal research tools for case law?
What are some free case law research tools?
Case law research tool features every lawyer needs
Case law research needs
While there are plenty of academic avenues for legal research, the working lawyer needs to put their findings to a specific use. You may be looking for information to bolster an argument for a particular case or want to see how previous cases have been decided before your firm takes on a new client. Some primary needs of legal research are:
Practicality greatly matters in case law research. While there are plenty of academic avenues for legal research, the working lawyer needs to put their findings to a specific use. You may be looking for information to bolster an ongoing litigation, or are seeing how previous cases have gone before your firm takes on a new client.
Some primary needs of legal research are:
Get a sense of what current law is on a specific subject. To be sure you’re on the right track, you need to know what you are looking for—is it a specific area of the law? Is it more trend-centered: how cases have been decided in a given period?
Among the areas to research include:
- Secondary sources: When researching a legal principle that’s new to you, or an unfamiliar area of the law, consider starting by examining secondary sources, such as law journals, practice guides, or legal encyclopedias. These are a good jumping-off point as they will cite important statutes and cases for you to subsequently peruse.
- Case law: You can search for case law through a variety of methods, such as an online legal research service. One relevant case will often lead to others, by following references in cases and in footnotes.
- Statutes and regulations: Dig into statutes and regs relevant to your legal issue. Finding an annotated version of them is particularly valuable—these will list important and relevant cases connected to the statute or regulation (for example, cases that cite the regulation in their decision).
Once you’ve done your research and gathered information from various case histories, how do you best organize this information? What’s the easiest and most effective way to assemble what you’ve learned, and which type of format works best for you?
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By now, if not before, determine whether the law you’re researching is “good” law—that is, that a court hasn’t invalidated it or struck it down.
Here’s where a citator is of great value. This legal research tool will list subsequent cases that have cited your source, along with any negative history, such as an overruling. Some citators, like Westlaw’s KeyCite, will flag or put an icon at the top of a given document if there’s an issue.
For example, a case with a red flag contains at least one point of law that is no longer good, a yellow flag denotes some negative treatment, but the case or administrative decision was not reversed or overruled, while one with a blue-striped flag warns that the case has been appealed to the Supreme Court or the U.S. Court of Appeals. A red and white striped flag has been overruled in part. KeyCite Overruled in Part is available exclusively on Westlaw Precision.
Developments in technology over the past few decades have made legal research faster, more current, and, in many cases, far more comprehensive.
A superior legal research tool is defined by a set of key attributes.
1 – Accuracy and comprehensiveness of content,
2 – Advanced technology that makes it easier and faster to find what you are looking for, and
3 – Editorially enhanced content that makes it easier for an attorney to search, validate, and interpret the law.
While, lawyers have a number of research tools at their disposal, Westlaw Precision, the newest version of Westlaw, provides access to a wide depth and breadth of legal information, advanced technology, and editorial enhancements that significantly enhance the speed and quality of research.
At the end of the day the best legal research tool should be one that is the most useful and practical for your specific needs and for your firm. While every legal research solution will tout their product as the best, most popular, etc., it’s best to conduct thorough competitive product research for yourself.
Carefully consider reviews of legal research tools
Reading actual customer reviews and weighing their opinions between the overall consensus is a smart way to conduct product research. Visit G2’s rating and review page for legal research software to find helpful comments from verified customers and data points to guide buying decisions.
Test drive one of the tools
Yet even customer reviews and product scoring metrics inevitably fall short to tell the whole story since subjectivity and diverse preferences are impossible to please all. So why not try for free to see what works best for you? Many products offer free trials, as does Westlaw Precision.
The following isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but it should give you a sense of the landscape—which free-to-access legal research tools are available, and what they offer.
- Google Scholar
- BAILII: For British and Irish case law
- WorldLII: For global research
- Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations: For understanding abbreviations
- Foreign Law Guide
That said, while free legal research services sound ideal, these services often have their limits compared to paid services. Some may be constrained in what they offer, in terms of case volume, depth of information, and/or timeliness.
The latter is particularly important. Many free services only spottily maintain and modify their content. Because of this, a user may not be 100% sure whether the case information on the site is completely up-to-date. In a worst-case example, say that a lawyer, using a free research site, turns up a case decision that’s relevant to their current assignment. Unfortunately, that decision recently has been overturned, but the free site has yet to reflect this. If the lawyer heads into a meeting armed with incomplete facts, it will not reflect well on them.
What does a lawyer want most from their research tools? As always, it boils down to features that serve practical needs. Is the research tool reliable? Is it easy to use? Are its search functions thorough, and its holdings up-to-date?
Ease of use
Even the most tech-savvy legal professionals may find it daunting to navigate between various legal case research programs and websites. Fear of getting lost “in the weeds” could deter lawyers from doing essential case research.
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A good case law research site will be user-friendly, with easy-to-follow guidelines and artificial intelligence prompts to answer queries.
Searches should be comprehensive yet manageable, putting an emphasis on the quality and relevance of the information retrieved, not simply returning “x” number of documents for a given query.
Quickly find on-point cases
Finding the most applicable cases is essential to any legal research effort. A good case law research tool enables a lawyer to quickly and easily build upon discoveries—once the lawyer finds a pertinent case, it should be intuitive for them to springboard into other documents.
[Video] Quickly uncover related cases.
For example, a quality legal search may return documents topped with headnotes that summarize the case’s central legal issues and provide links to relevant previous cases or regulations.
These headnotes may also be assigned an identifying number or tag based on the topic associated with that legal issue. Having both a summary and a classification enables a lawyer to quickly assess whether the document is of use, and, if it is, what other documents are connected to it.
Few things are permanently settled in the law—there’s always the chance that a regulation may be altered, removed, or struck down, or that a case ruling may get overturned. This is why timeliness is critical to legal research, and why lawyers need to know immediately should anything change affecting documents they’ve been researching.
Real-time updates from legal search tools are essential. One way that a system could benefit lawyers is that for every document accessed or marked by the user, the user will receive automatic updates as to any change in status—a filed appeal, for instance.
The most useful legal research tool is defined by your standard for research
An attorney may attempt to sway a judge or jury by conducting a process of elimination. They will list some possible scenarios related to the matter at hand, then point out the logical and obvious flaws in each except for the one that will prove their case.
For this strategy to succeed, lawyers must back their arguments up with the most compelling, cleanly-presented, and rock-solid legal research possible. This is why it’s essential for them to have the best case law research tools available, and well before they set foot in a courtroom or boardroom.
The fastest way to find what you need.
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