Web Critic - Kudos for the State of Wisconsin and MyEmploymentLawyer.com

Attorney and author Kathy Biehl practiced law privately in Houston, Texas for 18½ years before relocating to New York City in 1998. She has taught legal research and writing at the University of Houston Law Center and business law at Rice University. A member of the State Bar of Texas, she earned a B.A. with highest honors from Southern Methodist University and a J.D. with honors from the University of Texas School of Law, where she was a member of Texas Law Review and Order of the Coif. She is co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research (Scarecrow Press, Nov. 2000), with Tara Calishain.

Web Critic evaluates legal research Web sites in terms of the information they convey, how effectively they convey it and how well they take advantage of the possibilities of the Internet -- or don't.

Web Critic Archives

Web Critic 10: A New Search Engine at FindLaw; New Guidelines for Federal Web Sites

Web Critic 9: OMB Watch Surveys State Legislative Sites; A Closer Look at FindLaw

Web Critic 8: User Friendly Innovations at Three State Web Site

Web Critic 7: And Web Accessibility for All?

Web Critic 6: Award Winning Government Sites

Web Critic 5: Search Engines: Second Verse, Same as the First

Web Critic 4: The Effective Use of Pull-Down Menus as Navigational Tools on a State Government Web Site

Web Critic 3: State Tax License Services on the Web

Web Critic 2: Fair Warning of Web Site Content

Web Critic 1: Evaluating Legal Research Web Sites

It's hard not to notice that the dog days of summer are well upon us. About the only thing blooming in their withering heat is a renewed appreciation for making do without a lot of fuss and bother. They're a fitting backdrop for this month's spotlight sites, which pack meaty information into streamlined formats with little reliance on fancy scripts and graphic razzle-dazzle. These two pages, in distinctive but equally effective ways, illustrate the virtues of simplicity, clarity, and directness. They also prove that all of these characteristics can enhance the value of thorough information, rather than require it to be dumbed down or cut back. 

The State of Wisconsin

There's much to like about the State of Wisconsin's portal. The layout is tidy to a welcome extreme. The headings on the welcoming page cover all the
critical bases (i.e., government, public services, business, education),
with quick links to such resources as licensing and permitting, building a
business, and road conditions. And, as is increasingly common in state
portals, the page displays all these links in one monitor screen. 

A boon to the untold users that still have older systems, the site offers a
text-only version. This is accessible from every page, along with the search engine, Help file (about which more in few paragraphs), site map, agency index, feedback forms, and the critical resources headings (which form a column of buttons along the left border). Offering these options on every page makes it easy to find resources from every point in the portal. 

The design consistently compacts information without obscuring it. One
example is snaking the agency index into two columns. Another is
programming the heading buttons to allow the visitor to eye and choose
internal locations within the hierarchy, without having to load successively deeper index pages. The buttons do this when they are touched (but not pressed) by the cursor, by displaying the next lower level options to the right. Place the cursor over Government, for example, and a new box appears to the right with the choices Governor's Office, State Agencies, Legislature, Courts, and so on. Move the cursor to Courts and yet another box appears, with pointers to each of four levels of court.

There are a few instances in which the site offers considerable elaboration. The index of online business services isn't merely a list of names. Instead, it follows each entry with a paragraph about what you can actually accomplish with each service, and in normal language rather than administrative jargon. The crafting of this index epitomizes what the design team was striving for, according to Mark Mazza, liaison for the portal project: helping users "find what they are looking for without having to know a lot of detail of how state or county government works or who actually is in charge of an area or who delivers the services." The Help tab delivers on this, too. It employs miniaturized screen shots to illustrate explanations and even goes to far as to give instructions for searching the site.

All this talk of efficiency and compactness and thoroughness might suggest
that there's not much to look at. Yet visually the site is not at all dull. The top page sports a lovely photo montage that adds interest without interfering with the site's loading. (They've always been first up on the page, in fact, and nearly instantaneously at that, each time I've loaded the site via my humble 56k modem.) 

Another noteworthy touch is the curve of the line that sweeps across the
top of the portal (which, with the left column of hot buttons, appears on every page and provides a unifying element for the site). This is the sort of detail that my introduction to art history professor delighted in pointing out, and the site puts the trick to very effective use. It leads the eye from left to right across the banner, beginning at the bottom border of the query box at the left and arching over the state's name. There's a difference between the top page and the interior ones in how the effect is achieved. On the welcoming page, the line dissolves into a reverse shading across the photo montage, whereas the line remains an intact, curving border on the interior pages. In either form, it demonstrates that Flash animations are not necessary to create a sense of
movement.

MyEmploymentLawyer.com

The Ohio law firm of Fortney & Klingshirn has parlayed one of practice
areas into a tidy, user-friendly legal primer cum clearinghouse called MyEmploymentLawyer.com, or MEL for short.  The idea for MEL came about because of the volume of questions that the firm was receiving by e-mail in response to articles posted at the firm's http://www.fklaborlaw.com/ website. Enough requests for advice came from outside the firm's geographic practice area that Neil Klingshirn was inspired to create a home for them and forge a national network of attorneys that were amenable to answering them. 

He launched the site in April 2000, with a major upgrade a year later. The
network, which now numbers in the hundreds, is limited to attorneys who
devote at least half of their employment practice to representing individual employees. 

MEL casts its stockpile of information and services into several forms. It offers a lay-language FAQ that covers discrimination, family leave, non-competes, whistleblowing, and several aspects of sexual harassment (including the perspective of the accused). 

Another portion of the site focuses on answers that network members have
posted in response to questions that visitors have submitted. You can access the answers by topic (such as discrimination, overtime, or severance pay) or by using the search tool, which retrieves answers by keyword, by keyword and state, or by author. The index for each topic gives the author's name (hyperlinked to a resume) alongside the subject line for each answer. In the mix, underscoring my growing confidence in the site, I was delighted to find entries by the very attorney to whom I have sent all employment-related client matters.

For questions that are not in the FAQ or the answers database, visitors can
"Ask MEL" by filling out an online submission form. The preamble to the form reminds the visitor to check the FAQ and answers first, lists the topics for which the site already has answers, and even gives tips for phrasing a question. The form calls for the querent's city and state and has a box to indicate willingness to pay a consulting fee of $100-$200 (which may be left unchecked). MEL forwards questions to network in the appropriate jurisdiction, who have the option of responding. 

MEL also has a handful of full-fledged articles, a free periodical called MEL-zine, a bookstore, links to forums at other sites, and copious legal humor, heavy on lawyer-bashing. The front page has a box of employment law
news headlines fed by Moreover. Beware clicking the link to Moreover Technologies at the bottom of the box, though. When I did, Moreover's welcoming page loaded within the tiny rectangle, and all attempts to return to the original headlines failed until I closed the browser, logged off, shut the computer down, and logged back on a few hours later. 

There's neither a site map nor a site-wide search engine, but the navigation tools themselves give a clear picture of the nature and extent of the resources. The design embraces redundancy, so that many different routes exist to the same destination. There are at least three ways to every subpage: headings down the center of the top page, tiny links at the bottom of every page, and buttons on the left side of every page. The buttons employ the side-box generating method that the Wisconsin portal uses. In this instance, an arrow appears on each button that contains a sublevel of headings. 

MEL presents itself as a service to lay people, but I see a significant
gift to legal professionals as well in this site. It is a welcome fix for one of the banes of our existence: the unfortunately widespread assumption that just by being a lawyer (or librarian, paralegal, secretary, law clerk -- who knows, maybe this happens to messengers and mailroom clerks, too; I haven't polled any yet), we are capable of and interested in answering any legal question, no matter how complicated, inappropriately timed, or far afield from whatever it is that we actually do on a daily basis. And preferably as a favor, too. 

The phenomenon crops up often enough in the physical world (the tales I could tell of calls at home during the last days of my private practice!); it's also a fact of life for any of us who've made our presence known online. The message board that I moderate at FindLaw is, by its name and specific description, limited to questions about locating legal resources online, and yet several times a month comes a post, sometimes heart-rending, sometimes combative, specifically requesting outright legal advice. Those of you with web sites (or a proclivity for posting on bulletin boards) have no doubt have had your own experiences along this line. And among the most frequently recurring guises for the phenomenon of the ambushing question, online or off, right up there with divorce, child custody, and criminal law, is questioning something that happened at work. 

So from now on, when someone asks for employment advice at my message
board, I'm not going to lob them over to FindLaw's employment board, Lawyers.com, and Nolo.com. I'll point them to the FAQ, answer database, and question form at MyEmploymentLawyer.com. Thanks, guys.

ã Kathy Biehl 2001.