picture of
Lyonette Louis-Jacques

Lyonette Louis-Jacques

Virtual Presentation by Ms. Lyonette Louis-Jacques
Foreign and International Law
Librarian and Lecturer in Law
University of Chicago Law School

How Not To Waste Time On The Internet:
Efficient Use Of The Internet For Legal Research

D'Angelo Law Library, Summer Survival Skills, April 27, 1999 and May 3, 1999.

Quick Links


In the past few years, many new resources have been put up on the Internet that facilitate legal research work. The sheer number and variety of resources can sometimes make it difficult to determine when to use the Internet, where to start, how to choose among similar resources, and how to keep up-to-date on available resources. The present guide is intended to explain why the Internet is useful for legal research, and describe some of the major resources available on the Internet for researching the law of the United States and other countries, comparative law, and international law. It describes what resources are generally not on the Internet and some problems with doing legal research on the Internet. The guide also includes some tips for the net-traveling legal researcher.

Why Use the Internet for Legal Research?

The Internet is 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 administrative regulations and decisions. Newspapers may sometimes provide full texts of recent cases, reports, etc. at their Internet web sites, but not in the print versions. Recent documents can be published by involved organizations and associations (for instance, USA ENGAGE published the briefs, memoranda, order and final judgment in the National Foreign Trade Council's lawsuit against the State of Massachusetts' Burma Law). Other potential Internet publishers include law firms, lawyers, parties in a case, universities (Florida International University published the complaint (which was originally published by the Miami Herald at its web site) and Temple University published the final judgment (996 F. Supp. 1239 (1997)) in Marlene Alejandre's lawsuit against the Republic of Cuba involving the killing of Brothers to the Rescue pilots), legal publishers (CourtTV Online published the Marlene Alejandre complaint as well), the government agencies (for instance, the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division's Microsoft case documents and U.S. Trade Representative reports), companies, interested individuals, etc. Sometimes these materials are available more quickly on the Internet than on LEXIS and WESTLAW (especially if they relate to the Law of Cyberspace/The Internet, Computer Law, Immigration Law, the First Amendment and censorship, Communications Law,Intellectual Property, major criminal trials, Antitrust Law, elections, or other hot topics). And sometimes, the Internet is the only place where you will find some primary materials, for instance, lower court/trial level decisions (U.S. District Court decisions not yet published or that will never be published in the Federal Supplement, for instance), complaints and briefs, governments reports and hearings, legislation and case law from foreign countries, treaties involving non-U.S. countries, e-mail addresses and other directory information for legal professionals worldwide, and materials in areas of law that have been traditionally underrepresented in print and electronic legal publications (women and the law, human rights (including related case briefs and memoranda), the rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered people, law and literature (for instance, e-texts of Jane Austen's writings), Roman law, law and popular culture, etc.), and non-legal materials that are important to law work or interdisciplinary research.

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. For instance, here are some examples of the types of resources that are on the Internet: census information (and statistics of all types), legal practice materials such as forms and software, archives of law-related discussions via listserv and newsgroups, uniform and model acts; news; publishers' catalogs; worldwide library catalogs; indexes/tables of contents of journals; full text of articles from electronic law and non-law journals; books (such as the Classics); bookstores (Law Stuff USA (academic textbooks), Amazon, etc.), poetry; Shakespeare's works; Classical music; Bartlett's Quotations; song lyrics; comic strips; tax forms; sports information (such as professional baseball and basketball players salaries); information on Civil War Artillery; Chicago (blues, newspapers, sports, etc.); economics working papers; travel information; legal documents (transcripts of hearings, reports, briefs, memoranda, complaints, indictments, oral arguments, etc.). The Internet is strongest for non-legal materials, and for legal materials that are usually not found or will not be available as quickly on LEXIS and WESTLAW and print publications in your law library.

However, not everything is available on the Internet (see Internet Reality Check). That "everything is on the Internet" is largely a myth (however, I maintain that it is possible to get everything you want using the Internet, but there is no guarantee - if a document you are looking for is not at a web, gopher, or ftp site, you can always post requests for help on listservs, but subscribers to the electronic discussion groups do not have to provide you with a copy of the document). Mostly recent documents from that past 5 years or so are on the Internet and sometimes really old documents, but the vast number of materials published in between are not on the Internet or available spottily, at best. For example, you can find the full texts of debates for the 1st-8th Congresses (1774-1805) and the Congressional Record from the 101st Congress (1989-1990) to the present. Notable exceptions include the FindLaw repository of the full texts of U.S. Supreme Court Opinions from 1893 (v.150 U.S.) to date and Yale Law School's Avalon Project which includes pre-18th century to 20th century documents on law, history, and diplomacy.

You won't find many full runs of law journals on the Internet. If you do find full texts, they will only be for a few years. You will mostly find tables of contents and/or indexes of law journals. No one wants to lose pay subscriptions by putting full texts on the Internet for free. You will not find many books on the Internet (perhaps some electronic casebooks) - don't expect to (an exception is the Annotated Constitution which is 2444 pages in print). No real encyclopedic treatments of areas of law either (see exception with the Encyclopedia of Law and Economics). Note that Internet resources can be transitory - that wonderful web site or document you found today, might not be there the next day.

Where to Start Your Internet Legal Research

Before you start using the Internet for legal research, determine if the information you are looking for is available in hardcopy in your library, or in electronic format on LEXIS, WESTLAW, CD-ROM, or some other database. Note that it is possible to do more complex searches via LEXIS, WESTLAW, and other subscription database than using some of the free Internet resources. And keep in mind that, sometimes, it is more efficient to find a hornbook or treatise on your topic or a good journal article before turning to the Internet. It might be less costly in terms of time, results, etc., NOT to use the Internet. It depends on what you are researching. If it has to do with standard torts, contracts, corporations, securities, antitrust topics and you need background information, you'll get at useful information faster OFF the Internet.

If you decide to use the Internet, be prepared! This means making sure that you have the Adobe Acrobat Reader to be able to download and read files in PDF format (usually government documents; reasonable facsimile of what the document will look like in print/hardcopy/paper). Set up your browser so that it will automatically download the file and call it up/launch the Adobe Acrobat Reader as a helper application. Set up your printer so that materials you printout include the URL, date and time of download of the document (information needed for citation purposes). "Bookmark" or add to your "Favorites" any useful site you find so you can easily get to them later (or better yet, if possible, add them to your personal web page). Make sure you have updated anti-virus software (so you can download Microsoft Word and WordPerfect files without fear). Know some shortcuts - for .com addresses, you don't need to type out the entire URL (disney will do in lieu of http://www.disney.com/ or findlaw instead of http://www.findlaw.com/). U.S. government agency addresses are usually http://www.[agency acronym/abbreviation].gov/ (so http://www.fcc.gov/, http://www.irs.gov/, http://www.uspto.gov/ - but there are exceptions such as http://www.state.gov/ (U.S. Department of State)). Remember: .com (commercial), .gov (government), .org (organization), .edu (education). And sometimes mistaken guesses can lead you astray (compare http://www.whitehouse.com/ and http://www.whitehouse.gov/ - warning - the .com site has adult material). And you generally can leave off the "http" - that's the default. Note that not every resource on the Internet is free. For fee-based resources, be prepared to evaluate them against their free counterparts or non-Internet alternatives and to arrange payment. And know where you are going to start.

Prior to using the Internet for legal research, you should be aware of the Bluebook rules for citation of Internet resources. The Sixteenth Edition of The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation states as follows in Rule 17.3.3 (page 124):

     Because of the transient nature of many Internet sources,
     citation to Internet sources is discouraged unless the materials
     are unavailable in printed form or are difficult to obtain in
     their original form.  When citing to materials found on the
     Internet, provide the name of the author (if any), the title or
     top-level heading of the material being cited, and the 
     Uniform Resource Locator (URL).  The Uniform Resource Locator is
     the electronic address of the information and should be given in
     angled brackets.  For electronic journals and publications, the
     actual date of publication should be given.  Otherwise, provide
     the most recent modification date of the source preceded by the 
     term "last modified" or the date of access preceded by the term
     "visited" if the modification date is unavailable:

Mark Israel, The alt.usage.english FAQ File (last modified Nov. 17, 1995)


Scott Adams, The Dilbert Zone (visited Jan. 20, 1996)


      Citations to journals that appear only on the Internet should
      include the volume number, the title of the journal, and the
      sequential article number.  Pinpoint citations should refer
      to the paragraph number, if available:

Dan L. Burk, Trademarks Along the Infobahn: A First Look at the Emerging Law of Cybermarks, 1 Rich. J. L. & Tech. 1, ¶ 12 (Apr. 10, 1995)


It's good to begin searching on the Internet at a site with which you are familiar. This could be your firm's intranet, the University of Chicago Law School D'Angelo Law Library page or, one of my favorite legal research "portals"/gateways, FindLaw. There are also lists of "Best of the Legal Web" pages:

To determine the quality of information you find on the Internet (what's a good site), consider some of the following: objectivity, expediency, timeliness, accuracy, authenticity, scope. Is the site free or fee-based? If it costs, any guarantees of quality control? Who is the author/publisher - government agency, university, organization, company, law firm, a good-hearted individual? What is the source of the data - who provided it and in what format? Was the original pagination of paper version retained? Is there an electronic signature to confirm authorship? What is the date of the web site/document? When last modified/updated? Is the document full text, index or abstracts? Is it complete or excerpted? Is the content of the electronic version as accurate as the print? Are there archives? How long is data retained at the web site? Broken links? Ease of navigation? Search mechanisms? How easy is the web site to access? Slow connections? Is information there stable? Is there a contact person? Are broken links quickly fixed? If you have a choice of publishers for a document, choose the originator of the document ( government agency, international organization, etc.). Use documents where it is possible to verify date, authorship, other indicia of authencity.

If you are unfamiliar with doing research on the Internet, it is good to hunt down a legal research guide. The guides below are good to check before embarking on legal research on the Internet. They describe and link to legal resources generally available on the Internet such as web, gopher, ftp sites, and listservs, or list existing Internet legal research guides.

Jim Milles

Genie Tyburski
G. Burgess Allison
Argus Clearinghouse (was called "Clearinghouse for Subject-Oriented Internet Resource Guides"; includes research guides on all sorts of topics, including law, many with hypertext links; most useful for non-legal research)

Or you can browse through some of the major Internet sites for law. If you become familiar with the sites below, you can do research on the Internet for legal questions more effectively. These web sites normally arrange information by legal subject (Antitrust Law, Civil Rights, Immigration Law, etc.), by type of document (Constitutions, Court Cases, Statutes, Treaties, etc.), by source (Governmental agency, International Organization, Law Firm, Law School, Publisher), and/or by intended audience (Law Students, Law Librarians, etc.). Note that, for U.S. government documents, try THOMAS or GPO Access.

U.S. House of Representatives Internet Law Library (one of the most comprehensive sites for law-related information on the Net there is!)

FindLaw (great, well-organized starting point for legal research - has links to just about everything related to law on the Internet!)
Indiana University Law School (maintains the World Wide World Virtual Library for Law)
Cornell University Law School (Legal Information Institute (LII); includes links by "Legal Topics" and "Source")
Emory University Law School (look under "Electronic Reference Desk" and "Federal Courts Finder")
University of Chicago Law School
Library of Congress
Chicago-Kent College of Law (look under "Legal Resources")
The Practicing Attorney's Home Page
Washburn University Law School (wonderful site! Includes AALS information, and much, much more law-related information)
JURIST: The Law Professors' Network
Hieros Gamos (Lex Mundi)(aims towards being a comprehensive law site)
Internet Legal Resource Guide (ILRG)
American Law Sources Online (ALSO)
FedLaw (links to U.S. federal and state legal resources)
Yahoo (Law Links)(subject catalog of the Internet - includes many key links)

Note that, for the full text of recent court decisions and rulings and other documents related to cases such as complaints, briefs, etc., some useful web sites include CourtTV's Legal Documents. Some fee-based services include the WestDoc case service, VersusLaw, and LOIS (but they are not as comprehensive as the LEXIS-NEXIS and WESTLAW legal databases). See also LEXIS-NEXIS By Credit Card.

Or you can do a keyword search through World Wide Web and other Internet sites by using one of the many Internet indexes. Some of my favorite search engines are below (note that they are extremely useful when looking for non-law information also):

General descriptions of and links to these and other Internet search engines are available at the following sites:
Jim Milles

University of Chicago

Or you can browse or do a word search through the several public listserv and e-journal archives that exist to find answers to your question or to see if your topic has been discussed before:

Or you can ask for help in finding useful Internet resources by posting a message to one of the many law-related lists that exist. You can identify a relevant list by searching "Lyo's Law Lists" at http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/law-lists.

Electronic News Sources (Usenet Newsgroups and Internet Listservs)

Scholarly Publishing (Law Journals)

How to Keep Track of New Internet Legal Resources

The sources below can be used to find out about new Internet resources related to law (other than the ones listed in C. Burgess Allison's guide above, and the INT-LAW and NET-LAWYERS lists):

InSITE-L (Cornell University Law Library newsletter for announcements of key Internet resources; archived at
Send the following message to listproc@cornell.edu:
subscribe insite-l Your Name

SITE-TATION (American Bar Association legal resources announcements list)
Send the following message to listserv@abanet.org:
subscribe site-tation Your Name

SCOUT-REPORT (Announcements of new Internet resources; there is also the Scout Report of the Social Sciences, Business and Economics, and Science and Engineering)
Send the following message to LISTSERV@CS.WISC.EDU
subscribe scout-report Your Name

NEW-LIST (New Lists announcement list)
Send the following message to LISTSERV@CS.WISC.EDU:
subscribe new-list Your Name


Another current awareness tool is the Law Library Resource Xchange at http://www.llrx.com/ which includes news stories and links and information about Internet resources for legal professionals.

Tips for the Net-Traveling Researcher

1. Always consult local resources first. This could be your institution's own Internet resources (web, gopher, etc.), librarian, catalog, expert in the area you're researching, etc. Resources in your city, your state, etc. Finding answers in resources nearby can save you time and money. It can be more efficient than Internet research - as sometimes what you are looking for might not be available on or from Internet resources. This tip is particularly valuable when using Internet listservs - you do not want to post to a list a request for information without asking people locally first if they have the information - it might make your institution or your colleagues look bad or look like they are not up to snuff. And there might actually be a resource locally that could help.

2. Try to develop an approach to research using the Internet. Become familiar with a few sites and search engines - it is always good to know what web site you'd like to begin your search with, and if that site doesn't hold an answer to your question, what search engine to use to find relevant sites. And if you don't know how to approach getting an answer to your research question, ask your librarian for help.

3. Never rely totally on Internet resources. They are useful complements to print and electronic resources, and can sometimes be the only place to find a needed document, but the Internet does not have all needed law resources. There are still some gaps in what is available on the Internet for legal research, and there may continue to be gaps. Have alternative plans for finding the information you need, just in case - especially if you are in urgent need of the information.

Other Guides to Legal Research Using the Internet

The following web pages contain useful information on researching the law using Internet resources:


It is possible to be overwhelmed by the myriad of resources available on the Internet (and in print and electronic formats generally). It is amazing how much law-related information is published! A good approach is to have a research plan, and if you're uncertain where to begin, ask your librarian, a colleague or someone else who might be familiar with your legal research topic. And remember that sometimes the fun stuff on the Internet is not only useful for taking a break in work, but also can help you become more efficient and familiar and comfortable with using resources on the Internet for legal research. So explore anything you're interested in. And have fun!

Bon voyage!

Lyonette Louis-Jacques
Foreign and International Law
Librarian and Lecturer in Law
D'Angelo Law Library
University of Chicago Law School
1121 East 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60637 U.S.A.
E-mail: llou@midway.uchicago.edu
Phone: 1-773-702-9612
Fax: 1-773-702-2889

"Gonna find me an angel,
to fly away with me...
Gonna find me an angel,
in my life..." - Aretha Franklin

This page was created on 27 April 1999. Updated 5 February 2000.