Use these tips and you’ll never pay for bloated Lexis and Westlaw research plans again.

1.  Learn to love your local law library. It’s free, it’s conveniently located in the County courthouse, and it is open on weekends and evenings.  It has the kind of treatises that would be mind-bogglingly expensive on an electronic research plan — including jury instructions, AmJur, and a magical set of books that provide sample interrogatories for every civil claim you can imagine (seriously). It even has a section of cheesy legal fiction.  If the place had outlets for my laptop and a decent wireless connection, I would never leave.

Usually, I start my projects at the library to read treatises in hard copy. I read the annotated codes in the library to see which cases have cited the code sections in question.  I look in Dunlap’s to see if there is a form pleading for the thing I’m writing, and there usually is one.  Then I pay $0.20 per page to copy it at the library and I go home to do the other research from my computer.  This gets me to my second point:

2.     Google Scholar is your new BFF. It searches legal opinions — and, unlike Findlaw and its ilk, provides pin cites to the official reporter. (I have no idea how they get away with this, given West and Lexis have always been able to use copyright protection to stop anyone from republishing their page numbers, basically ensuring that lawyers everywhere pay to access page numbers for public domain material. I am rooting for you, Google lawyers!)  It also searches legal journals, and shows you journal articles for free.

Once you have results, it is really easy to sort them by date, by year, by jurisdiction; I find it easier to refine search results in Google Scholar than in Lexis or Westlaw.

Best of all, Google Scholar has come up with something even better than Shepherd’s: the tab on top of each case that says “How cited.”  Click on this, and the list that comes up includes the sentence in which your original case is cited.  This is genius because it eliminates the tedious process of selecting one case after another in order to see whether they are on point.

3.  Refer to the Pennsylvania Code and local rules online.  You may realize that there are some code sections you forgot to copy down at the library, or that you forgot to look up the local rules.  No worries.  Pennsylvania has a startlingly convenient website with local rules for all of its county courts.  If you practice in federal court, Western District of Pennsylvania posts its local rules here.

4.  Have a back-up plan.  So, you absolutely positively need Nimmer on Copyright, or something equally swanky.  Consider joining the Jenkins Law Library in Philadelphia, whose membership includes 15 minutes of Lexis research per day.  This works well if you have done all the initial work and know exactly what you need to pull up.  Or, consider an unpaid law school intern with an academic subscription!

Have I missed anything good? Let me know in the comments.