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Computer Counselor - November 1996

Developments in Online Research
New Ways to Search-and-Cite in Cyberspace

By Joseph Kornowski

Joseph Kornowski is Associate Executive Director and General Counsel for the Los Angeles County Bar Association. He can be reached on the Internet at 

Electronic legal research has traversed a vast distance from novelty to necessity since the early days of Lexis and Westlaw. With the advent in recent years of so-called "intelligent agents," the development of new search engines, and the potential of voice recognition technology, we are witnessing a virtual electronic research revolution. 

Already, the choices available to legal researchers by virtue of online services, the World Wide Web and new CD-ROM products can be mind-numbing. A brief look at some of the current developments and new technologies may help provide some definition to this changing terrain of electronic legal research. 

The Great Web Migration

The big news continues to be the growth of legal research services and materials available on the World Wide Web. Among the current favorite sites for aficionados of Web-based legal research, which were awarded "Best of the Web" honors by the legal.online monthly newsletter, are Lawyers Legal Research (for cases), U.S. House of Representatives Internet Law Library (for laws) and FindLaw (for overall research). 

Lawyers Legal Research (http://www.versuslaw.com/) offers a wide-array of law-related information and source material for the legal researcher. However, it is unique among Internet sites as the only single place where a researcher can find the decisions not only of the U.S. Supreme Court (since 1990) and all the federal appeals courts (since 1992), but also recent decisions of the appellate courts of all 50 states. 

The search engine is versatile, allowing searches by "regular words" (i.e., natural language, which is the "recommended" search operation), "concepts" ("only if you're really good"), "suggest related words," "suggest alternate spellings," and "display dictionary." Boolean search operators are also supported. New users will want to click on the "description of searches" link to understand how the different search options work. 

A regular word search for all California cases from June 1, 1996, through September 13, 1996, using the terms "People W/5 Romero" produced citations to 23 cases, including a Second Appellate District case less than two weeks old. The only problem is that the suggested citation for the case is "LLR 1996.CA.866 (http://www.versuslaw.com)" and an editor's note states, "This opinion may be subject to revision before official publication." 

Although the rest of the site is free, the Opinions portion of the service is available only by monthly or annual subscription (the charter member rate through October 1996 was $595 or $750, depending on whether the subscriber paid in full or in two installments). However, you can take a test drive of the case search portion of the site with a free 14-day trial, which may allow you to do some substantial preliminary research on a motion or brief. 

An award-winner in the category of legal research for laws (i.e., statutes and regulations) is the U.S. House of Representatives Internet Law Library (http://law.house.gov/), which provides the ability to search the U.S. Code and Code of Federal Regulations, and to research by categories state and territorial laws, laws of other nations, as well as treaties and international law. The search engine for the U.S. Code and CFR provides essentially the same options as those available on the Lawyers Legal Research site. Unlike the Lawyers Legal Research site, however, the Internet Law Library is free. A disclaimer on the search page for the CFR warns the user, however, that those using the database for legal research are urged to verify results with the printed version of the CFR. 

For a good overall legal research Web site, check out FindLaw (http://www.findlaw.com/). With FindLaw, the researcher can plumb the legal resources of the FindLaw Index, which includes statutes and laws, a legal subject index, state and federal government resources, law schools, law reviews, legal forms, and continuing legal education, among other topics. The index also includes links to LawCrawler, which is an Internet search tool that searches only legal sites on the Internet. There is even a California LawCrawler, which restricts the search to sites relating to state and federal laws affecting California through a drop-down list of Web sites from which to choose, as well as the capability to search all California codes. The searching is great, and the cost is free. 

A good companion site to the House of Representatives Internet Law Library, particularly for foreign materials, is the Global Legal Information Network (www.http://lcweb2.loc.gov/glin/glinhome.html), a database consisting of more than 54,000 records of national legislation enacted from 1976 to the present compiled by the U.S. Law Library of the Library of Congress. Legislative and other governmental bodies of foreign nations have been contributing information on their own laws to the GLIN database since 1994, and, in some cases, full texts are provided. The GLIN database can be searched for free by non-members (e.g., the public) by country, subject terms from the "GLIN Thesaurus," publication dates of legislation and string searches of words and phrases. The service is free. 

The disadvantage of using Web-based legal research is the perceived, if not actual, lack of quality control and reliability. Almost all of the sites described above bear a warning or disclaimer of some type against using material found on their site for primary legal research. Unless and until state and federal courts, for example, stamp their "certified citation" seal of approval on the digital forms of statutory and decisional law found on Web sites, legal researchers will be deprived of half the searchable-and-citable capability they require. 

Just Another Pretty (Inter)Face?

Some of what you may believe are law-related online services or networks may, in fact, offer little more than a convenient collection of links to other Web sites arranged on a separate Web page somewhere. Such a collection typically could just as easily be created and saved for future reference by an individual user in his or her own Web browser's "bookmarks" or "favorites" list. This is not to say that such services are valueless; only that their chief, if not only, value lies in the convenience of what might be considered a "third party bookmark" service. Most free Web sites offer some version of that kind of convenience through a "Web links" page on their site that usually is tailored to the kind of audience they are trying to attract to the site. 

Even so, if you do not want to take the personal time to browse and collect new and interesting Web sites that might be useful for your practice, then you may want to check out the Law Channel (http://www.lawchannel.com/) sponsored by North Communications. It is free and may well save you browsing time in staying current with a number of relevant sites of interest to the practitioner. 

A somewhat more sophisticated service is The Brief Exchange Legal Network, which is a third-party bookmark service coupled with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) account. With the Brief Exchange, you pay a monthly fee ($34.95 for unlimited usage) for an Internet account with Earthlink, a local ISP, and load into your PC the customized version of Netscape Navigator Web browser software that allows you to access a special area on the Earthlink Web site, where you will find an array of legal-specific Web site links and some value-added areas, including one containing some outlines and exemplars, or actual pleadings, submitted by various law firms. 

If you don't already have an ISP account, a decent Web browser and the time and interest either to use existing Web links on Web sites you frequent or to collect your own list of bookmarks, then you might want to give the Brief Exchange a try. For more information, call (310) 822-7471. 

Under Construction

Even electronic legal research pioneers LEXIS-NEXIS and WESTLAW are joining the migration to the Web and pushing the frontiers of electronic legal research. LEXIS (http://www.lexis-nexis.com/) has announced, for example, that it will begin releasing this fall an array of products, the first of which will be called LEXIS-NEXIS Advantage for the Web, that will allow its customers to use standard Web browsers to do a simple search of state legal materials, such as statutes and case law. It is, according to LEXIS-NEXIS President, Ira Siegel, the beginning of the end of the need for proprietary software developed by LEXIS-NEXIS to access most of its services. Siegal says, "It makes sense to provide our traditional legal, business and government customers easy access to both the wealth of the LEXIS-NEXIS service and the Internet. LEXIS-NEXIS also will offer Internet searching of the LEXIS-NEXIS service through credit-card transactions to new, more casual users who want to search beyond the World Wide Web for needed information." LEXIS-NEXIS already is providing the capability through its proprietary software, which now includes a Web browser, for its customers to access the Web. 

Among the new products and services under development at WESTLAW (http://www.westpub.com/) is a utility that will enable full compatibility between its WESTMATE customized research software for WESTLAW and PREMISE Research Software for West CD-ROM Libraries, both of which provide natural language search capabilities, and IBM's VoiceType products. The new utility, which will be added to future versions of the IBM VoiceType Vocabulary for Legal Dictation, will extend the use of IBM's VoiceType Dictation technology to the field of research and allow customers to use their voice to conduct online legal research on WESTLAW and West CD-ROM Libraries.

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