Are you doing legal research and can’t find cases to interpret a statute? Look at the legislative history to know the intent of the legislature when they enacted the law.
It's the last month of the year already. As a thank you for following my blog and social media pages, I would like to offer you 31 practice tips until the end of the year. My hope is that these practice tips will give you the tools to increase your legal practice's efficiency, productivity and profitability for 2015.
31 Days Until 2015
Casemaker and Fastcase are great alternatives to Westlaw and LexisNexis, especially for primary law. And the best thing is, they are often offered free of charge to state bar members.
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about Fastcase and Casemaker, two low cost alternatives to Westlaw and LexisNexis for solo practitioners and small law firms. Attorneys and paralegals can use another legal research tool to find case law and legal articles: Google Scholar. And it’s free!
As you’ll read below, you can’t only use Google Scholar to perform legal research and cancel your paid subscription to other legal research providers. But if you want to save your client money, use Google Scholar first to see what you can find. Here are some Google Scholar FAQs for legal research.
What is Google Scholar?
Google Scholar is a search engine for scholarly literature covering different disciplines and sources. You can look for articles, theses, books, abstracts and case law from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other websites.
What is the extent of the legal coverage?
Google Scholar covers federal and state cases, plus legal articles.
What are the benefits?
As I mentioned above, it is free. However, if you want to read the full text of legal articles, you may have to subscribe to the academic website. Another advantage of Google Scholar is that it includes limited unreported cases. Email alerts for new cases and the option to create a library are my favorite features.
What are the cons?
Google Scholar does not include statutes. Its citation service is not as good as Shepard’s or KeyCite because it does not show if the case is good law and how subsequent courts have treated it.
How do you search case law?
On Google Scholar’s homepage, type in keywords relevant to your legal issue. Under your keywords, click on case law and select the court(s). When you are on the search result page, you can filter case law by date and again by court. Under each case, you can find how to cite it pursuant to Bluebook rules by clicking on “Cite.” To read a case, click on it. At the top left-hand corner of the case, click on “How cited” to find subsequent authorities that have cited the case. The horizontal bars next to the “Cited by” case names represent the depth of discussion of the searched case.
Unlike Westlaw or LexisNexis, Google Scholar only uses the connector AROUND. According to Eric Voigt from R+W Legal Consultants, you can only use the word AROUND to search for a term that appears after another term. As an example, if you type “email AROUND(5) official AROUND(10) record”, Google Scholar will find cases where “official” appears within 5 words after “email” and where “record” appears within 10 words after “email” and “official.” Eric Voigt also explains that AROUND must be capitalized, have no space between it and the parenthetical and include quotation marks around the entire search string. Lastly, AROUND only connects individual words, not phrases.
How do you search legal articles?
On Google Scholar’s homepage, type in keywords relevant to your legal issue. Under your keywords, click on “Articles.” When you are on the search result page, you can filter your articles by date. Under each article, you can find how to cite it pursuant to Bluebook rules by clicking on “Cite.” You can also find if it was cited by other articles or case law. To read an article, click on it. It will bring you to the publisher or the academic website where you will find whether you have to subscribe.
How do you create an email alert?
Creating an email alert for new case law or legal articles is simple. When you are on the search result page, on the left sidebar, click on “Create an alert” where you will provide your email address.
How do you create a library?
First, you have to enable your library by clicking on “My library” on Google Scholar’s homepage. Then when you are on the search result page, under each case or legal article of interest, click “Save.” Saved cases and articles will appear in your library. Later on, you can create labels to organize it.
Hope this convinced you to try out Google Scholar. It’s simple and it’s free. If you have any questions about using Google Scholar, leave a comment below.
What is legislative history?
Legislative history is the material generated in the course of creating legislation such as bills, committee hearings, committee reports and debates on the floor. It also includes all prior versions of a law.
When do you need to look at legislative history?
How to find prior versions of a law
There are several ways to find prior versions of a law. First, you find the statute in the statute book. Then, you look at the bottom where the history is. Let’s say that you are looking for s. 63, ch. 99-385. By using this reference, you know that you have to look for the Laws of Florida of 1999, Chapter 385, Section 63.
Another way to find prior versions of a law is to use a legal research program such as Westlaw. In Westlaw, search for the statute by using its citation. Then, on the left side of the screen, under legislative history, click on text amendments and select the one you need.
If you can’t find a prior version of a law at your local courthouse library or on Westlaw, you can get it through the State Archives of Florida.
How to find legislative intent
If the law or its amendment was enacted recently (1998 to present), find the bill number of the law by visiting the Laws of Florida website. Then, go to the House of Representatives website and do a bill search. This website provides staff analysis, bill text, vote history and committee actions.
If you have access to Westlaw, you can find the statute as mentioned above for finding a prior version of a law. Then, under legislative history, you can find text amendments, editor’s notes, bill drafts, reports and related materials.
Once again, if you can’t find what you are looking for online or if the law is older, you can contact the State Archives of Florida to find the material generated in the course of creating the legislation.
For federal law, the Library of Congress provides a legislative history guide on its website.
Remember that legislative intent should be used as a last resort when doing legal research because it is not primary law.
As part of my work with a local government law firm, I have accumulated over the years a list of online resources for municipalities, counties and special districts. Below are local government legal resources you need to know:
Municipal & County Codes
Municode includes most major American municipalities and counties ordinances and rules. American Legal Publishing Corporation also provides for select municipal codes. If you can’t find what you are looking for on these websites, local governments often include their codes on their websites.
Ethics play an important role in local government and vary by state. Several counties and cities have also adopted codes of ethics. Most states have an ethics commission such as Oregon and Florida. In Florida, the Commission on Ethics website includes a lot of resources for local government such as opinions, orders, rules, forms and guides for public officers and employees.
Local Government Formation
Not only can you find proposed bills that may affect local government on the Florida House of Representatives website, but also guidelines for bill drafting, local bill policies, procedures and forms, and a local government formation manual. In California, you can find information on special district formation on the California Association of Local Agency Formation Commissions.
You can find board meeting agendas and minutes on most local government websites. County minutes can also be found on the county clerk website. For example, Palm Beach County minutes can be viewed on the Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller website.
Local governments often publish public notices in newspapers, from a board meeting notice to a request for proposals. You can view public notices published throughout the State of Florida on Florida Public Notices website. The Ohio Newspaper Association also has a public notices website.
There are a lot more resources specific to each municipality, county and special district that can be found online. If you are looking for a local government resource or document I haven’t mentioned here, send me an email. I will be happy to help you find it.
Startup solo practitioners and small law firms often have limited means. Some of them can’t afford to subscribe to Westlaw and LexisNexis. As useful as they are, there are free and low cost alternatives that can accomplish similar results. Let’s take a look at two of them.
Fastcase is a legal research service that covers federal and state primary law. Its collection includes statutes, constitutions, cases, a newspaper archive, legal forms and PACER search of federal filings. Unfortunately, some state regulations and court rules are missing. Fastcase prides itself in being the only legal research system that sorts the best results to the top of the list like Google. It also features an interactive map of search results so you can see the most important cases at a glance. Even though Fastcase flags cases with negative treatment, it is not a complete citator like Shepard’s. Nonetheless, for the price, it is well worth it. Fastcase offers two payment plans under $100 per month depending on the type of legal research coverage you need. It also offers a 24-hour free trial. It's good to know that several state bars, including the Florida Bar, offer Fastcase for free to their members.
Casemaker’s coverage is similar to Fastcase. It provides federal and state primary law. However, there are three services that differentiate it from Fastcase. Casemaker offers digests that include summaries of state and federal appellate cases classified by practice area. It also offers CaseCheck+, a citator that rivals with Shepard’s and Keycite. Finally, attorneys can use Citecheck to upload briefs and find out if citations remain good law. Casemaker’s subscription plans are in the same price range as Fastcase. Like Fastcase, Casemaker partners with bar associations to offer free basic legal research to their members.
Even though Fastcase and Casemaker may not be as comprehensive as Westlaw or LexisNexis especially for state coverage and secondary law, they still offer a viable low cost option for legal research.
Disclaimer: The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. Your Paralegal Help Desk's blogger is not an attorney and cannot give legal advice. If you have a legal issue, you should immediately seek the advice of a licensed attorney in your state.