It is surprising to me how many law students and solos are not familiar with Google Scholar! Although, it has its limitations, it is very user friendly. It does not require password access and it includes many resources that you cannot access through Westlaw or Lexis. From a cost effective standpoint, it would seem that free legal research tools would always beat out a fee based research database for legal research. Especially for the new solo establishing his or her practice, overhead must be a primary consideration.
If you are unfamiliar with Google Scholar, I highly recommend that you spend some time familiarizing yourself with it. In the 2014 ABA TechReport, Google Scholar, (free) Casemaker and Fastcase (offered at no charge to members of many Bar associations) were listed as three of the most commonly accessed free resources.
As reported in that TechReport, research tools used by practitioners both fee based and free resources, Casemaker and Fastcase were the clear winners among solo practitioners. Google Scholar was running a close second. This, I suspect was due to the priority placed upon currency and accuracy for those two research tools giving the solo practitioner greater confidence in the result. Nevertheless, for other reasons, I believe you should not rule out Google Scholar as it has been continuously improved since its introduction in 2003 and it offers features missing from other resources. You can access the full ABA report at;
In 2014, the most frequently used free research tool at 38% was, unsurprisingly, Google. That was considerably less the case for solo practitioners (26%) than the largest firm practitioners (47%). Solos’ preferred free research tool was a state bar association offering (likely Casemaker or Fastcase) at 36%. Such tools were considerably less popular at the largest firms where just 6% of respondents chose them.
When establishing a solo practice, it would seem prudent to keep your expenditures as low as possible when starting your practice. So “free” would be my first choice.
Why would you pay for a service that you can obtain free? My guess would be that many of the solos just have not been exposed to Google Scholar, Casemaker or Fastcase the way that they are for Westlaw or Lexis during law school. For good reason, Westlaw and Lexis are viewed as more accurate and better professional resources than free resources by many of the legal research professors. It is provided at no charge to law students and, as a result, is more familiar and comfortable to use when first going solo. Also, the TechReport reports a higher satisfaction level among users of the fee based services.
Regardless of brand, the results showed very clearly that while lawyers may turn to free research tools first, they’re ultimately far more satisfied with fee-based tools. When asked to rate their satisfaction with various features of research tools, the following reported being “very satisfied” with the features of both free and fee-based tools:
Although, Google Scholar may have it drawbacks as may be apparent from the graph above, it has the most user friendly interface in my opinion and may be the reason Westlaw and Lexis have modified their platforms. And, you can find basic background information about the topic you are researching which may reduce the time to access a fee based resource. If your state Bar offers Casemaker or Fastcase, that could be the next step to refine and update the cases you may have identified on Google Scholar. The State Bar of Michigan webpage describes Casemaker which is the free legal resource that they make available to their members as follow;
The State Bar of Michigan has partnered with Casemaker to bring premium state and federal research materials to its membership. This service provides case law, constitution, and statutes for all 50 states, including the District of Columbia. In addition the service provides Michigan primary law, administrative code, state court rules, federal court rules, attorney general opinions, and the model civil jury instructions.
Members also have access to several advanced legal research tools, including a case citation tool that simultaneously runs a search for secondary and/or third part treatises and publications, and a tool capable of searching all customized books within any state and/or federal library in a single query.
In an effort to keep your overhead low, you might utilize online research options starting with Google Scholar, then switch to Casemaker or Fastcase (if offered as a member service for your state Bar). From there, you may be able to contact your law school reference librarian to follow up as necessary. Many law schools offer that service to their alums at no charge. Finally, there are many listservs associated with Bar associations where you can post queries after you have taken it as far as you can. There you will often find some of the experts in the field responding with case references, forms and other tips in advancing your client’s objectives that are not found in the books. And, they do not charge for that assistance as a professional courtesy to other members of the Bar. Check them out and you will find that you are not alone as a solo anymore with all the resources available today online.