Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Free vs. paid online legal research tools

originally published in The Lawyers Weekly

Cost-conscious lawyers may ask themselves: Can we get by using only freely available research tools?

Chances are, the answer today is no. But free legal research tools continue to improve as new ones emerge and legal researchers everywhere are better off for them.

The low cost, easy accessibility and speed of popular search engines, particularly Google, makes them a natural destination for researchers of all stripes.

However, Ted Tjaden, McMillan Binch Mendelsohn LLP’s Toronto-based director of library and knowledge management said “Google only gets you so far with legal research.” For instance, most search engines do not find the “invisible” web, which includes password-protected legal research databases.

Password protection helps publishers of said databases guard not so much the content (which may be found elsewhere) as much as the value that publishers add for their subscribers.

Catherine Best, a research associate for Vancouver, B.C.-based Boughton Law Corporation, appreciates the additional features that commercially available case citators offer. Unlike the automated, bare-bones citators of free resources: “With sophisticated citators, a human editor has read the case, has decided whether other cases have followed it or not,” Best explained.

“There’s a lot of editorial work behind commercial citators that nobody does for free.”

Citators and other information like commentary that take extra editorial work to produce are what sets commercial services apart for Best. And when asked about the quality of free legal research resources, she said: “The free sites are all over the map in terms of content and usability. You’re comparing apples and oranges.”

“I rarely use free resources,” Tjaden said.

“We have the luxury of having one of the better-equipped law libraries in a Canadian law firm with extensive print resources and online subscriptions.

“Although free search engines do supplement the legal research I do, we continue to rely on the value-added features available from the ‘for a fee’ online subscription services.”

Between subscription-based and freely available choices, a “middle tier” of online legal resources is emerging. Born at the Université de Montréal’s faculty of law, the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII) is a non-profit organization managed by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (FLSC).

Daniel Poulin might be pleased at Tjaden’s comment:

“CanLII is an amazing resource for recent Canadian case law and legislation.”

That’s because Poulin, a Université de Montréal law professor, is also co-founder of the Canadian Legal Information Institute ( and a director of LEXUM, a provider of free access to legal information.

Still, even he admits CanLII’s shortcomings when compared to commercial legal research databases. Aside from a lack of value-added features, Poulin notes that CanLII’s historical scope may not suffice for legal research required in certain practice areas.

Certain factors do, however, drive the continued growth of freely available legal resources.

“There is an international trend toward making source law or primary material available for free,” Poulin said.

“The phenomenon started in universities 15 years ago and now enjoys more recognition in government, judicial institutions — even private parties now contribute to the ‘free access to law’ movement.”

Canada is part of this movement, as evidenced by sites like CanLII and the free access lawyers now enjoy to the Maritime Law Book and its collection of over 215,000 cases.

“The availability of a high-quality free site improves the standard of practice,” added Best, herself appointed by the Law Society of British Columbia as that province’s director on CanLII’s board. “Many lawyers who practise on the margins can not afford commercial services, and many other lawyers don’t subscribe to commercial services because they don’t do much research. Others limit their use of commercial services because of the cost.

“Having something like CanLII available really can improve the standard of practice for the profession as a whole,” Best continued. “One of the reasons the law societies support CanLII is due to their competency mandate, and CanLII helps to fulfill that mandate.”

Poulin hopes the commercial services continue to thrive, and he believes that the “free access to law” movement will help them do so. “When source documents become available for free, the commercial providers must make sure that the value they add justifies the price of their products,” he said.

Future-added value may take several forms according to “wish lists” from Tjaden, Poulin and Best. For instance, really simple syndication (RSS) feeds can automatically send lawyers updates to laws that are pertinent to current cases. “Point-in-time” research tools, like the one CanLII plans to introduce in beta form this December, will let lawyers read the law as it was at a given time in the past.

Authority-based ranking may help the most relevant cases find their way to the top of a query list. Legal experts might help improve such rankings as user interaction on databases increases, à la Web 2.0.

(Full disclosure: LexisNexis owns both legal research tool QuickLaw and The Lawyers Weekly.)