The Best Things In Life Really are Free

A lawyer friend told me about a conversation he had with his 21-year-old son about his own experience when he was a junior associate at a big law firm. My friend, “So I told my son, ‘this is how we used to do legal research. Research was done with books or a paid service called Lexis-Nexis. I would sit in front of the monitor and enter a search query. Because the service was very expensive, my manager warned me not to waste time. The more time I spent on the service, the more expensive it would be’. I told my son that even with all of the advances with the internet, it is still the same way today. You pay for every key stroke. My son was incredulous and asked me ‘Why would anyone pay for information that’s online?’ “

It’s 2019. A lot is going on in the world today that we never expected. Cars can drive themselves. Amazon broke a trillion-dollar valuation. Israel is headed to the moon. The Patriots won the Super Bowl (ok, that one was expected).

Another thing that is expected in the year 2019… free access to open source information. We have a whole generation of individuals who have no idea how to operate a rotary phone, formulate a complete sentence or thought in writing, and wonder why television has commercials. But Free Access to information is something that is expected and something we take for granted. If you are looking for news, no problem. Just go to the news site that suits your sensibilities and click. It’s free. Medicine? The same. Information on any subject? Wikipedia or just Google it.

Did you know that all of US case law is public domain? No one owns the source data. But good luck finding a way to access that information that is logical and convenient without paying a lot of money. We are a country of laws yet finding the actual case law you need is a choice between paying a lot of money or wondering if you have the correct data and the most recent decisions.

One thing paid and free services have in common is Primary Case Law. These are the state and federal decisions handed down by each appellate court in the land, i.e., the cases which establish the precedent that guides other cases and laws. The difference is in how the cases are accessed and what add-ons are available. Think of going to your favorite burger place. The burger is the main dish. You can also get some fries, a coke, ketchup and mustard. But the main dish is still the burger.

Same thing with case law. When people do legal research, 80% of what people are searching for is actually just the case law. Sure, there is secondary content that is proprietary to each paid service that includes journal articles, legal encyclopedias, treatises, etc., but access to the main dish is what people need.

So why pay for a service?

I think the dominant benefit of paid services is their brand; the industry is dominated by three well-known and established companies. But so is the automobile industry and in 2018, the top five Midsize SUVs included none of the top US automobile manufacturers. People buy brand which does not mean they are buying the best product for their usage.

Here is my list of key features people should be looking for in a Primary Case Law service:

  1. Easy to use – search engine, intuitive interface, fast
  2. More sophisticated search options
  3. Advanced searching tools and proximity operators
  4. Search again within search results
  5. Filters
  6. Save research to allow users to revisit the search results
  7. The ability to validate that cases are current and still “good law.”

You can certainly get all of the above with a branded subscription-service or you can get the same functionality and cases at a “generic” site that provides the information and services at no charge to the user – welcome to the web’s evolution of information access.

“Out of the mouths of babes…” My friend’s son asks the exact question we should all be asking when the topic is public domain information: “Why should we have to pay for something the government provides AND expects us to know?”

And the answer is, “You don’t have to.” is off-brand, generic, non-subscription, and no pay-per-document. It is access to information the web was designed to provide, with the same kind of access American’s take for granted and use every day with confidence… which is to say, free for all users without restriction or limitation of access.