How to Perform Online Legal Research Without Spending a Dime

When Carole first opened her office (aka the guest room in her house), she needed to do it on budget. Instead of buying a real desk and chair, she resorted to a folding table and a folding chair. She already had a laptop and a printer. If things didn’t work out, she told herself, she could just fold up the table and the chair and take her laptop and printer elsewhere. Starting out as a new lawyer, you might find yourself in a similar situation. But, what should you do about subscribing to a legal research system when you don’t really want to spend a dime? Fortunately, many free options are out there. And this applies to any lawyer looking to save money on a legal research system.

Free Legal Research Systems: Casemaker4 and Fastcase7

Every state bar association offers its members a free subscription to the legal research system of either Casemaker4 or Fastcase7. Some bar associations, such as Texas, even offer members a free subscription to both. So, if you are a member of your state bar association you already have a subscription, without spending a dime on it.

Their systems include primary law (case law, constitutions, and regulatory law) from the federal government and all 50 states, and much more. You can easily use either system when you’re away from your computer because they offer a free app version for your mobile device, in addition to the web-based version.

To set up a free account, visit your bar’s website. Now comes the hard part: finding the link to Casemaker4 or Fastcase7 on your bar’s website. Some bars display the link prominently on their home page, but others bury it one or two levels deep (try clicking “Members” or “Benefits” to uncover the Casemaker4 or Fastcase7 links). If you are in a non-mandatory state, where you don’t have to join the bar, you might have a free subscription through one of your other associations, such as AILA (American Immigration Lawyers Association), which offers Fastcase7 for free, or a county or city bar, such as the Santa Clara County Bar Association, which offers Casemaker4 for free.

Even if you like the fee-based legal research system you are already using, I’d suggest you sign up for a free Casemaker4 or Fastcase7 account to run identical searches on your current fee-based system and whichever system you have for free. You can then decide if the free system meets your needs. If it meets your needs, you’ll save some money by canceling your fee-based system. If it doesn’t meet your needs, you can keep your fee-based system. Both Casemaker4 and Fastcase7 have revamped their systems in the past year, adding more features and products. We’ll discuss some of these new features and products and also some of the older features and products you might not have been aware of.

Citators Included

Both systems provide a citator product (though not quite as robust as Lexis Advance, Westlaw Edge, or Bloomberg Law). Casemaker4 also offers another nifty citator product, CiteCheck, which allows you to upload a brief (or memo or any document with case citations) to automatically generate a report showing any subsequent negative treatment of each case. That way, you don’t have to cite check case by case.

Free Alerts: Casemaker4 and Fastcase 7

Lawyers need to stay up to date on issues in their practice area. Running a daily search to find new relevant documents, from cases and statutes to other types of documents, such as regulations, is an untenable task, but luckily, once you find useful documents, Casemaker4 will relieve you of this burden by running the searches for you via its Search Alert service. You can create a Search Alert based on search terms and jurisdictions that you select. To set up a Search Alert, click the “exclamation point in a circle” icon from the results list. Casemaker4 will run the search for you and send you an email with links to any new documents that match your criteria.

Casemaker4 also has two other types of alerts: Document Alerts and Case Digest. Document Alerts can be used when you want to be informed of any new development about a particular case or any document. To set up this alert, select one, multiple, or all documents from the results list and click the “exclamation point in a triangle” icon.

Case Digest is a service that sends you summaries of cases 24 hours after a court releases its decision. The Digest is based on practice areas that you select (there are fifty-seven), or based on courts, judges, or keywords that you select. Click the Case Digest tab on the navigation toolbar to set up this Alert service.

Fastcase7 only has one type of alert. It’s the same as Casemaker4’s Search Alert, but it is limited to case law only. To set up a Fastcase7 alert, look for the bell icon to the right of the search box on the result list page and click it.

How to Share Documents with Non-Casemaker4 or Fastcase7 Subscribers

Fastcase7’s Cloud Linking is a free tool that allows you to upload your PDF or Word document to create public hyperlinks for all case citations in your document. After Fastcase7 has worked its magic, it returns the document for download, which include public hyperlinks. Anyone you send the document to, from co-counsel to a client, etc. is able to click your hyperlinks to read the case you’ve cited, even non-Fastcase7 subscribers. Casemaker4 calls their public hyperlink a “shareable link” but instead of uploading a document that includes citations, you would click a “Link” icon as you are reading a document. This creates a shareable link for just that one document that you can copy and paste into an email to send to anyone (even a non-subscriber) to read the full text of the case.

Google Scholar: Free Case Law

Many of you began practicing before Casemaker4 and Fastcase7 existed or before your bar offered them for free, so you might have discovered that Google Scholar offered free case law and began to use Scholar. But, are you still using Google Scholar to search case law for free even though you have free access to Casemaker4 and Fastcase7? If your answer is yes, then I’d suggest you stop that right now, unless you are just using it for a quick case lookup and promise to update your research on Casemaker4 or Fastcase7, which you already have free access to (or a fee-based system). The problem with Google Scholar is that it offers no documentation as to how to conduct searches or how quickly new opinions are uploaded to its system (it could be monthly). Meanwhile, Casemaker4 and Fastcase7 (and all the other fee-based systems we’ve noted) offer extensive search documentation and upload new cases as soon as they are released by the court, not to mention offering a complete legal research system (with case law, statutes, regulations, etc.).

Google Scholar: Free Articles

I do recommend using Google Scholar to search for scholarly articles (both law and non-law related) for free. Finding just the right law review or journal article is often a shortcut to legal research, because article authors synthesize the legal issues for you and point you to leading cases. You’ll need to update the cases cited in the articles, but that’s easier than conducting a laborious case law search from scratch. Finding just the right non-law related article is often useful when you need to learn about something other than “the law” to help you with a case. For instance, a personal injury lawyer may need access to scholarly articles to learn about a client’s medical injury. Or a lawyer who needs to locate an expert witness in a non-law area can run a literature search through Google Scholar to find leading experts in the field.

Casemaker4 and Fastcase7 do not offer access to any non-law related articles. As to law-related articles, Casemaker4 offers articles for free, but mostly from bar magazines, not from scholarly law reviews and journals. Fastcase7 does not offer law-related articles for free; however, Fastcase7 offers free access to blog posts from LexBlog. Sometimes all you need is a blog post to learn about a topic instead of a full-blown article.

Google Scholar: Free Article Alerts

Google Scholar offers an alert service for articles just as Casemaker4 and Fastcase7 offers them for cases. Although Google Scholar also offers an alert service for case law, we tend not to use it because we don’t think Scholar’s case law database is updated often enough.

This article was just a brief overview of a few features and products of these three free legal research systems. For a step-by-step guide (with extensive annotated screenshots) on how to search these three legal research systems (plus hundreds of other free and low-cost legal research sites, apps, and blogs), see Internet Legal Research on a Budget: Free and Low-Cost Resources for Lawyers, 2nd edition, by Judy K. Davis and Carole A. Levitt, to be published by the Law Practice Division of the American Bar Association in May 2020.

About the Authors


Judy K. Davis (left; on Twitter @jd_jd_ca) is a senior law librarian and adjunct assistant professor of law at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. Carole A. Levitt (right; on Twitter @CAROLELEVITT) is the founder and president of Internet For Lawyers (www.netforlawyers.com) and vice president of CLEwebinars.com.

Send this to a friend