3 Legal Research Sources and How to Use Them

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Legal research, the process of finding and retrieving information to support legal decision-making, is vital for qualified lawyers and legal students, according to online legal resource LexisNexis. Both of these groups should start their research using several credible secondary sources, then find primary sources to support this information. Discover more about leading credible legal research sources and how to use them.

A law student accesses online resources.

Westlaw: Award-Winning Online Legal Research Tool

According to its website, Westlaw is consistently ranked the most popular online legal research tool within the legal sector. This subscription-based service has already earned the Best of the National Law Journal survey and Best of Corporate Counsel awards in 2017.

Westlaw claims it has the most comprehensive searchable database of legal information, with cases, statutes, state regulations, pending bills, treatises, and other relevant documents all represented. Since it’s maintained online, Westlaw’s information is also more current than print sources. WestSearch, the only search engine designed for the legal profession, is part of Westlaw.

The Westlaw website explains that users can find documents by citations or titles. They can also find and browse Westlaw’s databases. Users can conduct natural language searches or filter their results using field or date restrictions, required or excluded terms, or alternate terms.

KeyCite, Westlaw’s citation research service, is an important part of this online resource. Using KeyCite, users can trace the history of legal cases, statutes, federal regulations, and administrative decisions. Citing references, including cases and secondary sources, are also retrievable via KeyCite. Law students learn that checking case history and finding other cases citing it confirms whether a case is “good law.” Only once this is confirmed are cases valuable for legal students building their arguments.

Westlaw is accessible via its website and a companion app, allowing lawyers and law students to conduct legal research anywhere they have an internet connection.

LexisNexis: Westlaw’s Powerful Traditional Rival

LexisNexis has traditionally been Westlaw’s greatest competitor. The two online legal research resources make no secret of their rivalry, with LexisNexis noting 32 percent more legal professionals used its Lexis and Lexis Advance software between 2012 and 2016, while 24 percent fewer lawyers used Westlaw and Westlaw Next during the same period. LexisNexis also claims to have more enhanced information, the most current cases, and deeper jurisdictional data than its competitors.

In addition to Lexis and Lexis Advance, LexisNexis also offers LexisNexis Academic, which has more than 17,000 high-quality primary and secondary sources. Secondary sources are valuable, especially when commencing legal research, according to Brian Raphael of the USC Gould School of Law. However, according to the U.S. Library of Congress, although secondary sources can influence legal decisions, they do not have the binding authority of primary legal sources. That’s why, according to Raphael, legal researchers must consult primary sources to support the information they find in secondary sources.

Students at more than 2,000 subscribing American universities use LexisNexis Academic to find new and archived news content, state and federal legal sources — including all U.S. Supreme Court decisions made since 1790 — and details of more than 80 million businesses and 63 million businesspeople. LexisNexis Academic’s fill-in-the-blank search form and one-click Hot Topics links help students find the information they need quickly and easily. The Bibliographic Export tool helps students easily extract the information they need to cite their research sources.

LexisNexis has transactional and flat-rate pricing models. Subscribers can search the LexisNexis database by source, topic, or headnote. There’s also a guided search form, with recommended sources, and a Dot Command search for users who know the library and file names of their preferred sources.

Fastcase: Latest Online Legal Resource Breaks Duopoly

Fastcase has seemingly broken Westlaw and LexisNexis’s long-standing legal research firm duopoly, according to its press release published in March 2017. The press release cited the most recent Clio user survey, which found that 20.35 percent of the 2,100 legal professionals surveyed cited Fastcase as their favorite legal research tool. While this was slightly less than the 20.58 percent who preferred Westlaw, it was better than the 20.21 percent of respondents preferring LexisNexis. It also significantly outranked other sources including Google Scholar and Casemaker.

“There’s no ‘big two’ in legal research anymore,” said Fastcase chief executive officer Ed Walters in his company’s press release. “From now on, it’s the big three – and Fastcase is still growing.”

While the press release conceded that Clio users may have a natural preference for Fastcase, as the two companies have an integration agreement, the results do show Fastcase is making traction within the online legal resource space. According to the press release, 28 state bar associations and dozens of voluntary bar associations offer Fastcase free to their members. Its mobile app has also earned praise and awards, including being named one of Engadget’s Top 5 Research Apps to Survive Law School and Pass the Bar in 2016.

Fastcase has a simple search, which lets users access cases they already know about, and an advanced caselaw search option, with keyword, natural language, and citation lookup search functionality, according to the Fastcase User Guide. The keyword search accepts Boolean operators for more refined search results. Fastcase assigns a relevance score between 0 and 100 percent, helping users find the best documents for their needs. The tag cloud can guide users toward new terms to refine their search or take them in another direction.

Search terms are highlighted in documents to help users find relevant information at a glance. The “most relevant paragraph” icon also takes viewers to the section Fastcase believes is most significant considering the user’s search.

Users unsure where to start can use Outline View mode to browse codes, court rules, constitutions, regulations, and other legal documents.
Fastcase also lets users track their legal research time and record documents during the research process for easier organization, according to the Fastcase press release.

A master’s in law will help you hone your legal research skills. Earn this degree while pursuing your career when you enroll in the University of Southern California Online Master of Laws (LL.M.) program. Visit USC Gould School of Law online to learn more about this unique online legal degree.

Recommended Reading: 

How to do Legal Research in Law School
Thomson Reuters Westlaw
Westlaw Reviews
Natural Language Searches
Appellate Court
LexisNexis® Academic
LexisNexis® Supply Schedule Information
Searching the LexisNexis® Research Services
Now it’s the Big Three in Legal Research
Starting Points to Begin Your Legal Research
Guide to Secondary Legal Resources