If you're conducting legal research in the US these days, you have two choices: Lexis-Nexis or Westlaw . Both are databases of case law, statutes, law review articles, and other legal information. Both are free for law students, but charge everyone else per click when performing searches in a complex pricing scheme that varies with the size of the database queried (you can search only Supreme Court cases, for example, or all US Administrative Law). While it's a lot easier to search for legal materials online than to have to rifle through actual books, these two companies' total control of the market has let them get away with inefficient restrictions on searching and byzantine pricing . Enterprising coders have begun to make inroads in this duopoly – for one example, check out Project Posner , a database of all the decisions of Judge Posner of the 7th Circuit.
The most promising upstart is Altlaw.org , an open-source database of Supreme Court and Federal Appellate Court decisions. Released in August, the project is still in beta; but it already contains the last decade's-worth of federal court decisions, all full-text searchable and free to the public. Judicial decisions aren't copyrighted, on the theory that everyone should have access to the law, so it's a little surprising that it's taken this long to get a freely accessible database online. And Altlaw is far from a finished product; for one thing, it doesn't support the normal legal citation style. If you know Ruby on Rails , or have been looking for an excuse to learn, here's your opportunity to flex your coding muscles while freeing the legal world from the tyranny of Westlaw.