This guide is designed primarily for non-U.S. legal researchers, but this guide will help the first year students understand a wide variety databases in addition to Wexis. It describes several providers of legal research databases, focusing on fee-based sources, both high-cost and low-cost. For an excellent guide to free sources of federal legal materials, see the GlobaLex guide authored by Gretchen Feltes, Update: A Guide to the U. S. Federal Legal System: Web-based Public Accessible Sources, October 2010.
The list of databases to which the Northeastern University School of Law library is subscribing is located at the Research Databases page on the library website.
CAUTION: Because database providers frequently change their coverage and functionality, researchers should make sure that a provider still offers the desired sources before signing a contract or otherwise incurring any fees.
Commercial v. Free Sources
Much of the information available on commercial legal databases is also available from free internet sources. However, commercial database providers (LexisNexis and Westlaw in particular), offer a large amount of information that is not available for free. This includes older state and federal cases, legal forms, court dockets, public records, certain state and federal administrative materials, and secondary sources such as online versions of treatises, journal articles, and legal newspapers. Also, commercial databases often contain a great deal of valuable staff-added information. For example, LexisNexis and Westlaw have databases that contain the U.S. Code (federal statutory laws). The U.S. Code is also available online, for free. But unlike the free internet version of the U.S. Code, the LexisNexis and Westlaw “annotated codes” cite to additional information such as relevant cases, legal encyclopedias, law journal articles, federal regulations, and more.
In addition to providing more information, commercial databases are often more searchable than free databases. First, they offer much more sophisticated search engines. For example, Westlaw and LexisNexis support the following useful tools:
- Boolean connectors (and, or, not)
- grammatical connectors (e.g., [taxation /s “foreign investment”] retrieves documents in which the words “taxation” and “foreign investment” appear in the same sentence)
- “wildcard” or "root-expander" searching (e.g., tax! in Westlaw or Lexis retrieves documents containing the words “tax”, “taxation”, “taxable”, or “taxing”)
- date restrictions
- field or segment restrictions that allow searching in narrow sections (segments or fields) of a document (e.g., author or judge, case title, statute caption, etc.)
- “natural language” searching option which is more like Semantic Web searching (e.g., [what is the statute of limitations for tax evasion] retrieves documents answering the question in order of relevance to that search)
Providers of low-cost databases – often considered to be research alternatives to Westlaw and Lexis – such as Loislaw, Versuslaw, Fastcase, Casemaker, etc., also provide sophisticated searching options.
Secondly, commercial databases often contain staff-added enhancements to search results: a function to search again within search results; a function to filter search results by various types of sources, subjects, time, and jurisdiction; better integrated search results in a document containing hyperlinks to related sources including history, briefs, forms, jury instruction, legal encyclopedia, treatise, journal articles, etc.; and a function to save research to allow users to revisit the search results. For example, in the text of a court case, many vendors add hyperlinks to any cases cited within the case. A researcher can use these links to look quickly at any case the court mentions in its decision. Commercial providers of U.S. court cases also provide built-in ways for a researcher to check the current validity of a case, in addition to the list of cases citing to the case.
In a common law system, checking the validity of a case is an important step in legal research. The researcher must find out whether the case is still “good law,” or whether a later court decision has changed the law. If a case is not too old, it is possible to check a case’s validity using free databases of court cases. The researcher enters the case name as a search term, and reviews any cases that contain the name. However, this process is cumbersome and vulnerable to errors, so most U.S. researchers prefer to use online “citators.” Westlaw’s online citator is called KeyCite; LexisNexis offers Shepard’s ; Loislaw offers GlobalCite ; FastCase offers AuthorityCheck ; Casemaker offers CaseCheck+ ; and Bloomberg Law provides the Bloomberg Citator (BCiting or BCIT).
Additionally, commercial databases are sometimes more current than free databases. This difference is most apparent in databases consisting of statutes and regulations. Commercial database providers usually incorporate new statutory language, or at least provide links to it from the old statute section, much faster than government websites. Researchers who rely upon free websites must be particularly careful to check for new laws and regulations, which are often located on a different webpage from the older ones.
Moreover, commercial databases usually offer superior technical support to free databases. Some legal database providers, such as Westlaw and LexisNexis, have 24/7 telephone support. Subscribers can receive free help in choosing a database, constructing a search, and overcoming technical problems. Finally, while government information on the internet is usually reliable, internet information from other sources may not be. Unlike most websites, many commercial databases consist of material that has been published in print, and thus has gone through the screening imposed by editors and publishers. This makes commercial databases more reliable than some free internet information. Of course, all of these advantages come at a price. Commercial legal databases can be very expensive. Free sources may work better for researchers who have more time than money to spend.
Among commercial providers, Westlaw and LexisNexis are the largest, the most sophisticated (in searching and other features), and the most expensive. Loislaw, Bloomberg Law, Fastcase, Casemaker, and VersusLaw are considered to be low-cost databases. Specifically, Casemaker and Fastcase are free to state bar members in many states. On the hand, Bloomberg BNA, CCH IntelliConnect, HeinOnline, and Thomson Reuters RIA provide expensive, sophisticated, and specialized products for practitioners in areas such as labor law, environmental law, securities, and taxation. Although they have not been introduced in this article, other important fee-based databases are PACER, CourtLink, Courthouse News Service, Law360, and CourtExpress for court docket and case information service, Securities Mosaic and Morningstar Document Research (Wizard 10K) for securities, and LexisNexis Accurint for public records.