Notes from the Technology Trenches - Weighing the Benefits of Legal Portals

Cindy Curling is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.


This month everyone in my office is busy comparing the relative benefits of health care plans. For my family, it’s an annual and difficult process that ranks right up there with doing our tax returns each April. Painful as it is, we do it because it pays to periodically review your options. First, your needs may change, and second, the costs and services provided may shift. No one wants to waste their time and money on resources that are too expensive or that they won’t use.

Obviously, this holds true for more than just health benefits, and recently we have also been spending a good deal of time re-evaluating what the Internet has to offer us. With many sites disappearing, almost on a daily basis, others turning to fee-based formats and the constant change among those that are left, it is important not to be lazy about the choices we make online. Keeping up with costs and services, as well as our users’ needs, is more important than ever.

Uh-Oh. There’s Work Involved Here, Isn’t There?

As usual, easier said than done. There’s only so much one person can do to personally compare and contrast resources. Reading helps, but there’s a catch. New and developing resources get the most attention in the press, which means that established tools tend to fade into the background and can be taken for granted if we’re not careful.

An example of this problem is the tendency of many users to rely, without much question, on the same resources over time. If a site doesn’t go through a major change, and we don’t see complaints about how it functions, we tend to assume that everything is fine and it must be working as well as it did when we first tried it however long ago. This is the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy of Internet research. After all, it’s easier to use what you’re accustomed to than to constantly compare resources.

As I reviewed my health plan options, I asked myself which kind of Web resources I take for granted. Legal portals are a prime example with me, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. They are something everyone uses, or should, that they tend to stick with once they’ve decided a site is comfortable.

We can’t examine every kind of resource that gets this kind of neglect, but this month I’ll look at four of the major legal research portals, compare their services and point out some unique features you may not have seen, as well as point to some interesting minor services The sites I’ve chosen to profile are the ones I’ve used frequently in the last few years or seen mentioned in listserv discussions and articles, so if I overlook your favorite or miss a feature you find especially useful, I’d love to hear about it.

So What Are We Talking About?

Before we get started, let’s take a look at legal portals as a type of site. Portals, in the general sense, are the one-stop-shops of the Web. The idea behind their design is to give you all the resources you are likely to want in one spot so that you spend your time there and don’t bother to go elsewhere. The more time a user spends within a site, the more income the site generates from advertising. The payoff should be that the user saves time and effort. Typical offerings at portals include a search feature, subject links by topic, reference information, news, shopping links and sometimes customization options. Some portals also offer e-mail accounts and web hosting. Legal portals are similar sites focused on legal resources. While a general portal – Yahoo, for instance – would probably have some legal resources, a good topic-specific portal should quickly direct its user a more exhaustive range of resources, and those resources will mainly be targeted at a special audience.

The Majors

Now that the definition is out of the way, let’s take a look at the options.  First, the big kid on the block:

FindLaw - http://www.findlaw.com
FindLaw has had lots of press this year, driven in part by its acquisition by Westlaw, something I see as a positive development. When FindLaw first made its debut in 1996 it looked very similar to Yahoo.  Since Yahoo was so well known, users at FindLaw felt at home immediately. The interface was logically presented and fairly straightforward, though by necessity it wasn’t simply the broad list of resources by topic that Yahoo offered. The site’s overall organization has become more complex since then, but is still easy to use with resources separated out by target audience: Legal Professionals, Students, Business and the Public. One of the major advantages to starting your research at a portal is that, especially when searching for information that varies widely by jurisdiction, the site structure superimposes consistency that would otherwise be lacking. For instance, though the executive branch of every state government is organized a little differently, the FindLaw categories provide a fairly clear path to most material you might need, whether or not you know what that state’s department is actually called.

Additionally, the site now offers many of the same services as a general portal. It can be personalized with My FindLaw, there are interesting news services, it offers free e-mail, links to a variety of legal directories, offers some case research options, job listings, message boards, alert services and much more. With the power of West behind it, I’m hoping that over time even more case resources and other primary legal materials will become available as well.

One important change since the West acquisition involves LawCrawler, the search arm of FindLaw. This year FindLaw switched to using a subset of the Google database for searching legal materials, a move which largely saves them from having to keep up with legal content on the larger Web, something they were having a little trouble with earlier on. One troubling note, the discrepancies in various Google databases (as noted here) still seems to persist.

Another serious quibble I have with FindLaw is the West Legal Directory. Though its marketing information says that chances are good “you already have a limited listing” in the legal directory, I was unable to find my firm or any of a random handful of attorneys from my office. Also, other firms have incomplete information. No Web address is listed for some, like Wiley Rein & Fielding, that obviously have them, even though the remainder of the profile seems complete. For others, like Katten Muchin Zavis, based in Illinois, there is a main listing which mentions other offices. However, a search by that firm name with the location as D.C. fails to pull up the branch profile. Clearly, the database has some gaps. Last, when I searched by attorney name or geographically, I got no clear indication of how my results were ranked, but they were not alphabetical.

My last issue with FindLaw is that they don’t give enough information about themselves. The LawCrawler information about Google, for instance, states that it uses Google’s search engine and database, but doesn’t give any specifics about how the legal materials are differentiated from the rest of Google’s materials, how big a database it is, etc. The general FindLaw help is good, and some information is available in news releases, but more statistical information in a general site description would be helpful.

Overall, my favorite features of this site are its ease of use (because of the consistent structure and the annotations on the links), the case research options, and the independent articles listed in each topic area. For me, the areas not targeted at attorneys are not as useful, but I appreciate that the site can be customized to show me only the things I need.

Hieros Gamos - http://www.hg.org
Hieros Gamos, also know as HG, has a very similar structure to FindLaw, but takes issue with FindLaw’s claim to be the biggest legal portal. Their standard of measure is, however, a little different. Information on the site makes two main claims. One, that it is “the number 1 award winning legal research site because it contains 2 million links” and two, that they have a superior global presence. ”Virtually every legal site and library worldwide links to Hieros Gamos because it is the only global site.”

I couldn’t find any documentation comparing the size of HG to other legal portals, but I can’t argue about its global nature. With attorney and/or firm listings for 170 countries, and open directory resources in over 50 languages, it definitely has an international bent. It also offers a little broader selection of resources including sports, entertainment and shopping choices. Initially, that may not seem to fit, but the strategy, again, is part of the effort to be a true portal that users will spend time on and come back to again and again. These resources are not the focus of the site, but they are there to get you started in case you need them.

When I first used HG, the site structure was all very short links with little explanation, but that was back in the early days of the mid-90s. They site has become a little more user friendly. It doesn’t offer some of the features of FindLaw, like free e-mail or Web site hosting, though it does have some e-mail newsletters. Also, it doesn’t seem to have built any of its own databases of case law or break down primary materials with the same kind of consistent structure that FindLaw does. United States materials are separated out, and the rest of the categories point to other countries primary materials, independent sources from all over, or international resources like treaties. However, its structure works easily enough and ultimately offers many of the same links. The kicker is that it still doesn’t tell you enough about your options. In the Intellectual Property practice area, for instance, there are several resources listed as Intellectual Property somethings - mall, center, data, information, etc. – but there isn’t enough description in those listings to tell you whether the site will be worth a visit. You have to visit each to find out.

As with FindLaw, I found the directory to be incomplete. That makes more sense for HG, though, since inclusion appears to be dependent on whether a firm has volunteered its information. It’s also interesting that while the HG directory lists law firms, it does not offer searchable listings for individual attorneys. And if I wasn’t entirely happy with the amount of information available about FindLaw its site, I was downright frustrated at HG. The only help or background information I could find came as part of the marketing materials at the point users are prompted to enter profile or event information. There are no press releases, no tips, and no company information other than the advertising rate card and an e-mail address for support.

I’m probably not as likely to use HG as I am to use FindLaw because the organization isn’t as intuitive to me and it lacks FindLaw’s annotations, but I will check it for items I can’t find through FindLaw and will definitely use it when I’m looking for International resources.

Legal Information Institute from Cornell Law School - http://www.law.cornell.edu
The Legal Information Institute (LII) is a legal portal that is innately different than either FindLaw or Hieros Gamos since its roots are academic rather than commercial. It has a no-nonsense approach that is much more focused on the law itself. The front page is a very simple listing of options plus a “spotlight” area listing recent legal news. While it does point to some directory information (lawyers, law organizations, legal journals and legal academia), the majority of the material on the site is organized to get you directly to either primary legal resources - cases, codes, state and federal agency information, international materials – or to reputable secondary legal resources. The overview information on each area of the law is produced in-house, no articles are written by firms or individual attorneys.

LII offers alert services for the Supreme Court of the United States, New York Court of Appeals, and patent decisions of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. It also lets you search full text in decisions in any or all of the US Circuit Courts of Appeal to 1995 and in some cases farther; coverage varies by court. Another LII service is Big Ear which monitors several law related e-mail discussion lists, selecting interesting items and compiling them for a “(slightly distorted) view of what's new on the Net for lawyers, and of what people are talking about.” All of the above are in addition to the recent news items listed on the main page, including links to related primary legal materials. LII also offers two topical libraries, one on American legal ethics and the other on social security, both excellent.

Help and navigation information are available as necessary on the site at the top of each page, and pretty good descriptive information about the site is available as well, though not all in one spot.

I’ll probably use LII more after this review. I use the Legal Ethics Library frequently as it is, but had been using FindLaw for other materials. However, I think the simple interface at LII will be easier to navigate for specific primary materials than FindLaw. FindLaw still looks like my best bet, though, for broader secondary legal information and Internet stes.

Washburn University's Washlaw - WEB http://www.washlaw.edu
Washlaw is similar to LII in that its roots are also academic, so no advertising here, but it takes a very different approach to organization. It’s stated aim is to link to “all known law-related materials on the Internet,” and the front page is filled with entry after entry in alphabetical order covering everything from courts to humor to general reference information like zip codes. Personally, I find the list overwhelming and would appreciate seeing a different design, breaking things down into smaller elements. On the other hand, the content is good, and when you get into any single list element the site design is broken out enough to be easily usable.

Washlaw gets big kudos, too, for having an information page describing its services heavily oriented toward law-related discussion groups, but also offering:

Directories for links to 50+ legal directories covering law schools, firms, and other law-related organizations,

DocLaw-Federal Law and Government Documents for “access to all known federal law in the United States and law-related government document resources”, arranged by subject and agency, and

ForIntLaw - Foreign and International Law for “access to foreign, international, and United Nations legal materials” as well as “links to primary and secondary sources in many countries.”

The page also describes resources the Washlaw resource lists for on law firms, law jobs, journals, resources by jurisdiction, topic etc. It’s quite extensive and worth a look, especially if you are put off by the front page of the site.

Washlaw will probably not be my first choice as a legal portal, again, mostly because I find that main page overwhelming. On the other hand it is exhaustive, so if I’m not finding what I need elsewhere I’ll know to go to WashLaw for the best selection.

The Minors

There are many more legal portals available on the Web and Washlaw gets kudos for offering an extremely comprehensive list of other legal information sites, and other law search tools (follow the link and click on search engines, or scroll to the end of the page). These other sites are worth checking out because they tend to offer unique tools and perspectives and you may find that they are better suited to some tasks than the big guys. We’ll take a look at just a few that I use:

LawyerExpress - http://www.lawyerexpress.com/
While the Washlaw lists are fairly comprehensive, they do miss one of my favorites. LawyerExpress is part of the Express network that started with CEOExpress, a great business research site. Rather than aiming to be completely comprehensive, LawyerExpress is designed to give users access to just the cream of the crop for law materials on the Internet. It keeps content to a minimum and instead provides just short links by title. I found that bothersome at Hieros Gamos, but not here. Why? HG is a general use site intended to be viewed by anyone, anywhere who needs legal information. LawyerExpress, on the other hand, is a site whose target audience is the experienced attorney. Also, the resources are so distinctive that there is not likely to be any confusion.

The site is broken into four broad resource areas: news, research, reference and leisure, gives great information about who is organizing the material and about the network philosophy, and links to the other network resources (business, medical, journalism and logistical resources) too.

Lawyer Express also offers membership, for free, but requiring registration. With registration, users get access to peer-selected & reviewed content, breaking news, an integrated meta search engine, and access to their 'Great Sites' Archive. Another great membership benefit is practice area specific material (bankruptcy, corporate, criminal, international, tax/trust & estate, and IP/technology) and the option to customize the site to remove links or add your own favorites to easily create a page of links for reference throughout your day. If you haven’t tried Lawyer Express or the other Express sites, I definitely encourage you to take a look

Law Guru - http://www.lawguru.com and
The Internet Law Library - http://www.lawguru.com/ilawlib/index.html
Another site I use once in a while is the Internet Law Library at Law Guru. The Internet Law Library used to be housed at the U.S. House of Representatives, and what I tend to use it for is very limited. Mainly, I visit just the United States Code Classification Tables at http://uscode.house.gov/uscct.htm, a great site to use to tell whether or not a code section has been updated anytime recently. However, it does offer most of the same kinds of resources for federal, state and international law as other legal portals, as well as directory information and a nice list of legal publishers and law book review pages.

LawGuru itself is another nice portal, but what I tend to use it for is its Legal Research page. The page doesn’t seem like much, but if you use the drop down menu at the top, you’ll see an impressive list of specialized legal search tools. There are the usual sources, such as state searches for primary materials, but there are also many unique items you probably would not expect like the Code of Conduct for US Judges. Who knew?

The Virtual Chase - www.virtualchase.com/resources/contents.shtml
One last favorite of mine is the Virtual Chase. I use it more because I love the search advice and training information than anything else, but it’s a good general legal portal as well, and it’s built from the perspective of a law firm librarian. In addition to the links, it offers one of the best daily news e-mail services available for legal researchers, TVC Alert. If you haven’t subscribed yet, be sure to take a look at the site and sign up if you like what you see.

Summing Up

So, all of this started out with the idea that we need to review legal portals to make sure we’re not missing out by depending on a single source, and to be sure we’re aware of changes to services - in short, not taking things for granted.

We looked at four major portals, two commercial, and two academic, and a few less used sites with some interesting and useful features. All of them have slightly different approaches to providing broad access to legal information. I’ve tried to point out strengths and weaknesses, and to give you an idea of the feel of each site. I hope you’ve gleaned enough information to see that relying on any single one could mean missing information, and that you’ll be encouraged to investigate some new options. If you haven’t used a legal portal before, hopefully you’ll see that they can really save you time and effort, especially if you are working in unfamiliar territory.

Again, if I’ve missed looking at a site you love, or overlooked an exceptional feature you use often, please let me know. Now, back to those benefit forms...