Legal Research for Non-Lawyers

Last week, a commenter at Lifehacker described LawHelp, which looks extraordinarily useful for non-lawyers: will link you to your state’s legal information web site. Supported by legal aid organizations, pro bono programs and courts, these web sites generally cover information that is applicable to low- and middle-income people in areas such as divorce, orders of protection, landlord-tenant law, and debt collection. The information is generally written in plain language.

The site describes itself as “your gateway to America’s nonprofit legal services providers.” The home page links to self-help sites in all 50 states. Clicking the California link, for instance, takes you here.

When I must turn away prospective clients, I usually refer them to their county’s bar association to inquire about lawyer referrals. From now on, I plan to recommend that they check LawHelp also.

More Free Legal Research

Crediting Lifehacker for the tip, Jeffrey Lewis at Nota Bene links to The Public Library of Law, which describes itself on its home page:

What is the Public Library of Law?

Searching the Web is easy. Why should searching the law be any different? That’s why Fastcase has created the Public Library of Law — to make it easy to find the law online. PLoL is the largest free law library in the world, because we assemble law available for free scattered across many different sites — all in one place. PLoL is the best starting place to find law on the Web.

What is available on PLoL?

Cases from the U.S. Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals
Cases from all 50 states back to 1997
Federal statutory law and codes from all 50 states
Regulations, court rules, constitutions, and more!

PLoL also includes free links to paid content on Fastcase. PLoL is already the Web’s largest free law library, but with additional links from Fastcase, it is one of the most comprehensive law libraries in the world.

LifeHacker ends its post with a reference that tests your internet savvy: “. . . Public Library of Law is, despite its unfortunate URL [], nothing to laugh at.” Get it?

UPDATE (2/19/08): If you don’t get the “unfortunate URL” remark, see my comment to this post for an explanation.

Try Tackling All of This Case Law

“S. COTUS” at Appellate Law & Practice suggests heading over to this link at, where, according to Robert Ambrogi, more than 1.8 million pages of case law have been released in what AL & P calls “somewhat raw form” (raw enough to title his post “XML case law”), apparently as an invitation to developers to catalog them in more usable form.  He adds there are some “fun” videos there as well, and includes a link to a re-enactment of Marbury v. Madison.

Free Online Constitutional and other Federal Research Resources

2/65/17 Update: A reader alerted me that these links don’t seem to work anymore. Sorry!

Thanks to Fifth Circuit Blog for this link to The Constitution of the United States of America, Analysis and Interpretation: Analysis of Cases Decided by the Supreme Court of the United States.  It is provided by the Government Printing Office at its GPO Access website.

The site has a great index page.  Took me all of five seconds to find online versions of the Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Register, and United States Code that are searchable, browsable, and have a find-by-citation function.

That’s barely scratching the surface.  There’s plenty more, and all of it is free.


Footnote Guidance

Footnotes. Some people love ’em, and some people hate ’em.

And if you don’t know which way the judges deciding your appeal lean on the issue, and you can’t resist using footnotes, you’ll want to at least use them “correctly” — if there is such a thing.

In this post at the (new) legal writer, New Orleans appellate attorney Raymond Ward notes an article by The John Marshall Law School’s Prof. William B.T. Mock, Jr. entitled When a Rose Isn’t ‘Arose’ Isn’t Arroz: A Student Guide to Footnoting for Informational Clarity and Scholarly Discourse, which, according to Ward, divides footnotes into three types and describes the appropriate use of each type.

This is Ward’s second alert to a footnote article in as many months. Last September, he described another professor’s take on footnotes somewhat differently, going so far as to say the author found non-citation based footnotes — that is, footnotes containing anything other than citations to authority — to be “useless.”

Like I said: some people love ’em, and some people hate ’em. I think those two groups probably break down along these lines: Writers love ’em, readers hate ’em.

The articles Ward references are posted at Social Science Research Network. Links to the articles are provided in the respective posts at the (new) legal writer mentioned above.

Threats to Westlaw and Lexis

Adjunct Law Prof Blog has a post linking to information on upcoming internet repositories for federal case law, and wonders whether new services coming on line will spell the end of Lexis and Westlaw.  I suspect these venerable pay services will stay one step ahead for some time.

I remember seeing a debate in an internet forum once over whether it might be considered malpractice not to conduct computer-aided research.  If there is a big gap in services, or the newer services cannot replicate book research, then perhaps that debate will turn to whether it is malpractice to use a less powerful computer-aided research tool.