For Research, Lawyers Turn First to Free Sources, ABA Survey Says

Where lawyers go first to start a research project.

Where lawyers go first to start a research project.

Lawyers spend an average of 20 percent of their work time conducting legal research, and when they start a research project, they generally turn first to free online research services before using fee-based services or research materials in print or on CD-ROM.

However, with respect to online research exclusively (excluding books and CD-ROMs), lawyers are more likely to start a research project using a fee-based service than a free one. Thirty-eight percent of lawyers say they go first to a fee-based resource, while 37 percent say they start with a general search engine such as Google or Bing. Fourteen percent say they start with a bar-sponsored research service such as Fastcase or Casemaker.

205111053.Def.LThese are among the findings reported in the 2015 edition of the annual Legal Technology Survey Report, compiled by the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center. These findings are from Volume 5 of the report, covering online research.

Not surprisingly, younger lawyers are more likely to use free services first, while older lawyers are more likely to use paid services first. Lawyers aged 50 to 59 are the most likely to report first going to fee-based online services for legal research. Virtually all lawyers — 95 percent of them — conduct research online at some point.

And if you are wondering whether any lawyers still use research materials on CD-ROMs, turns out they do. Fewer than 1 percent of lawyers begin their research using CD-ROMs, but 6 percent use them regularly and 19 percent use them occasionally. Solos are most likely to use them, followed by lawyers in firms of 2-9 attorneys.

One interesting question asked lawyers which format they turn to first (CD-ROM, online fee-based, online free or print) when performing research in 23 different topics. For 16 of the topics, lawyers named online free as the format they use most often, followed by online fee-based. Here are the topics for which lawyers first use free services to research, followed by the percentage of lawyers who say they use them  first:

  • Case dockets, 50.3%.
  • Companies/corporations, 69.3%.
  • Experts, 48.4%.
  • Federal administrative/regulatory/executive, 42.9%.
  • General news, 80.2%.
  • Judges, 53.8%.
  • Jury verdicts/settlements, 29.1%.
  • Lawyers, 77.1%.
  • Legal forms, 44.2%.
  • Legal news, 73.2%.
  • Practical guidance, 35.4%.
  • Public records, 71.2%.
  • Other state administrative/regulatory/executive, 51.2%.
  • Other state legislation/statutes, 45%.
  • Your state administrative/regulatory/executive, 48.3%.
  • Your state legislation/statutes, 51%.

Here are the topics for which lawyers first use fee-based services to research:

  • Federal case law, 54.8%.
  • Federal legislation/statutes, 43.9%.
  • Law reviews/legal periodicals, 39.9%.
  • Legal citators, 43.7%.
  • Legal treatises/secondary materials, 46.2%.
  • Other state case law, 51.8%
  • Your state case law, 53.9%.

All volumes of the survey are available for purchase through the ABA.

Posted in:
  • I’m concerned that lawyers first use fee-based citators only 43.9% of the time. Are 66.1% really using Google Scholar’s citator first (I assume that most survey respondents aren’t yet aware of Casetext)?

    • Bob Ambrogi

      The survey isn’t clear about this. The survey says that 24.9% of lawyers use free online services to check citations. However, I think it considers services such as Fastcase and Casemaker to be “free” since they come as a bar-membership benefit. Both of those services have citation checkers.


        Google Scholar, Fastcase, and Casemaker include unpublished cases but their “citators” do not include unpublished cases, so if you find an unpublished case that was later affirmed or reversed by a higher court and published, you would never know this by reviewing the citator summary. West, Lexis, and Bloomberg do include unpublished cases in their citator products. There is a work-around–see my article on this at

  • Bob, I find it surprising that those numbers haven’t shifted more over the past 4 years. What do you think?

  • Peter

    Were all private lawyers surveyed, or just those with ABA membership? If the former, then the survey neglects to recognize the poorer 25% of legal professionals (who are more likely to use free online sources), according to “The Lawyer Statistical Report” (ABA, 2012 edition); if the latter, since the ABA claims that nearly 50% of all private lawyers in the U.S. are solo practitioners, and only an estimated 8% of solo or small-firm lawyers are ABA members (NBC News, June 2011), then these “statistical” findings aren’t truly comprehensive, even of private practice behavior. They most likely overvalue the survey’s fee-based legal research sponsors: LexisNexis and WestlawNext.

    Hoping this ignorant question can easily be discarded…

    • Bob Ambrogi

      You raise a good point. The survey was sent only to ABA members who are in private practice. I think that, in many respects, the ABA survey numbers are not truly representative of the profession as a whole. At the same time, however, they are all we’ve got. There are no other comprehensive surveys of lawyers’ technology use. So the ABA survey is valuable for giving us at least a sense of where things stands.