Jerry Lawson has an interesting post today on free search engines vs. Westlaw or Lexis, where he asks the question, can free search engines like Google ever be better for legal research than paid services like Westlaw and Lexis? I think (much to the disdain of West and Lexis) any research project should begin with a determination of whether the information can be found for free on the Internet. If it can, is there really any question about which service to use? You save money for the client, and hopefully time, if you’re a savvy searcher.

I don’t think managing partners will be rushing anytime soon to cancel their WestLaw or Lexis subscriptions, because there are resources available through those services that simply aren’t accessible anywhere else. You will not be able to KeyCite any cases without West. You can’t Shepardize a case without Lexis. In addition, both services have online versions of print publications that are important resources for legal researchers. Frequently lawyers in my firm approach me about whether to ditch WestLaw for one of the newer research services, likeLoisLaw or TheLaw.Net — I tell them that even if we go with those services, we would still need to keep WestLaw for the valuable resources not provided by the others.

This past summer, I gave a presentation to our summer associates on Internet legal research, which included five sample research questions to gauge their Internet research abilities. Two of the summer associates used WestLaw (or tried to use it, anyway) to answer all five questions. One reason they did this is that with their free WestLaw or Lexis password, law students quickly become addicted to the service — it’s a rude awakening when as new lawyers they realize that 1) WestLaw or Lexis is no longer free, and 2) many clients won’t pay for those services.

The challenge is: where is the best/easiest/cheapest place to find this information? Learning all of the resources that are available on the webfor free is a big step in answering this question.