Internet Legal Research on a Budget

This month I chose to write a brief book review of an extremely useful new book – Internet Legal Research on a Budget: Free and Low-cost Resources for Lawyers by Carole A Levitt and Judy K. Davis (2014, 321 pages, $89.95USD). Published by the Law Practice Division of the American Bar Association, the main focus of the book is on United States law. However several of the chapters, such as that on Foreign, International and Comparative Law, could be relevant for any legal practice. I am reviewing the print edition of the work and cite to it, but an ebook version should be released soon.

Carole Levitt, whom I have known since we were both law librarians in Chicago, has gone on to develop her own business, Internet for Lawyers, delivering CLE seminars on using free and low-cost Internet web resources to do legal research. Her co-author, Judy Davis, is a law librarian at the University of Southern California. Both of them are extremely well qualified to write this book, having had careers both as lawyers and as law librarians.

In the Introduction the authors state that their “book was written to help lawyers quickly find reliable free (or low-cost) resources online and to learn to use the resources effectively…” (p. xviii) They also answer the question “Is free always best?” by saying “that price is a major consideration when deciding between alternative research resources–and we all agree that all other things being equal, free is better. That said we do make note of pay databases when they have more useful features than free sites. Sometimes it makes sense to pay for data—especially if the pay databases have something the free ones are lacking…” (p. xix) The book is current with its URLs accurate up to March of 2014 (p. xx).

The book is divided into seven parts covering Websites for General Research, Legal Portals and Directories, Case Law Databases, Bar Association Free Member-Benefit Databases, Researching Legislation, Additional Research Sources and Cite-Checking. The authors state that “we only show you the best sites. We begin each chapter with the most useful or comprehensive site for a specific topic and then discuss a few alternative sites. We include tips about the most useful aspect of each site (content and functionality) and let you know if there are any hidden functions.” (p. xx)

I found the introductory descriptions at the beginning of the parts and of the chapters within them to be clear and useful. For example at the beginning of Part II, Legal Portals and Directories, you will find a succinct discussion of the distinctions between a portal and a directory and how they differ from search engines (p. 31), followed by a list of six criteria you should use to assess their quality (p. 32-33). Then the authors walk you through how they did a test on one of the legal portals that met their qualifications. The rest of part II consists of detailed introductions to specific portals and directories.

Another good example of introductory text can be found at the beginning of Chapter 14 on Foreign, International and Comparative Law Resources where you will find short and clear definitions of each of the above categories. However I think that the definition of foreign law as “the national or internal law of any individual nation except the United States” (p. 235) might be misleading to someone new to this area of law. Perhaps a better way of defining it would be to use a country neutral definition such as the one I found in Wikiquotes: “Foreign law is law referenced or cited by a court that comes from a country other than that in which the court sits.” This chapter goes on to describe and illustrate several portals, directories and other sites that include useful material on the topic.

The book is filled with clearly written and helpful descriptive text and most parts are illustrated with screen shots annotated to show the specific features of each site. One example of this can be found in Chapter 7, Free Governmental Online Case Law Databases. The first entry is for the Federal Digital System (FDsys) and describes the current content of the United States Courts Opinions Collection, which now includes “sixty-five courts (nine appellate courts, twenty-one district courts, and thirty-five bankruptcy courts). Two screen shots show the advanced search features and an example of search results. The related text describes how the results can be sorted, re-sorted and further narrowed. The rest of the book displays the same attention to detail, with numerous explanations, descriptions of content, screen shots, research advice and clearly labeled notes and caveats.

Whether you do a little or a lot of United States legal research, you will find this book to be extremely useful and informative. Robert J. Ambrogi summed it up in his Foreword: “the Internet today offers legal professionals seemingly unlimited sources of legal information—much of it free. But that abundance can be daunting. Think of Internet Legal Research on a Budget as a roadmap to the best of what is out there. It will guide you to what you need, and save you a buck along the way.” (p. xvi)

Editors note: This week’s Thursday Thinkpiece offers a PDF download with excerpts from Judy Davis and Carole Levitt‘s book.

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