Features – Strategies for Online Legal Research: Determining the Best Way to Get What You Need

Diana Botluk is a Reference Librarian at the Judge Kathryn J. DuFour Law Library at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and is the author of the The Legal List: Research on the Internet . She teaches legal research at CAPCON , Catholic University Law School , and the University of Maryland . Take a class with Diana! Here’s how…

The Challenges to Creating a Successful Online Research Request

Steps One and Two in the Research Process

Lexis and Westlaw present a researcher with flexible search tools, allowing experienced information professionals to make the most of their online research talent. Using Lexis and Westlaw, researchers create search statements designed for maximum efficiency of time and effort. Searching the Web, on the other hand, can often be convoluted and results are often elusive.

The process of searching online, whether on Lexis, Westlaw, or a Web database, always begins with a research issue. Thus, the first step in any kind of online research, indeed in any research at all, is to understand the question being asked. What is the exact issue? Is it simply a topic based on a set of facts, or do you need some specific information? What do you already know about the question? Do you have data that may help narrow the search, limiting by date or name or some other specific?

Next, understand the desired results sought. Does the question ask for law review articles, or business data, or judicial opinions? Does it ask for an overview of literature on the topic, or a very specific result? For example, does the research call for locating all United States court cases about defamation of public figures, or are you just seeking the text of the New York Times v. Sullivan opinion?

Thus, the second step in online research is to have a fairly clear sense of the results being sought. This differs from already knowing the answer. If you already knew the answer, you wouldn’t have to do the research. Instead, the second step calls for an understanding of the types of information that’s out there, ready to be tapped. It calls for analyzing the content of the various databases and choosing one that suits the needs of the research. In other words, it calls for knowing where to look.

The first step in the online research project, understanding the issue, is the same no matter what system is used. However, the second step will be the point where the researcher begins to make decisions about where to do the research. A research professional will identify all the places where the answer is most likely to be found. It may be in a database on a Web site or on Lexis or Westlaw, or it may be in a book in the library. The more experienced a researcher is, the more likely she is to have this information in her head and at her fingertips.

  • Law librarians have always been good at networking, and have adapted that networking to new technology. Through the use of e-mail listserv lists such as LAW-LIB, law librarians share their experience and knowledge with one another. Thus, inexperienced researchers would be wise to join a list where they might communicate with more experienced researchers. Use Law Lists (http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/~llou/lawlists/info.html) to locate a list or two that are right for you!

However, less experienced researchers need not despair. There are catalogs and guides designed to assist researchers in knowing where to look. Both Lexis and Westlaw have hard copy database guides containing the contents of their systems. Additionally, researchers can determine contents online by searching or browsing either system.

Understanding contents on the overall Web is not as easy. When a researcher searches on Lexis and Westlaw, he is searching a controlled environment. It is easy to determine what is available because even if the content is furnished by another company or organization (such as DIALOG on Westlaw), Lexis or Westlaw controls the delivery of it. Thus, there is only one definitive place to look to determine content on each system.

On the Web, content is provided by everyone under the sun. Content providers range from the United States Government to my twelve year old son, and include all sorts of organizations and individuals in between. The content is provided from millions of computers all over the world, as opposed to two: one in Dayton, Ohio and the other in Eagan, Minnesota.. Thus, there is not one definitive place to look.

Although this makes a researcher’s job more challenging, it also makes it interesting and exciting. New resources are added to the Web every day. We truly have the world of information right at our fingertips, if only we know where to look. However, knowing where to look can sometimes be a seemingly overwhelming demand.

Step Three in the Research Process

The good news is that there are several guides available in both book format (click here for a list of hard copy resources) and online (click here for a list of Web resources) that assist the researcher in knowing where to go on the Web to locate certain types of information. None of these guides, however, is a definitive source. Since content can be provided by anyone, and contained on any computer functioning as a server, anywhere in the world, it is up to those who compile these guides to locate and include all the various sources of content. This is a daunting task, to say the least, and it is likely an impossible task for two reasons. First, the Web is volatile and constantly changing, meaning content is constantly being both added and removed. And, second, even if the Web were static, there are so many providers out there that it would be virtually impossible to find and include them all. That is why it behooves researchers to consult more than one guide when seeking Web based material.

So the second research step, understanding the results sought, flows into the third research step, choose where to conduct the search. In order to choose, the information professional identifies the databases containing the desired results. For example, let’s say we seek a printout of the classic United States Supreme Court case, New York Times v. Sullivan. We identify the Lexis file and the Westlaw database that contain United States Supreme Court cases. Then we identify databases on the world wide Web that contain United States Supreme Court cases in full text, for example at Findlaw and Cornell’s Legal Information Institute.

All else being equal, we now have several places to go to obtain the text of the opinion. But in most situations, all else will not be equal. There will be many other factors, besides simple availability, that will influence the researcher’s selection.

First of all, what will the research cost? Since everyone’s contract with information providers varies, I do not even dare make a generalization about the comparative cost of a simple search like this one on the overall Web versus Lexis or Westlaw. I cannot even say it will always be less expensive on the Web, since flat rate contracts for all services may rule out cost as a consideration.

Print Options

But there are other factors to consider, as well. What must the final research product look like? Is it really enough to print the plain vanilla text of the case, or does the patron want dual column print, or key numbers, or parallel cites, or anything else that might affect the choice of where to search? If key numbers are desired, we all know Westlaw is the only game in town. Lexis has introduced core terms to compete with the key number concept, but this feature has far to go before it becomes as pervasive as the key number system. Both Lexis and Westlaw provide a great deal of flexibility to the researcher in terms of printouts (or downloaded, faxed, or e-mailed delivery), with the ability to customize many of the print options. The overall Web simply does not offer anything near this yet.

Online Speed; Updating Results

Another factor that might influence the choice is speed. Again, this is another area where the choice depends on the individual researcher’s set-up. Only you can determine whether your connection to Lexis or Westlaw is remarkably faster than your connection to any other provider, or if it just does not seem to make that much difference.

Do you need to validate the results of the research once you have found it to determine whether it is still good law? In our New York Times v. Sullivan example, we do not need to validate. If that case were overruled, we would most likely have already heard about it on the news. But that is, by far, the exception rather than the rule. Thus, another factor in the decision of which system to use is whether that system provides a quick and easy means of validation. Lexis and Westlaw do, through Shepard’s and KeyCite, and the automatic updating of resources like statutory codes.

Most resources on the Web do not have easy means of updating and validating. Have you ever put yourself through the process of updating a United States Code section on the Web? It involves a process that takes you from the code section to the United States Code Classification Tables (in plain text, not hypertext) to the public laws. If you find a public law affecting the section, you must compare it to your U.S.C. section and make the changes yourself!

  • The United States Code that can be found on the Web is not as up-to-date as the versions found on Lexis or Westlaw. It can be updated on the Web, but not without some struggle. First, determine the publication date for the version of the code you’re using. Next, consult the U.S. Code Classification Tables (http://uscode.house.gov/uscct.htm) at the House Internet Law Library tables to determine if any public law has affected the section in question. Then access that public law at Thomas (http://thomas.loc.gov) or GPO Access (http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/nara005.html), and compare its text to the text of the code section, inserting the changes yourself .

Next, of course, the factors must be weighed against each other. If it is more expensive to use Lexis or Westlaw, but they are quicker and provide better delivery options than the Web, is it worth the extra cost to use them? Only individual budget considerations can answer this question.

The Web, or the Alternative?

Of course, these are the factors that influence the decision of which system to use when performing a simple search for a definite piece of information, like one specific Supreme Court case. It is easy to locate using any of the systems we have been discussing. But when the research question is more open-ended, such as a search for all public figure defamation cases in the United States, even more factors go into the determination of which system would be best to use.

First of all, do you need to run a search in more than one place? If you really need to look at ALL United States case law, then you are out of luck on the freely available Web sources. Not all courts have their cases online, and those that do have databases that span only a few years worth of time, and that are scattered all around the Web.

Even if all the case law you need to search does, in fact, exist on the Web, you will need to run several different searches on several different Web sites using several different search engines. This could take hours, or even days, depending on how many states you need to search, the speed of your connection, and your skill at mastering all the different search engines you will need to use.

Compare that to Lexis and Westlaw, where you can combine state laws into one or a few databases to suit your needs. These databases are far more complete, spanning back decades, if not centuries. But most of all, the search language used is uniform among databases on either system, so you really need to master only one.

It is this difference in search language that is one of the most compelling factors to be weighed in the determination of which system to use. I have always thought of Lexis and Westlaw as my instruments, finely constructed and tuned as are musical instruments to be played by the London Symphony Orchestra. After several years of honing our Lexis and Westlaw skills, legal information professional can play with the symphony. On the other hand, I believe many of us feel our Web searching skills make us ready for the middle school band. This is not without good reason. When we search on Lexis and Westlaw, we are using instruments worthy of the philharmonic. Web search engines, as they stand now, will not allow us to get past the high school band.

Lexis and Westlaw are power user friendly. The developers of Lexis and Westlaw understand the value of human input into a search on their systems. They have provided us with a sophisticated, flexible search language that allows us to maintain control over what we search. They respect our skills as power users, and realize that the combination of human input by an online research professional and a sophisticated search language yields the most efficient results, with the best signal noise ratio. Therefore, we are usually able to construct a search that brings us exactly the results we want.

Web Search Engines

Not so on the Web. Web search engines are built for people who do not know how to search. It’s as simple as that! They are designed so that the researcher relinquishes control of the search, with the expectation that the researcher doesn’t really know how to construct a sophisticated search, and therefore doesn’t really want control. Thus, the researcher types in a question and the search engine steps in and takes over, retrieving the answer to the question, if it’s out there, and three million other sites, most of which are totally irrelevant.

Web search engines have made a few strides in the past few years to provide more options to power users, but they are still nowhere near as functional as Lexis and Westlaw. At the same time, there are so many of them out there, and each one is just a little different. Thus, instead of mastering one or two powerful search languages to search databases that are more completely full of the information you seek, with the Web you are fumbling through many different search engines to search many databases that aren’t nearly as complete as those on Lexis and Westlaw.

Additionally, there are exceptions to the general rule that Web search engines do not allow as precise a search statement as Lexis or Westlaw. GPO Access has created an elaborate search scheme that is database specific. Most of its databases have a corresponding search form for a researcher to fill out. This effectively allows for field or segment searching combined with key word searching. Thus, researchers can limit by date and by the portion of the documents they wish to search through, just like they can on Lexis and Westlaw. However, most Web search engines have a long way to go before they provide researchers with this kind of flexibility and precision.

Using the Web for Legal Research?

So, is the Web good for anything? Of course it is! If the information sought is very specific and easily accessible, and it would cost less to use the Web, then go for it! Often the Web may deliver information more quickly than Lexis or Westlaw, such as the text of a court opinion at the Web sites that provides that court’s opinions, or the current daily copy of the Federal Register at GPO Access. If it’s information you need right away, don’t forget to check the Web. It might just be there first.

Sometimes you seek information that isn’t available on Lexis or Westlaw, but is easily accessible via the Web. You might, for example, be looking for a federal agency form or a statistical table from the federal government, or perhaps a foreign law or international agreement that Lexis or Westlaw doesn’t have. Many of these items will be accessible on the Web, and even if it takes a little while to search for them, if you find them you have them right away. You don’t have to wait for them to arrive in the mail, or send someone to another library to pick them up.

All in all, only professional online legal researchers can make the ultimate decision about where to conduct their research. They will weigh the factors to be considered, such as cost, availability, speed, delivery options and ease of searching to determine which system will be best under distinct research circumstances.

Just What is a Search Engine Anyway ?

When I hear the term “search engine” my mind immediately visualizes AltaVista or Excite, Lycos or Infoseek, or any of those services that search across the Internet for Web pages. Yes, these are search engines, but really, the term “search engine” encompasses more. It is a computer program that searches through a database of electronic information to retrieve information that meets parameters specified by the researcher.

Thus, search engines appear all over the world side Web. The major search engines like AltaVista or Excite search across millions of Web pages. But, whenever you perform a search of the information contained on just one Web site or even just part of a Web site, you are using a search engine.

There is no uniformity among Web search engines. Given any dozen search engines, most of those dozen are bound to work differently than the rest, no matter how significant or slight those differences are. Thus, even the most experienced online researchers need to review specific search engine instructions.

Which Search Engine Should You Use ?

Most of the time, you won’t have a choice of search engine. When seeking legal information online, you must first identify the Web site most likely to contain the information you seek. Once you have done that you are required to use the scheme provided to locate the exact data you’re looking for.

Sometimes you will browse, pointing and clicking your way through menu upon menu. Sometimes you will search, either by typing in keywords or filling in boxes on a search form. Sometimes you will be able to use a combination of both browsing and searching.

For those time where a search that spans the Web is necessary, you have your choice of several different search engines. Each of these has a variety of features that may make one better to use under certain circumstances than another.

For example, if you prefer a search engine that will allow a second search that is limited to searching through the results of the first, try Infoseek. If you want a search engine that provides a wide variety of proximity connectors, use Lycos. If you just want to throw your hands up in desperation and type in a question in plain English, try Excite, which I affectionately call the idiot proof search engine (and I use all the time).

Turn to LLRX for a chart that quickly compares the features and search languages of the major Web search engines (//www.llrx.com/columns/engine2.htm). You also might be interested in browsing Danny Sullivan’s Search Engine Watch (http://www.searchenginewatch.com), which reports on the performance of major Web search engines.

Who Should do the Searching ?

The Internet can be a dangerous place. Point and click browsing makes it seem easy. Search engines like Excite always produce results, even for the most poorly constructed searches. The quality of the results may be mediocre, but there will be results nonetheless, lulling novice researchers into a false sense of security. It’s so easy, even a child can do it! But can that child do it right?

The Internet only gives the appearance of being easy. The truth is, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for and where to look for it, the Internet can be a difficult place to locate quality information.

Why? There are a number of reasons. There are millions of Web pages out there to be sifted through, and you are often not sure whether the information you seek actually exists online. It is sort of like looking for a needle in a haystack, only you are not really sure the needle is really there.

Novice researchers can get lucky and locate relevant information immediately, or they can spend countless hours on a wild goose chase. When the quality of the information sought really matters, it is best to leave the searching to online information professionals.

Librarians are specially trained in online search techniques, and they take in stride the differences among the variety of search engines encountered. They also engage in professional networking and reading, which better enables them to keep up with developments in the online legal information field. Finally, librarians have more experience and more opportunity to develop their skill and familiarity with these systems, making them the researchers of choice for maximum quality and efficiency.

Conducting Legal Research on the Internet

So, can legal research be conducted on the Web? Of course it can! Researchers have many different options when using the Internet to perform legal research. First of all, it is important to note that subscribers to Lexis and Westlaw can access both systems through the world wide Web, thus making the systems available from any computer that is Web connected and equipped with any Web browser. This eliminates the need for special software, and provides us with the opportunity to perform powerful research from almost any computer, no matter if we’re in the office, at home, or traveling.

This should not be confused with another option provided by these systems, which is to use their own software to manipulate their databases, but to connect through an Internet service provider, rather than a direct telephone link. This might be an excellent option for an organization that has an internal network connected to the Internet with a very quick connection, because it eliminates the need for extra telephone lines just for Lexis or Westlaw.

There are also several access points on the Web that sell legal information by the ounce, so to speak. Legal research can be conducted in fairly complete databases on a pay as you go basis, or a subscription that is much less expensive than the big two. VersusLaw and LOIS provide this kind of in between type access – not completely freely accessible, but economical versions of powerful legal research systems. In fact, Westlaw, itself, offers an economical option, WestDoc, for nonsubscribers that simply do not have the need to use their systems enough to make a full subscription worth it.

There are many freely accessible Web sites where legal information can be found. This does not mean they are accessed completely for free, because the user still pays the basic fee for Internet access. But once that fee is paid, users can visit these sites as much as they want without incurring any extra cost.

The scope and utility of these sites varies from provider to provider. Thus, the quality of Internet based legal resources cannot be judged as a whole, but must be determined from an examination of the individual site to be used. There are some general statements that can be made about the freely accessible legal resources on the Internet, however.

First and foremost, there are not significant archives of most freely accessible legal resources on the Web. Web based research is much more suited to current information, or information from only the past few years. This makes it possible to perform reasonable statutory or regulatory research on the Web, if the current versions of statutes or regulations are being sought. Most, but not yet all, jurisdictions in the United States make the laws of their legislature, in one form or another, available on the Web. The Internet would be a good place to seek federal or state bills or session laws from the past few years. Additionally, the United States Code and many state statutory codes are available on the Web. Researchers can also find the Code of Federal Regulations and some state administrative codes. Since most of the time we will be looking for the current versions of these, the lack of significant archives is not a concern.

However, case law presents a different challenge. In terms of freely accessible material, the United States Supreme Court is really the only database of case law online where any kind of thorough research can be performed, and even those decisions are not available all the way back to the beginning of the Court. The Internet may be more useful for case law on the other end of the spectrum. While Lexis ad Westlaw provide United States Supreme Court opinions online within an hour of their announcement, they do not possess the same speed for other courts. Sometimes the newest court cases can be found on the Internet before they are found on Lexis and Westlaw. Thus, the Web would be a good place to check to find that new case that was read about in the newspaper. It might be there faster, and since it’s only one specific case, it doesn’t require the power of a highly flexible search language like those at Lexis and Westlaw.

With law review articles, it’s a coin toss. If you have the cite to a specific article, and that article is fairly new, then it doesn’t hurt to take a minute or two to check the law review’s Web site to see if the article is online in full text. But using the Internet for in-depth law review research is not recommended.

The availability of legal ethics material on the Internet is growing by leaps and bounds. A couple of years ago, before Lexis and Westlaw made a concerted effort to include state legal ethics material on their systems, it was likely that the Internet would be more helpful than the big two in finding state ethics opinions. Not all states have yet included their ethics rules and opinions on the Web yet, but the number is rapidly growing.

Another place the Internet can be extremely useful for most of us is in locating foreign or international law (see the LLRX Resource Center on Foreign/International Law). Many of these laws simply are not easily available to us any other way. The Internet gives us access to the laws of a lot of other countries and international organizations. Again, the research usefulness of these sites is entirely dependent upon the site.

Librarians are specially trained in online search techniques, and they take in stride the differences among the variety of search engines encountered. They also engage in professional networking and reading, which better enables them to keep up with developments in the online legal information field. Finally, librarians have more experience and more opportunity to develop their skill and familiarity with these systems, making them the researchers of choice for maximum quality and efficiency.

Books on Internet Legal Research

Law of the Super Searchers: The Online Secrets of Top Legal Researchers, T.R. Halvorson (1999)

The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers, Jerry Lawson (1999)

Guide to Finding Legal and Regulatory Information on the Internet, Yvonne G. Chandler (Neal-Schuman, 1998)

How to Access the Federal Government on the Internet, 1998, Bruce Maxwell (Congressional Quarterly, Inc. 1997)

How To Use the Internet for Legal Research, Josh Blackman (Legal Research of New York, 1996)

The Internet Fact Finder for Lawyers : How to Find Anything on the Net, Josh Blackman (ABA 1998)

The Internet Guide for the Legal Researcher, Second Edition, Don MacLeod (Infosources Publishing, 1997)

Law on the Net, Second Edition, James Evans (Nolo Press, 1997)

The Legal List: Research on the Internet, 1998, by Diana Botluk (West Group, 1998)

Net Law: How Lawyers Use the Internet, Paul S. Jacobsen (O’Reilly & Associates, 1997)

Jerry Lawson, author of the book, The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers, has reviewed several of these books in his Internet Legal Research Bibliography, found on LLRX.com (//www.llrx.com/extras/intbib.htm).

Bookmark these Links

Findlaw If you don’t remember any other legal research Web site, remember Findlaw. This site is a gateway to all legal research Web sites. Like a “Yahoo!” for law, it organizes links in a categorized directory, and also gives us Lawcrawler, a Web-wide search engine with a focus on legal sites. Another incredible search engine at Findlaw searches the full-text of online law reviews found on different computers all over the Web! Findlaw also provides some full-text content, not the least of which is the largest freely accessible database of United States Supreme Court opinions.
Cornell’s Legal Information Institute This is one of the oldest and most useful law related sites online. Legal Information Institute is a mixture of a gateway to locate other law related Web resources, and a provider of law related content, such as the United States Code and Supreme Court opinions.


This is another directory of law related Web resources, organized by topic, region and extras.

Washburn’s Washlaw Web

Washlaw is another site that’s been pointing the way to Web based legal resources for a long time. It helps locate law related Web sites in a large number of categories, and makes it easy to find sites about a specific legal topic.

Hieros Gamos

Hieros Gamos is a set of directories to help locate law related information. It points the way to law related organizations and world wide legal information about a variety of topics. it also provides directories of law related resources such as news, employment and law study.
WWW Virtual Library: Law Indiana University’s contribution to the WWW Virtual Library is in the field of law resources. Another directory of law related Web sites, it is organized into topical categories, as well as presenting links to information by organizations type.
LLRX.com This online biweekly newsletter focuses on the newest developments in online legal research and technology-related issues for the legal community. Online legal information professionals, lawyers, law students and paralegals should read regularly for comprehensive content accompanied by analysis, links and lots of documentation.

Federal Web Locator & LSU Libraries’ U.S. Federal Government Agencies Directory

Looking for a federal agency URL? The Federal Web Locator and LSU’s federal agency page are directories of online federal agency Web sites that will help point the way. Use either one.
Piper Resources Among other things, Piper Resources provides an excellent guide to online state government agencies.

American Law Sources Online

American Law Sources Online, or ALSO, is my favorite place to check when I’m looking for online state law. Each state’s listing links to online laws in categories by type, such as statutes or court opinions. It also links to United States District Court opinions and online municipal or county laws within a given state, as well as any online secondary authority which is state specific. This is a good place to find links to Canadian and Mexican law, too.
Virtual Chase Genie Tyburski’s fabulous collection of information about legal research on the Internet.


Another of my favorites, Thomas, from the Library of Congress, is the Internet gateway to federal legislation. Here you can find bills, public laws, status reports, committee reports and the text of the Congressional Record. There is also news and information about the legislative process (remember “How Our Laws Are Made” from Civics 101?), and the full text of a few important documents from American history, including the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

GPO Access

This is the site from which to search the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations. GPO Access has over seventy databases of federal government information, including Congressional documents, the United States budget and the United States Government Manual.

University of Michigan Documents Center

University of Michigan Library presents an excellent guide to online government documents from federal, state and foreign governments. It has a topical guide to statistics published on the Web, and a feature called “Documents in the News”, which links to online government documents that related to current events. Also look for an excellent guide to conducting legislative history research.

The Oyez Project: Northwestern University

Want to hear Thurgood Marshall argue Brown v. Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court? This site combines Internet audio technology with law related information to bring the Supreme Court to life online. Here we can download audio files of oral arguments, read synopses of the cases (and link to their full text at Findlaw), and peruse biographies of the justices.

University of Chicago

The University of Chicago’s D’Angelo Law Library is home to Lyonette Louis-Jacques’ classic contributions to Web-based legal research. Here you can find her Law Lists (http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/~llou/lawlists/info.html), a mega list of law related listserv lists, and her international law research page (http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/~llou/forintlaw.html).


Yale University offers a number of goodies form Web research, but two of my favorites are Project DIANA human rights archive (http://diana.law.yale.edu), and the Avalon Project (http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/avalon.htm), which reproduces the full text of many significant historical documents.

United Nations

Looking for a United Nations document? Try the UN Web site, which maintains a large online library of UN documents.


This is the definitive site to locate legal ethics information on the Internet. it not only brings us legal ethics news and analysis, but links to state ethics rules and opinions that can be found on the Internet.

My Virtual Reference Desk

This site, while general rather than law related, provides links to online reference sources in the hundreds, from quotations to dictionaries to calendars. Access any kind of data you might imagine finding in a library reference room. This is a must for any online researcher.
Posted in: Features, Online Legal Research Services, Search Strategies