Student Posts

Costs and Constraints: The Price of Access to Legal Information

The cost of access to legal information is a serious constraint on public service lawyers who serve low-income clients. As many public service attorneys represent clients in disputes with large, well-funded opponents, access to reasonably priced legal information that is accurate, up-to-date, and comprehensive will help level the playing field. This is evermore important for legal aid organizations that have seen their federal funding significantly decreased since the early 1990s. This post will briefly describe the current landscape with regard to legal information databases and trends that may emerge over the next decade.

As is well known, Westlaw and LexisNexis (Lexis) have a duopoly on the $8 billion legal services market. Although it is difficult to ascertain information on how much these services cost, the consensus on the blogosphere is that it is about a $600/month subscription for a solo practitioner for the full gamut of case law, statutes, and regulations.

One might ask why Westlaw and Lexis are able to dominate the legal information market when all of the information in their databases is publicly available. But Lexis and Westlaw add value by accumulating, sorting information and by making it searchable. Yet, the lucrative nature of the market and the fact that all the information is publicly available has attracted many potential competitors to Westlaw and Lexis. But few have succeeded. To illustrate, in 1977, there were twenty-five different legal information companies; today there are two. Recently, Bloomberg Law has attempted to enter the market, but having used it myself, it lacks many features that I would consider to be worthwhile as a paid subscription service.

But in the age of fast-paced technological innovation, many more competitors are popping up and with better quality products. One such competitor is Ravel Law. Ravel has all the basics in terms of case law and statutes in state and federal jurisdictions. Like Westlaw, it allows both plain text and Boolean searches of its database. In addition, the platform in which the cases are presented is arguably more convenient and aesthetically pleasing than Westlaw or Lexis. CasemakerX is another promising alternative to Lexis and Westlaw. Like Ravel, it allows users to Boolean search its database and to filter results by jurisdiction. It also has a basic “shepardizing” feature, which provides a clue as to whether a case is still good law or not.

While these startup services are still developing and lack some of the more obscure content and advanced features that are available on Lexis and Westlaw, they represent the possibility that Westlaw and Lexis’s dominance of the industry can be challenged, at least in the near future. Most importantly, most state bar associations provide at least one of these new services to their members for free. Thus, lawyers working outside of large firms have access to relatively high quality legal information at no cost. At the very least, this will encourage Westlaw and Lexis to innovate and to lower prices. At best, sites like Ravel and CasemakerX will develop into low-cost or free alternatives to Westlaw and Lexis, which would be an enormous benefit to many public service lawyers. Considering how much progress these sites have made in just a short time period, I am hopeful that the best-case scenario will pan out. Going forward, however, we should expect Westlaw and Lexis to continue to protect their market positions by either buying out startup sites or persuading state bars to discontinue providing free access to these sites. Given the stakes for low-income clients, we should be active in encouraging state bars to continue providing free access to these sites.

Daniel's PictureDaniel is a 2L from Cincinnati, Ohio. He graduated from George Mason University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Last summer, Daniel worked for the General Counsel at Apex Clean Energy, a wind energy company in Charlottesville. In his spare time, Daniel enjoys playing piano and beach volleyball.

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