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By: Dorothy Secol, CLA

What do snow and free legal research have in common; besides the fact that they’re both free? Absolutely nothing! Kind of like the words “spring” and “snow storm” on this fabulous Monday. Could someone please let “spring” know that 5 inches of snow is currently glistening upon my lawn, with more flakes falling by the minute, and I just laundered my latest round of sweaters because…guess what? I’m still wearing them?! The good news is, there’s no better way to start a day than viewing a scenic snowscape outside one’s window, and learning about free legal resources online! Pull that scarf around a bit tighter, lift up that piping hot mug in a salute to paralegal sanity, and keep reading!

There are a daunting number of free or low cost legal research sites available on the Internet. Which ones to choose and where to start?

Many of the free sites are large comprehensive sites with information such as overviews of legal topics, cases, statutes, legal news and directories of legal professionals and experts. In addition to these resources there are government sites which are also valuable legal research tools at both the state and federal level. Government agency and court websites are particularly useful

JUSTIAwww.justia.com offers comprehensive coverage of a wide variety of legal materials. Their mission is to “advance the availability of legal resources for the benefit of society.” This site focuses on primary legal materials. From the home page, you can search the entire site by using the keyword search box, or you can select a legal practice area to research. When you have selected a specific area, you will then be presented with a brief overview of that area of law and related information such as useful Web resources, relevant laws, recent legislation, regulations, important cases, articles and news. Justia also maintains a legal research section on the home page where you can access information regarding cases and codes, federal and state court opinions, blogs, podcasts, forms and experts.

FINDLAWhttp://lp.findlaw.com/ is the site for legal professionals. Findlaw is one of the most frequently consulted sites which claims to be the “world’s leading provider of online legal information.” There are two versions of the site, one for public use and one for legal professionals. The above site is the one for legal professionals.

From the main search box on the home page, you can search across the entire site which is helpful when seeking the broadest of results. If you need a more precise search, use the “research the law” section that allows you to search for a case, a specific type of contract, or an article. You can also browse various research materials by type, jurisdiction or practice area.

There are a number of options in the professional version. From the home page, you can search or browse cases and codes, practice management topics, or jobs and careers, as well as legal news, blogs and service providers. Findlaw is great for locating both federal and state cases and codes. By selecting the “cases and codes” tab, you can search a legal topic in a particular court. If you know the case you are seeking, you can search for it by party name or docket number, but if you don’t have a case in mind, you can use the “free text search” option and create a keyword query.

LEGAL INFORMATION INSTITUTEwww.law.cornell.edu is one of the most comprehensive sites provided by a non-profit organization. The site is produced by Cornell University Law School. Their stated mission is that “everyone should be able to read and understand the laws that govern them, without cost.” To that end, LII publishes laws, creates materials that help assist in understanding the law and explores technologies that allow you to find the law more easily. This site is less cluttered and easier to navigate. From the home page, you can use the keyword box to search across the entire site. Within the “read the law” section, you can access federal and state constitutions, laws, codes, statutes and cases. There is a portal nature to this site and therefore you will often select a link and be redirected to another site for the actual information. In the “learn more” section, you can access the online legal dictionary called Wex, the Supreme Court Bulletin, the annotated US Constitution and the LII blog. The “popular topics” section allows you to explore specific legal topics and in many cases will provide a narrative overview of the topic with a list of relevant resources, including applicable statutes, recent court decisions and other key Internet resources.

GOVERNMENT SITESwww.usa.gov the official site for the US Government where you would select the agency or agencies covering your particular areas.

Other useful government sites are those for particular courts. At the federal level, there is the US Courts site (www.uscourts.gov). From here you can access links to all the federal courts, including the US Supreme Court, Courts of Appeals, District Courts Bankruptcy Courts and Courts of Special Jurisdiction. Under the “court records” tab there is a link to PACER (www.pacer.gov), the system that provides law-cost access to federal case files and dockets.

Some other frequently used sites are:

Google Scholar – www.scholar.google.com

Lexis Nexis Infopro- Zimmerman’s Research Guides (http://law.lexisnexis.com/infopro/zimmerman)

HG – www.hg.org

The Public Library of Law www.plol.org

MegaLaw – www.megalaw.com

Free web resources are a good place to start your research, but they should be supplemented and updated. You are not likely to find all the answers or information through a free website.

Dorothy Secol, CLA has worked in the legal profession for over 35 years and has been a freelance paralegal since 1982.  She maintains an office in Allenhurst, New Jersey, doing business as Dorothy Secol, CLA.    Dorothy is a graduate of Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey.

Ms. Secol is a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and received her CLA status in 1978.  In addition, she is a former trustee of the Central Jersey Paralegal Association and a former Vice-President and trustee of Legal Assistants Association of New Jersey. She is also an associate member of the New Jersey State Bar Association and a former Co-Chair of that Committee.  She is also a member of the Real Property and Probate Section and the Foreclosure Committee.  Ms. Secol serves on the Paralegal Advisory Boards of Brookdale Community College and Ocean County College and is a mediator for the Ocean Township, Allenhurst and Deal Municipal Courts appointed by the New Jersey Superior Court.

Ms. Secol is the author of Starting and Managing Your Own Business: A Freelancing Guide for Paralegals, published by Aspen Publishing Co.  and has written articles for the ANew Jersey Law Journal,@ and ANew Jersey Lawyer.@  In addition, Ms. Secol was a petitioner in the case of In re Opinion 24 of the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, 128 N.J. 114 (1992).  The case validated the fact that Athere is no distinguishable difference between an in-house and freelance paralegal working under the direct supervision of an attorney.

Ms. Secol has presented seminars on real estate procedure, probate procedure and law office management as well as how to set up a business as a freelance paralegal. For contact information, see www.dorothysecolcla.com

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If you know of any additional “free” websites that should be on our radar, tell us about ‘em! Until we meet again, keep yourselves warm, the esquires sane, and yourself hanging by a thread…you know the one – hovering between perpetual states of possible and impossible, sane and insane, crazy and happy, working and permanently departing from one’s desk, promptly circling back to possible and impossible, sane and insane…the fun never ends!

Enough about free resources, snow, and crazy paralegals. We’ll see you soon.