Free online legal research in the pipeline, and now

Erik Eckholm had this story in yesterday’s New York Times, headlined “Harvard Law Readies Trove of Decisions for Digital Age.” He wrote:

Now, in a digital-age sacrifice intended to serve grand intentions, the Harvard librarians are slicing off the spines of all but the rarest volumes and feeding some 40 million pages through a high-speed scanner. They are taking this once unthinkable step to create a complete, searchable database of American case law that will be offered free on the Internet, allowing instant retrieval of vital records that usually must be paid for.

Everything is expected to be available by 2017. Intriguing.

Reading this story got me thinking about the online legal research options available already. I have a decent LexisNexis subscription — it’s actually my practice’s single biggest annual cost. But I often use free options instead, mostly for uncompensated research like for this blog.

The main free-legal-research source I use is Google Scholar. If you’ve never used it, it’s worth a look. Overall, I find it good for finding specific cases but not much use for sophisticated legal research. When I created a big Excel spreadsheet of recent en banc cases while researching my en banc analysis post, it was quite handy to be able to include hyperlinks to the cases. The good: broad coverage of published and unpublished cases, easy to limit searches by date and court, and usually includes reporter pagination. The bad: the shephardizing functionality is weak, there’s no way to filter out non-precedential cases, and research is difficult beyond looking for specific words or phrases.

I also sometimes use Villanova Law’s official digital archive of Third Circuit opinions. The search engine is circa 2004 and all you get are the slip ops, but sometimes that’s all you need. (For published cases since I started this blog in April 2014, I just use the blog’s search box, top right, instead.)

I’m also aware of free-for-members options like Casemaker for Pa. Bar members and Fastcase for NJ Bar members, but I don’t use them myself.

Other views? Comments always welcome.