Lawyers may be surprised to learn that publicly accessible websites may be all they need for a significant amount of their online legal research. There may be no need to pay for expensive legal research databases if you know where to look! The State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance podcast hosts Tish Vincent and JoAnn Hathaway welcome Carole Levitt and Judy Davis, authors of Internet Legal Research on a Budget: Free and Low-Cost Resources for Lawyers, to learn more about their book and favorite budget-friendly resources.
If you would like a copy of their book, go to linkon.in/ilrb20 and enter the discount code LGLRS20A for 20% off any time now through the end of 2020.
Carole Levitt is president and founder of Internet For Lawyers.
Judy K. Davis is a law librarian and adjunct assistant professor of law at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.
State Bar of Michigan On Balance Podcast
Internet Legal Research on a Budget with Carole Levitt and Judy Davis
Intro: Welcome to State Bar of Michigan’s on Balance Podcast, where we talk about practice management at lawyer wellness, or a thriving law practice. With your host, JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent, here on Legal Talk Network. Take it away, ladies.
Tish Vincent: Hello, and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I’m Tish Vincent.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I’m JoAnn Hathaway. We’re very pleased to have Carole Levitt, Founder and President of Internet for Lawyers and Vice President of clewebinars.com and Judy Davis, Law Librarian and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law, join us today as our podcast guest to talk about Internet Legal Research on a Budget, free and low-cost resources for lawyers. So, Carole and Judy, would you share some information about yourselves with our listeners, please?
Carole Levitt: Hi, everyone, this is Carole. And I started Internet For Lawyers back in 1999, when I realized the internet was looking like it was something that was going to be big and I thought I should teach lawyers how to use it. I had been a law library and for many years and I also had practiced law, so I decided to put my two skills together and start continuing education company and give lawyers information on how to find everything on the web, well almost everything. And I focused on legal research and investigative research and Google search. And I’ve done that for 21 years and counting.
I met Judy on the web. I was looking for a co-author for my ABA book, Internet legal Research on a Budget, and I put out a request on a Law-Library Listserv and I asked if anyone wanted to co-write a book with me for the ABA Law Practice Management. And I had a lot of people actually approached me about — I don’t know, maybe 20 people. And I had everyone who actually saw the proposal and tell me why they were the right person. And Judy won, she was the right person. She had a right background, she was a lawyer, she was a law librarian. She taught legal research and writing. She and I had all three of those things in common, and we never met each other until after the book was published. So, that was kind of interesting. That was in 2013, I believe. And then we just did the second edition and it just came out in June, and we wrote like a research on a budget. And we’re here to tell you a lot about that book today.
Judy Davis: Hi, thank you Carole. This is Judy. Carole did tell you a bit about me, so I’ll try not to repeat that, but yes, I’m a law librarian and practiced law for a little while. But librarian trip was just much more my speed. I teach legal research now. I’ve taught it for about 12 years at USC Gould School of Law. And I’m just so happy to have met Carole. And as she said, we did eventually meet in person and we’ve been friends for quite a while now, so, I’m happy to be able to do the second edition of the book with her and come and talk about it today with you, guys.
Tish Vincent: Could you share with our listeners why you decided to write a book on this topic?
Carole Levitt: I decided to write a book on this topic because I gave a lot of seminars and a lot of lawyers who are asking me questions. And I didn’t — I only had six hours to answer other questions. So, I thought it was time to write a book about Internet Legal Research. I already had written a book on Internet Investigative Research and that’s the cyber sleuth guide to the internet, but it was time for a legal research book. So, that’s why I decided to write it and I learned that lawyers were very frustrated with the internet because there was no customer service for the internet. So, if they wanted to use a website like Google or Google Scholar or a government website, there was no one to call. So, I decided I could be customer service on the internet for lawyers and that’s when I decided to write this book. I also know because I was a lawyer and a law librarian at large, large law firms that not everything is on the internet, that there are, you know, still quite a big reason to use pay databases like Lexis or Westlaw or Bloomberg but there’s also an awful lot free and the internet and you can really avoid using paid databases and you can try to keep your client’s bills down if you use free resources. But my goal was to show you how to use these resources, tell you that I think they’re reliable, Judy thinks they’re reliable and weave the different sites that we use. And we really show you step by step in the book how to use each database. And I mean, we’ve got screenshots galore, they’ve got lots of comment boxes and arrows and we really do try to be your internet customer service.
Judy Davis: So, I will second that. This is Judy. We both think that it’s a great idea for attorneys to how something of some low-cost options when they’re doing research. But coming from an academic institution and we have access to a lot of the paid databases, I find myself often times when I get research questions from law students, still sending them to some publicly accessible website especially some of the government sites. So, if you practice a heavily-regulated industry for example, the best source for you might end up being a publicly accessible website anyway.
Carole Levitt: And Judy, that’s a good point. I often times am asked to do investigative research by lawyers and I do a lot of Facebook research and I try to find public Facebook profiles that my lawyers can use as evidence. And obviously, that’s not going to be on Lexis or Westlaw or Bloomberg. And so, that’s a big reason why I teach lawyers, I spent an hour of this six-hour day teaching them how to use the Facebook, believe it or not, and Twitter and a couple of the other social media sites. So, you can’t pay for that on Lexis or Westlaw or Bloomberg, but you can find it for free. And Judy, I think you had mentioned when we were doing a webinar last week, something about local resources.
Judy Davis: Yes, Carole, you’re right. The big paid databases try to pull together a lot of resources, but one thing you really cannot find one database to do all your research is if you’re trying to research local or county law. There is just not so far a big database that pulls them together, but there are some resources, some tips and tricks that you can use to make researching the local law a little bit easier.
Carole Levitt: And so, we’re talking mostly about like city and county ordinances and city and county regulations, always a hard thing to get your hands on, but we have a lot of websites in the book that will tell you what sites that you can use for free to do that. And Judy, off the top of my head, I’m blinking but I know you showed one last week when we did a webinar, municipal codes, muni-codes, I think it was called muni-codes.
Judy Davis: Yes, muni-codes and some of the publishers who published the local ordinances for the counties and cities, if you go to their website and I believe muni-codes is one of those. You can at least search the local ordinances that they have and a lot of them how some really useful search engines that are fairly sophisticated without having to go to each individual city or county’s website to do that.
Carole Levitt: You know, in on the old days, I used to have to call the city or the county and get one of the clerks on the phone and begged them to photocopy that local ordinance that I needed and I think maybe even put it in the mail, remember that? And then we eventually proceeded to faxing and then finally, they would scan and email. But it was really hard to get local research in the old days, and now it’s much easier.
Judy Davis: I agree.
JoAnn Hathaway: So, Carole and Judy, what are your top three budget websites?
Carole Levitt: Well, I’ll go first. I’m going to tell you about two of them, two out of the three, and that would be the legal research system that every single bar association gives their members for free. So, depending on where you are practicing law, you either have access to Casemaker or to Fastcase. And these are really competitors to Lexis and Westlaw and Bloomberg in many ways. I find that that’s all I used. I only use Casemaker and Fastcase. I don’t use the paid database anymore. I will say and we’ll talk about this a little bit later, that the one downside of Casemaker and Fastcase is their citators are not as robust as Lexis, as a Shepard’s or as Westlaw, the key site system or Bloomberg’s B site. So, that’s the only really big downside. But if you’re trying to really watch your budget and especially now with COVID and we’re having a lot of problems, everyone is trying to get clients and trying to get the bills paid. We’ve had some lawyers tell us that they’ve canceled their paid databases and they’re using Casemaker and Fastcase. And just basically, I’ll tell you that I know that right now where we have people on from Michigan, a lot of people from Michigan and you have free access to Casemaker. Now Casemaker is not easy to find on your bar’s website, I’m sorry to say. You actually have to log in to your bar’s website with your account and your password and then you will see the access to your free Casemaker. Many other bars have Casemaker right on the public homepage, you click on it and then you enter your password.
So, I want you to go to your Michigan State Bar website and same thing for Ohio, log in to your bar’s website and take a look at Casemaker. Casemaker and Fastcase both have a lot of training, they’ve got webinars, they’ve got user guides, and Judy and I have a huge chapter for each of those databases, Casemaker and Fastcase, in our book, tremendous chapters. They could be books on their own. So, just real quickly, what’s in Casemaker and Fastcase, all state and all federal primary law, so statutes, cases and even annotated statutes, constitutions, regulations and then every bar is different as to what they will give to Casemaker or Fastcase. Now, you can access all 50 states. You’re not just researching your own state, you can access everything. But if I go to a specific states’ website on Casemaker Fastcase, that particular state might have given Fastcase and Casemaker access to their legal ethics opinions and maybe another state hasn’t. Maybe they’ve given you access to their AG opinions or to your court forms, so it’s really going to vary as to what you’re going to find locally for your own research.
They have some secondary research, sometimes there’s law reviews and law journals. Fastcase gives you free access to blogs, from LexBlog, which is a curated lawyer blogging company. So, you’re going to find all kinds of really great information and it’s free.
Judy Davis: I would just add to that. As far as totally free websites, I’d like to throw in Google Scholar. You probably know that you can get articles on Google Scholar. You can also get case law. Now, since you have access to Casemaker, you as Carole said, would very likely prefer to go through Casemaker. But Google does have a robust database of cases, you’re I’m sure familiar with their search engine. And we know that trying to check the validity of cases can be a little bit challenging with free and lower cost resources. And Google Scholar also is not to be as robust with some of the really expensive databases, but they do have a rudimentary citation feature as well that you could take a look at on Google Scholar. But I also want to direct your attention to the articles that are available on Google Scholar. Sometimes if you’re just trying to get a head start with your research and you’re not sure what’s out there, you want to start with a secondary source. And I was just checking last week for articles related to COVID and insurance coverage, and there are already some articles popping up on Google Scholar. So, they may not necessarily give you free access to everything, but you can find some useful information and some pretty current information if you try Google Scholar.
Carole Levitt: And Judy, I just want to add that we’re not just talking about law reviews and law journals, Google Scholar has access to all kinds of topics. So, if you’re doing a malpractice case in you need some information in the medical field, you might find a medical article on Google Scholar for free. But sometimes, you do have to pay, not everything is free on the Google Scholar section of Google.
Judy Davis: This is true, yes. Sometimes, you will get a PDF that you can download right there and other times, you will just get a citation and then you can decide if that’s something that you want to try to pay for on a case-by-case basis or move onto the next option.
Carole Levitt: And I have to add that I don’t pay for anything if I can help it. And so, I just want to make lawyers aware that your public library gives you free access to many, many databases of newspapers and journals and all kinds of directories and all you have to do is go to your public library on the web, we’re not going to person, and you can remote into these very expensive databases and very often, you can pull these different articles that Google Scholar maybe wants to charge you for that your public library will charge you for. So, please visit your public library’s website and what you’re going to do is on the homepage of most libraries, you’re going to look for either the word research or databases, I’m trying to think what other code words they have. And if you click on those, you will be amazed at the plethora of databases that they will let you access for free.
Judy Davis: That’s a good point, I’d like to give a plug to the libraries too. Sometimes, if you search online resources, e-resources and not just the public libraries but a lot of the county law libraries, will have the resources that you can use. And traditionally, you’ve had to go in-person to at least set up your card and account with the library. And so, if you have one, you’re all set. But I know with the current situation, I’ve seen some libraries let you apply directly online to at least get electronic access.
So, even if you don’t have a card, it’s worth checking out. And yeah, just you would be amazed at the amount of resources they will provide you for free just for being a citizen of where you live.
JoAnn Hathaway: And Judy and Carole, I would — this is JoAnn, I would just like to take this opportunity to interject and to indicate to our listeners and that those Michigan members have access to the State Bar of Michigan’s online digital library and we have over 750 audio in e-books available for you, many of which may be on point in line with what Judy and Carole are talking about right now. And these are free to you as the members of the State Bar of Michigan. So, thank you ladies.
Carole Levitt: JoAnn, that’s great. I don’t if a lot bar associations do that, it’s very impressive.
JoAnn Hathaway: Are there any websites you discuss in your book that would be useful for investigative background research and not just legal research?
Carole Levitt: I always like to talk about litigation history searching. So, let’s say you have a client and they want to go into business with someone and you want to make sure that that person is legitimate, that they haven’t declared bankruptcy, if they haven’t been maybe accused of fraud, sued for fraud, well, a lot of cases as you know, most cases do not get reported. They don’t even go to trial. So, doing case law research is not good enough for background and investigative research, instead you want to do docket research. Now, I know a lot of you use PACER to file your federal dockets and I use the PACER in a different way. I use PACER to run people’s names through the PACER database. Now, PACER lets you search by party name, they do not let you search full text. I can keyword search which makes me crazy. But the database has been in existence since 1988. They have “improved it” maybe two times in all those years and have never given us full text searching. So, I would use it and search for a party name. And I’m just going to give you one example and then I’m going to tell you about a second database that does let you full text search for free.
So, PACER isn’t free but it’s low-cost, that’s why we’re allowed to talk about it in our book, and today. I know of a person, his name’s David and he seems to have a pattern of getting involved with businesses and then defrauding them time and time again. And I read about a case where the Smart Corporation was suing him and I did a docket search, I ran David’s name through PACER. And the Smart Corporation, I’ve pulled up their complaint, and this is what you want to do when you’re doing background research, you want to pull up the complaints and see what people are complaining about. Of course, it’s only allegations, nothing’s been proven yet. But I’m going to show my client every single complaint I can find against someone before they go into business with them. And so, the Smart Corporation was defrauded by David Dadon and they sued him. After the fact, they said, “let’s go to PACER and run his name through,” and they said in their complaint, “we found 20 cases filed against David Dadon by 20 other companies for the exact same issues we’re suing him for, security breach, breach of contract, aiding and abetting, contraversion, on and on and on.” And I asked you how smart was the Smart Corporation to do the research after the fact, after they were defrauded. So, use PACER for that, it’s very inexpensive and we talk about a lot of information in the book on how to search PACER. You know, we’re not talking about filing on PACER, we’re talking about researching. And then real quick, before I turn to Judy, I would also tell you about a site called Recap. So, write that down and then look at that and what is it spelled backwards? PACER. What is Recap, well, this is a project that was begun a few years ago by someone who got this great idea that if you went to PACEr, and you paid to download a complaint or a brief or an answer, they would create a little software plugin that you could voluntarily put on your browser which I have done and you will donate that brief, that complaint, whatever, Recap. Recap will take it. They will OCR it. And they will make it full text searchable for free to anyone who goes to the Recap website. So, how many documents do they have? Millions, millions. So, take a look at Recap. Judy, what’s yours? What site did you want to talk about?
Judy Davis: Not one site specifically, but just in general, I’d like to talk briefly about social media.
So, you would be amazed what you can find on social media and what people will put there depending on what you need. You can certainly find someone’s location, maybe if they were not supposed to be in a place when they thought they were. People really like to check in and post photos of themselves, and talk about a lot of other things. And so, just — there are multiple social media sites as we all know and I think we go through them and that we have a whole chapter of the book that discusses this. and that can be really, really helpful and free to you if you’re trying to do research on an individual.
JoAnn Hathaway: Carole and Judy, do you have websites on finding sample pleadings and briefs?
Carole Levitt: I have a couple of websites and the first one is in Recap. And so, the cool thing about Recap is I don’t even have to have a party’s name, I can just say, “Gee, I wonder if I can find a complaint about,” and then I fill in on these keywords that I would like the complaints to be about. And then I can get sample pleadings. I can even say on the advanced search page of Recap, I want a brief or I want a complaint or I want a motion to dismiss. I can be very, very specific about what I’m using, what I want to use. And that way, you get a jumpstart on your own research. You might find someone’s already written a complaint or a brief on the topic that you are going to be beginning your research about. So, take a look at recap and do keyword searching and then in the advanced search box, if you look towards the bottom on the left, there is a little box where you can type in whether you want a complaint or an answer or a brief or a motion to dismiss, et cetera.
Judy Davis: I’ll second that. That is such an amazing resource that I don’t have one that I can suggest that’s better than that and of course, it is for each of you. I will point out one minor thing you can read all of these that you want and help get ideas to jumpstart your own research. The one thing you probably would not want to do is post it on on a website or something because although they’re publicly available for you to read and look at, they in a lot of cases still are the intellectual property of the attorney that wrote them. But use them to read and help yourself to your heart’s content.
Tish Vincent: Good point to remember when you’re accessing that resource. Could you share with me how I could citate or validate the case law that I’m using at a reasonable cost?
Carole Levitt: Well, I think Judy and I are probably just going to go back to — I’ll go back to Casemaker and Fastcase and she’ll talk about Google Scholar. , Casemaker and Fastcase don’t give you the editorial signals that Lexis and Westlaw and Bloomberg do. They will tell you if the case has a negative history. And with Casemaker, they give you a red thumbs down for instance. And it’s not until you click on the case that they will tell you what the red thumbs down means. And Casemaker will say reversed or overruled, but you have to — if you get a whole big, long list of results, you’ve got to open each case one by one. Fastcase will tell you if something has negative treatment, they don’t usually tell you exactly why. I think Casemaker gives you a little bit more depth of treatment. And one thing that Casemaker and Fastcase both don’t do is they do not tell you if a case has been affirmed. You’ve got to go back and run a search again on that party name, that case name, to figure that out. Lexis and Westlaw will give you negative and positive history about a case.
Judy Davis: Another issue is if you have a case that is not published, that is not going to be included in Google Scholar and neither Casemaker nor Fastcase includes those as well. So, that’s a bit of a problem and I know, Carole, I think you have a trick for that.
Carole Levitt: I do have some kind of trick for that. Really, it’s not so tricky, it’s just running the party name as if it’s at the keyword and seeing if I can find information about that particular case. But Lexis and Westlaw and Bloomberg, I mean, they — if it’s an unpublished case — when we say unpublished, we mean we’re reading it, we see it in the database, right? But the court has said it can’t be cited. It’s unpublished. So, Lexis and Westlaw and Bloomberg do include those in their citator. So, I have a case out of Texas that I used as my example and it was an unpublished case and it said exactly what I wanted it to say but I couldn’t cite to it because it was “unpublished”. But then I found out that it was affirmed by a higher court in Texas and that higher court published it and gave it a citation. So, that was great.
Judy Davis: I will mention a couple more websites that might help you with your validation of your case law. The general theme here is that it’s going to always be a little more tricky to validate a case if you’re on a budget.
But as we mentioned, as long as you’re working with a published case, you can use Google’s site checker and it’s called house cited and when you’re reading a case, it’s just up in the corner of the page. And again, they do not give you a thumbs up or thumbs down, but they will give you some excerpts from cases that have cited the case that you’re looking at, this is all done with their algorithm but that can be pretty helpful and they will also give you a list of every case that has cited your case and give you a little symbol to let you know how thoroughly the case is discussed your case. And they even have an additional feature that does not list the cases that have cited your case but their algorithm finds cases that are similar to your case. So, if your case was not specifically overruled, but maybe there’s a case in that area that talks about your legal issue and some law that has come down that affects that, you can use that last feature, the related issues on Google Scholar. And again, it’s more legwork than getting just a thumbs up, thumbs down but even then, you have to do your own research anyway because basically, the big paid databases, the information just comes from attorneys and editors reading the cases and making that call themselves. So, wouldn’t you want to make the call yourself? I’ll throw in one more cite here. I know I go on about Google Scholar, there’s a site called CourtListener. This isa free open-source website that is attempting to bring together law for the public. They also have a citator and when you pull up a case, they have a sidebar that will list the top-five cases that have cited the case that you’re looking at and by top-five, they mean the top-five most cited cases. So, that is a really handy way to get a quick idea of how your case has been treated as well and then of course, they will also give you the full list of everything that has cited your case, that’s called CourtListener.
Carole Levitt: Judy, I’m glad you mentioned CourtListener because I forgot to say that Recap is owned by CourtListener. So, same company doing a lot of amazing things, things with dockets and things of cases.
JoAnn Hathaway: So, in closing our last podcast question of the day, Judy and Carole, if you could give listeners one piece of advice about low-cost legal research, what would that be?
Carole Levitt: I’ll just say use our book, but use it as a reference guide, do not read it from page 1 to page 378. I’ve had some friends who’ve told me that they’re going to read my book and I’m like, “No, do not read my book.” Use the index, look up a topic that you want to research and that’s going to tell you what page number, that topic is in and then we will list some of the websites that we think are the best and teach you how to use them. So, do not read the book, but please just look at the index. And then before I give Judy her say, I just want to let you all know that the American Bar Association gave us a 20% discount code for any of you are listening and it’s good until the end of the year. If you want to quickly go to the book on the ABA website, I’m going to give you a shortened URL and it is linkon.in/ilrb20 and then the discount code is LGLRS20A. And this is going to bring your price down by 20% but if you’re a member of the bar, it’s going to bring it way down. It gives you 20% off of the member rate. And I believe if you go to the show notes, this information is going to be there. So if you didn’t write it down, don’t worry, you can still access that.
Judy Davis: I’ll throw in my two-cents worth here. And what I’m going to say not surprisingly is kind of similar to what Carole is saying. There is a wealth of information available online, you just have to know where it is and how to find it. So, the book would help you with that. But also, once you find that website, that’s going to have the information that you need, a lot of times, you need to take a little bit of time. step back and figure out how to use it, because not all websites are equally user-friendly. Sometimes, there’s a help link on the homepage, sometimes there is not. So, do take some time, either by looking it up in our index and finding our step-by-step instructions with screenshots or just look at the help link or the questions link or the frequently asked questions link and get all the information you can about the website before you jump in and start using it because the information may wel be there, it can just be tricky to find it.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, it looks like we’ve come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank our guests today, Carole Levitt and Judy Davis for a wonderful program.
Tish Vincent: Yes, thank you very much. It’s been very interesting. Carole and Judy, if our guest would like to follow up with you, how can they reach you?
Judy Davis: Well, as I said, I am at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. I’m on the website.
Tish Vincent: Thank you. And Carole?
Carole Levitt: So, you can reach me by email at [email protected] and I’d be happy to hear from you, answer any of your questions. Thanks so much.
Tish Vincent: Thank you. We really enjoyed hearing what you had to say and that book sounds like something that could save us all a lot of money and headaches trying to figure things out. This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan on Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I’m JoAnn Hathaway.
Tish Vincent: And I’m Tish Vincent. Until next time. Thank you for listening.
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