Westlaw and LexisNexis are the most well-known legal research databases, but they aren't the only ones. 

In my first-ever article for EveryLibrary, I recommended twelve great sites for legal research. There were general sites as well as legal blogs and sites focused on the US Constitution. The sites were comprehensive, authoritative, and, best of all, free. 

But free doesn’t always feed the bulldog. The sites I wrote about in that article are inadequate for in-depth research. For instance, they tend not to have case law back further than, say, the 1990s. Their collections of legislative materials are substandard, nor do they have great secondary sources like law journals or legal treatises. And it isn’t just content: Their search engines aren’t top-of-the-line, either. 

Bottom line: If you want the best legal research materials, you are, in many instances, better off paying for them. But how? Where? 


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Westlaw and LexisNexis 

When it comes to electronic legal research platforms, Westlaw and Lexis are the Coke and Pepsi. Starbucks and Dunkin’. Marvel and DC. 

Westlaw was developed in 1975 by Minnesota-based West Publishing, which was started in 1876 by bookseller John West, who noticed that there was no efficient distribution system for decisions of the Minnesota Supreme Court. So, he created one. Called The Syllabi, he expanded it in 1877 to include the Wisconsin Supreme Court; this became the North Western Reporter. In just ten years, West’s system covered the entire United States.

Lexis can trace its origin to Mead, the paper manufacturer, which in 1968 acquired Ohio-based Data Corporation, a defense contractor that had been working on a fascinating little project: the nation’s first system for computer-assisted legal research, or CALR. Eventually, it acquired noted legal publishers Matthew Bender and Michie, adding their treatises to its database. 

Westlaw and Lexis (or, if you prefer their celebrity couple nickname, Wexis) have a lot in common. They both contain:

  • All US and state judicial opinions ever published (and lots of unpublished ones);
  • All current US and state statutes (older statutes go back about ten years);
  • Select US and state legislative history documents;
  • Select US and state court filings;
  • Thousands of newspaper, magazine, and law and non-law scholarly articles;
  • Full-text legal treatises;
  • Public records (many of which, despite the word “public,” are not freely available on the internet);
  • Select case law and statutes from other countries; and
  • AI-powered components

How do the systems differ? Well, they have different news and scholarly articles. More importantly, they have different legal treatises. For instance, if you are interested in litigation and civil procedure, only Westlaw has Federal Practice and Procedure, while only Lexis has Moore’s Federal Practice. Both of these works are so important that even the US Supreme Court cites them. It would be malpractice not to have access to both. 


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Another significant difference is the massive and innovative West Key Number System, which John West invented in 1908. Think of it as American law’s Dewey Decimal System, classifying not just cases and statutes but legal concepts. Only Westlaw has the Key Number System. 

Does Lexis have something similarly unique? Indeed it does: Shepard’s, a legal citation system that has been around since 1873. Every attorney uses Shepard’s. Westlaw has an imitator called KeyCite, but Shepard’s is the OG. 

As for cost, it isn’t uncommon for a large law firm to pay over $100,000 a year for access to each system. Solo practitioners and small firms, who have fewer users, don’t pay nearly as much. There are also affordable plans for public law libraries that include less content (see, for example, Westlaw’s Patron Access program). 

Alternative Systems

Attorneys who do not need access to a lot of secondary sources, public records, or international materials might consider Fastcase as an alternative to Wexis. 

In addition to being much cheaper, it can also be used as case management software. Best of all, Fastcase has partnerships with most state bar associations, meaning members can use it free of charge. 

Here is a short introduction to Fastcase

Casetext used to be another good alternative, but in 2023, Thomson Reuters, the parent company of Westlaw, acquired it for $650 million. Still, it is probably cheaper than Westlaw, and it has a loyal fanbase. 

Here is a quick primer on Casetext.


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Another great tool is HeinOnline. This is not a substitute for Wexis; rather, it is a supplemental site for users who do a lot of historical research. 

Other than case law, Wexis doesn’t have much historical stuff. Its journal articles, for example, tend to date back only to the 1990s. So if you need, say, an article from the very first issue of Harvard Law Review (1887), the best place to get it is HeinOnline. 

Other specialties of HeinOnline include:

Finally, researchers specializing in tax or labor law would do well to subscribe to Wolters KluwerBloomberg Law, or Thomson Reuters Checkpoint Edge (formerly RIA Checkpoint). 



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