The Internet as a research tool is both an astoundingly rich resource and an astoundingly frustrating one. The Internet cannot be ignored as a research tool, however. It falls to the searcher to be aware of its limitations.
The Internet is not nearly as structured as the databases from commercial vendors such as Westlaw and Lexis. Most Internet searchers use one of the many search engines as a means of finding information. Each search engine works a little differently, however, and those differences can affect search results. It is easy to think that when you’ve run a search in a couple of search engines that you’ve done a fairly thorough search. However, a comprehensive search is impossible on the Internet.
Probably the biggest difficulty with search engines is their lack of standardization. One search engine may treat a search for attorney malpractice as a phrase search, another one may treat it as a search for attorney OR malpractice, and a third may treat it as attorney AND malpractice. Again, there are too many search engines to spend time learning the peculiarities of each one. To learn how to maximize the effectiveness of a search on a particular search engine, click on the Help link, search tips, or advanced search instructions.
With all these negatives, why should a legal researcher use the Internet at all? The Internet can be a cheap alternative to the use of commercial databases such as Lexis and Westlaw for finding primary legal materials such as U.S. federal and state statutes, bills, cases, and regulations. Depending on the topic, some materials can be available more quickly on the Internet than on Lexis and Westlaw. The Internet can augment an average law library's resources by providing alternate copies of print materials, and information that cannot be found in the law library in print or electronic format.
This text can’t go into an exhaustive list of Internet legal resources, but a sampling of what is available would include:
FindLaw, a Web portal focused on law and government, provides access to an online library of legal resources for use by legal professionals, consumers and small businesses. FindLaw's mission is to make legal information on the Internet easy to find.
The Federal Digital System disseminates official information from all three branches of the Federal Government. This site includes regulations, the United States Code and Presidential Documents.
Extensive federal legislative information. The Library of Congress is migrating the content on THOMAS to a new site, Congress.gov. Currently in beta, Congress.gov provides legislative text, Congressional Record, and Committee Reports, and will be continuing to add content over the next several years.
The Legal Information Institute offers extensive holdings of case and statutory law, and some administrative sources. Materials are arranged both by jurisdiction and by topic. Most of the case law is fairly recent - there are not full runs of court decisions.
The Public Library of Law provides free access to primary sources including federal and state cases, statutes, regulations, and constitutions, as well as legal forms.
The American Society of International Law Guide to Electronic Resources for International Law.
This site includes U. S. Supreme Court cases as well as a collection of audio recordings of oral arguments from 1981 - present, and arguments from selected earlier cases.
The Google Scholar search engine covers scholarly articles (some full text, some abstracts only) as well as case law.