Although the best things in life may be free, unfortunately, the best electronic legal research tools are not.
The best, without question, are Westlaw and LexisNexis, and both can be pricey, according to legal research guru and law librarian Mary J. Koshollek of Godfrey & Kahn S.C. in Milwaukee.
Koshollek has used, or experimented with, the subscription-based up-and-comers, and says that, while some of them are very good, none equals the giants, in terms of the quantity of materials they cover, the speed with which they update, and especially the quality of their citators. But don’t write the rivals off completely, she adds, because depending upon your practice and research needs, one of the competitors, in combination with transactional use of either Shepard’s or KeyCite, can work just fine for some lawyers.
What follows is a glimpse of four of the better-known rivals: Fastcase, Loislaw, VersusLaw and TheLaw.net. As an aside, I note that all four, for no apparent reason, don’t like to put spaces between the words in their names.
Fastcase runs from $65/month or $695/year for the National Appellate Plan, or $95/month or $995/year for the Premium Plan. That’s if you’re not a member of the Wisconsin State Bar, which, as of Nov. 1, will offer free access to Fastcase — huge news to practitioners in the state.
If you need to get started with Fastcase right now, the company offers 24-hour free trials, which I took advantage of, as did Koshollek. She was contacted within in hour after her sign-up by a sales rep.
Fastcase prides itself on its “Google-like” searching ability; you don’t have to worry about if you’re using the proper connectors. It has a citator, Authority Check, and, to the company’s credit, they acknowledge it’s not equivalent to Shepard’s or KeyCite. The Web site suggests you supplement your searches with their citators transactionally, usually about $4 per case.
For customer service, Fastcase offers “Help” files, as well as the ability to use live Instant Messaging or an 800-number, staffed during business hours for Eastern time. There’s also a tutorial and Webinars.
“It has a very clean interface,” Koshollek says, “and I was very impressed overall. …The only thing that I didn’t like was the state statutes database, which is not complete yet.
They have their own statutory versions of Illinois and Missouri, but for Wisconsin, they link you out to Wisconsin’s own database. Not a bad thing, but I can do that without a price.
“When I mentioned that to the gentleman who called me, he said to stay tuned, because they’re hoping to have that done by next year.”
All told, it sounds pretty good. Why even look at the services that aren’t free?
Obviously, you want to make the most informed decision that you can, and as much as we cheapies hate to admit it, sometimes you get what you pay for. The next option, Loislaw, for example, has editorial features that you might value and don’t mind paying for. Also, if State Bar President-elect Doug Kammer gets his way, maybe we won’t always have a mandatory bar in Wisconsin. Leaving the bar will mean leaving free Fastcase…. and apparently, some people would do that in a heartbeat.
A Loislaw sales rep quoted rates of $110-$125/month (limited-time specials). The higher sum gives access to all state databases, and the lesser gives access to one state database, with both packages giving full access to the federal database, plus online treatises, public records and bar publications, and Loislaw’s citator, GlobalCite.
They’re flat rates, and Loislaw doesn’t care if one lawyer or 20 lawyers in a firm use it -– the rate’s the same. However, only one lawyer can use a password at any given time, and if two lawyers within a firm find that they frequently want to conduct research simultaneously, Loislaw will sell them a second subscription for half price.
I was offered a three-day trial, and I received the basic training immediately. It took about 20 minutes and the sales rep was very knowledgeable. There’s 24/7/364 telephone technical support, in addition to a tutorial and in-house attorneys offering research assistance.
“We like Loislaw very much and have a subscription here, the full-blown model,” says Koshollek. “It’s easy to use, and the material that’s on it is really good. We also like some of the editorial features, like the client timer, or ‘find a case’ if you just have a citation. … They’re features that can really save your professional time.”
She does have one slight hesitation regarding Loislaw, and that’s that it’s a recent acquisition by Wolters Kluwer. The change in ownership might mean a price change. In addition, there’s spotty coverage of the federal district courts – but that’s true for most of these alternatives, Fastcase included.
VersusLaw is a very respected company, according to Koshollek, and it’s the cheapest I looked at, starting from $13.95/month for the Standard Plan, giving you access to the 50-state database, to the Premium Plan for $24.95, up to the Professional Plan for 39.95/month.
There are no contracts. As long as you give notice five days before the end of the billing cycle, you won’t be charged for the next month. The customer service rep to whom I spoke, who was very courteous, said it’s not uncommon for people to cancel when they’re not expecting a need to do legal research, and then they later, easily re-activate the subscription.
The Wisconsin cases go back to 1945; further back than Fastcase, if that matters to you.
VersusLaw has a citator, V.Cite, but only for the Premium and Professional Plans.
VersusLaw doesn’t give free trials, but does allow you to “research as a guest” for 24 hours. You’ll be able to see search results, but you won’t be able to see the full cases.
For customer/technical support, there’s an 800 number, staffed during business hours in the Pacific Time zone, in addition to e-mail support.
You’ve probably heard of TheLaw.net because they’ve spammed you, as they have for both Koshollek and me.
I talked to the company’s owner, Mark Whitney, about that, who says he has no plans to stop because frankly, it’s working. If you don’t like receiving them, call or e-mail him, and unlike most companies, he’ll actually do your bidding.
TheLaw.net is inexpensive, ranging from $575 to $1,995/year. The first price is for one lawyer and one staff member, and the last is for five lawyers and five staff members.
TheLaw.net sells annual subscriptions only, but there’s a 30-day cancellation, full-refund policy. A subscription gives you access to all state databases and their citator, CiteTrak.
The Wisconsin caselaw dates back to 1950.
Koshollek says, “The case database replicates the depth and breadth of VersusLaw, especially on the federal level, and it offers some searchability across files. But it also has great links now to other
law-related sites, including a lot of government sites… This could be a very fine option for someone who needs national scope, and is not looking for a lot of editorial enhancements.”
It’s a cut above VersusLaw, according to Whitney, because VersusLaw doesn’t have official pagination, hyperlinks or dual-column printing, and TheLaw.net’s caselaw database is better – for example, it’s the only company other than Westlaw that has all bankruptcy court decisions with official pagination.
There are no free trials. It says under FAQs that they’d rather spend their time serving the people who’ve put their money on the table, as opposed to those who want to kick the tires.
There are probably 40 or 400 more online legal research providers that I didn’t look at, and if you’ve found a different, great product at a great price, please send me an e-mail to let me know.
Send your cheap law office management and legal marketing ideas to [email protected].