Online? Which Database to Use?
Of course, everything is online. While that statement is not actually true, most materials a practicing attorney are looking for can be found in a digital format. The questions are where to look and what resources are available?
COMPUTER-ASSISTED LEGAL RESEARCH
As students, lawyers in training are given unfettered access to LexisNexis and Westlaw. More profitable employers may have access to one or both of these for their new attorneys. The problem is that they can be expensive, especially if not researched efficiently and effectively. Librarians at Cooley teach one-credit advanced legal research courses on a number of topics. One course deals exclusively with advanced CALR (computer-assisted legal research) and goes through various vendors and explores the pros and cons of various subscriptions. They also cover various free or low-cost resources.
This is where things can get interesting. There are three great ways to access Michigan and Florida primary law that everyone needs to know about. Of course, this list is transferable to nearly every state in the country.
- The state court website will get you to opinions of at least the highest court and likely appellate courts as well. The Florida Supreme Court and Michigan Supreme Court both post opinions in a matter of hours after a case is released. They also allow you to search appellate court opinions. This is the easiest way to get current opinions.
- Fastcase is included with your state bar membership. This is true for both Florida and Michigan and a host of other states. See the Fastcase website for a complete list of local, state, and specialty bar associations offering access as part of their membership (currently over 80 groups). Fastcase is a low-cost online legal research database that gives users access to both primary and secondary legal information. Yes, state judicial opinions, statutes, and regulations as well as federal materials are easily searchable. The coverage of your subscription may vary depending on what your providing organization contracts for.
- Both the Michigan and Florida campus libraries offer limited public access Westlaw for free to our local alums. While not the full subscription like where you were a student, the public access terminals allow you to search digitally any of the materials we also subscribe to in print. The catch with this is that you must be on campus at one of our public terminals, but the availability of this type of tool is great. Such features as KeyCite and headnote searching are all still available as part of this institutional subscription. You should be prepared to either email or download research materials to a flash drive since there is not a public printer.
There are definitely other free resources that you can tap into such as Google Scholar and the Legal Information Institute, but my goal here is just to make you aware of online legal research. It should be an integral part of any work you do for a client and given the requirements by state bar associations that members be adept in using technology to support the work for their clients, online legal research is necessary for effective legal representation. Most importantly, there are very cost-effective resources available whose searching techniques can be easily learned.
Which database should you use? That will be entirely up to you, but it is helpful to harken back to your days as a student. Conduct research on the database that contains the types of materials you need access to and that you are the most comfortable with so you will be the best researcher for your client.