Factors to consider for cost-effective and efficient research include your time, the cost of the resource, and the quality of the resource. In some instances, using a free resource such as a government website may be just as efficient as using a paid database such as Westlaw. In other instances, a free resource might not contain the content you need or will take you a substantially longer amount of time to conduct your research than if you were to use a paid database.
This section identifies free and low-cost resources as alternatives to Westlaw, Lexis Advance, and Bloomberg Law. You may use Westlaw, Lexis Advance, and Bloomberg Law while you are a student and over summer (with some restrictions), but you will lose access to them at some point after graduation. Please see the Summer and Post-Graduation Access tab for more information.
The following resources are free for the general public and provide full-text access to legislation, cases, regulations, and other materials. Government websites usually provide access to legislation and regulations, while court websites may provide access to recent court decisions and documents.
Limitations of free resources may include its scope or extent of coverage (e.g., FDSys provides access to the United States Code going back only to 1994) and a lack of sophisticated research tools (e.g., no case annotations to the United States Code).
These case law research databases are much more inexpensive than Westlaw or Lexis Advance, but may lack citators (to help you determine whether a case is still good law and to assist you with finding other cases that cite to a case) or other advanced research tools. While you are a student, you are eligible to sign up for free accounts for these databases. You may wish to test these resources while you are a student to understand their strengths and weaknesses if you think you will be working for a non-profit or solo practice after graduation where you might not have access to Westlaw or Lexis Advance.
Paid databases may be the most cost-effective option to use in certain circumstances. For instance, if you are trying to find cases interpreting a statute, using either Westlaw or Lexis Advance will save you a significant amount of time compared to conducting research on other resources that do not provide Notes of Decisions/Case Notes or Citing References/Citing Decisions. Additionally, when determining whether a case is still good law, the citators available on Westlaw and Lexis Advance are still much more comprehensive and reliable compared to those on available with free or low-cost case law research resources.
Understanding how these databases charge your firm is key to saving money and using them effectively.
Bloomberg Law: There is a flat rate for all searches and documents accessed, but if you request a document from a docket that is not already a part of the system, the requestor or firm is charged a fee for retrieving that information. Bloomberg has "Workspace" to help you organize relevant documents for your research.
Lexis Advance: There is no fee charged for accessing documents that are within a firm's subscription plan, but a search for that document will accrue a fee. Outside of a subscription plan, Lexis charges for each search, but once the search is performed, filtering the search results is free. Lexis might also charge when one opens a document. When you find a document that you think you will use again, put it in a folder because items saved in a folder can be accessed without a fee for up to 90 days. Pricing is determined by the firm's license agreement.
Westlaw: Pricing depends on the type of subscription. Most firms are not charged for any transactions within their subscription plan, but for those firms that use Westlaw on a transaction basis, there is a charge for each search. Once the search is performed, filtering the search is free. There is a charge when one opens a document outside of the subscription plan. Any documents that are shared within a folder are free for up to a year for anyone with access to that folder; after a year, opening that document would incur a charge, but then is free again for an additional year. Pricing is determined by the firm's license agreement.
County Law Libraries: County law libraries usually offer on-site public access to electronic databases and print resources. For instance, the Cook County Law Library provides access to Westlaw, Lexis, and HeinOnline, as well as Illinois practice materials.
Research Guides: Many academic law libraries have compiled free research guides that provide an overview of a research process for a topic, explain basic legal concepts, and point you to where you can find relevant legal materials. Our library's research guides are available here. A good way to search for research guides from other law libraries is by using Google Advanced Search and searching for keywords such as [topic] + research guide (e.g., Illinois legislative history research guide or administrative law research guide and limiting the domain to .edu.