The major legal research databases can be prohibitively expensive for some researchers. There are, however, a number of online alternatives that are either free or less expensive than Lexis/Nexis and Westlaw.
This guide provides an overview to different types of free materials, under the section Free Sources of Legal Materials, and also summarizes the features and costs of less expensive databases within the section of Low-Cost Legal Databases.
There are several databases which provide access to primary source materials on their own sites, without any charge to the user. These sites vary in terms of the types of materials collected, the scope of their coverage, and their search options. We have created a table for each type of material which includes the major online sources and their coverage.
This section of the guide consists of:
Because the availability of state legal materials varies so widely, we have only included descriptions of the federal materials available for free online.
The free sources we provide contain a great deal of primary source legal material. They are, however, much more limited in terms of search options and finding aids than fee and subscription based sources. In particular, free sources rely almost exclusively on keyword searching and browsing to find cases, rather than headnotes and digesting, which are used in Lexis and Westlaw. For this reason, the free sources may ultimately be inadequate.
There are also several relatively inexpensive online legal research databases. While none of these contains all of the material on Lexis or Westlaw, many lawyers will find that they provide most or all of the sources they will need in their practice. The databases use a variety of search methods and finding aids, and we have tried to provide that information about each source along with an overview of its content and pricing.
Virtually all of these databases provide a "citator" service. It is important to note, however, that these citators typically only provide a list of cases in which the citation appears. They do not include qualitative information, such as an indication that a particular case has received negative treatment such as Westlaw's Keycite service.