November 28, 2016
While it is cheaper in the short term, conducting your legal research on the open web and free websites could end up costing you more down the road – due to a more time-consuming process that only leads to a result that you fear may be incomplete and will impair your reputation.
Thus, as tempting as the “low cost” free websites are, the risks very often outweigh the benefits.
Free online legal research resources aren’t usually unreliable in the sense that a published case or statute will be inaccurate in and of itself. In fact, much of what is included in this “free resources” class are the original sources of statutes and cases (i.e. the state revisor of statutes, the issuing court, etc).
Rather, this “unreliability” refers to there being no easy way of knowing whether the authority is still relevant to your issue, or if it has been overturned. Further, it may be difficult to verify the same with any sources that have been referenced or cited to within the authority.
Unless your authority is fresh off the presses, it can be hard to tell whether your case or statute is the most recent authority on the issue, or if there is a superseding source that should be used instead.
Albeit, verifying whether your sources are the most up-to-date, relevant, and applicable can be accomplished most of the time when using free websites for your legal research, it can take a significant amount of time to do so.
The increased time consumed by using free websites for legal research goes beyond the need to verify the validity of your sources as discussed above. You’ll also notice a drain on your time from the lack of centralization and connection between resources.
On free websites, you won’t easily (if at all) be able to access related authorities to the document that you’re currently viewing. Resources aren’t organized by topic or issue, and you may have to venture to multiple websites to find the authorities you’re looking for.
What’s more, you have no definitive way of knowing whether you’ve been exhaustive in your research on a particular issue – creating a nagging lack of certainty to go along with the heap of wasted time.
There is undoubtedly a plethora of information available on free websites. However, it is highly unlikely that these sites have anywhere near the sheer volume of resources that are found on paid legal research services.
Without access to the most comprehensive resources, your final research product may not be as robust, and worse, your tapestry of authorities may have noticeable gaps.
Of course, it’s natural to attempt to fill these gaps by trying to locate applicable authorities, but certain resources simply aren’t available on free websites, and this effort will unfortunately amount to nothing more than a wild goose chase.
Bottom line: without having access to the most comprehensive collection of legal information, you are necessarily risking having gaps. And even if you have a wealth of information, you will need to take the time to sift through it all to find everything that is truly relevant to your issue.
Difficult to Verify Secondary Sources
Aside from the numerous primary sources such as court rulings and statutes, you’re likely to come across a multitude of secondary sources such as articles, blog posts, and outlines related to an issue you’re researching.
These sources can be helpful in providing a better understanding of the issues, and may provide interpretations and analyses of pertinent cases and statutes.
On the other hand, they largely aren’t peer-reviewed for accuracy, and you may have to spend additional time authenticating the assertions made by these sources. For example, the author may have biases that skews his or her interpretation one way or another; the research may be incomplete or out of date; or the author could just have been plain sloppy and did a shoddy job on the analysis.
Whatever the case, relying on such resources, while they may be helpful to your research, may nonetheless cause headaches by requiring a larger investment of time and creating greater uncertainty.
Difficulty saving your research
When perusing free websites for your legal research, your research trail isn’t saved automatically beyond your web browser’s history function – which collects all of your browsing history, not just what is related to your legal research.
True enough, one could copy the URLs of significant websites to a word processing document, but there’s no guarantee that those websites will continue to be accessible, nor would the document be accessible from multiple devices without extra effort.
In addition, sharing your research with a colleague isn’t always easy unless one is content to simply share links or email PDFs. Although free collaboration technology is constantly advancing, it still requires additional effort to share your research with others.
Under most circumstances, any collaboration technology used would have to be set up and integrated into your practice separately from whatever browser you’re using for your research. There may be less effort and time expended once this setup is completed, but the upfront investment may be significant nevertheless.
The extra time investment and uncertainty that your research is complete and accurate are common themes across all of the reasons you should avoid using free legal research websites. And for the vast majority of legal professionals, lost time and lowered confidence are not luxuries that can be afforded. It’s time to give your practice a competitive advantage.
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