Web Critic - LawMoose Expands Its Roaming Range

Kathy Biehl is a member of the State Bar of Texas and co-author of the Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research. Formerly in private practice, she is an author, researcher and consultant in the New York City area.

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.

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In this increasingly razzle-dazzle world of online resources, unassuming but solid LawMoose demonstrates the continuing value and appeal of simple organization and depth of content. As the name suggests, there is a decided north woods focus to its resources, but its importance extends beyond Minnesota, the state that receives the bulk of its attention.

For one thing, LawMoose expanded its range in August, when it launched companion sites – which it calls “online ecosystems” -- for Wisconsin and global research. Just as importantly, though, is what it teaches about site design and approach. This self-styled “community knowledge server” is a beacon of clarity and ease, setting standards that deserve to be emulated.

The site, which was developed by Pritchard Law Webs, has the familiar appearance of a searchable index. The uncluttered design is reminiscent of the FindLaw and Yahoo! of yore (say, four or five years ago). The bulk of it sports a clean, at-a-glance layout, with two columns of category headings, each one above a few lines of hyperlinked subheadings. Most of the links launch new browser windows, a design choice I especially appreciate, because it keeps you anchored to your starting point no matter how far out you venture.

The scope manages to speak to legal and lay visitors alike, without slighting either. In addition to dictionaries, self-help centers, and reference books for non-legal professionals, LawMoose umbrellas all the resources a seasoned legal researcher would hope to find for the focus state (there are separate sites for Minnesota and Wisconsin) – primary materials, court rules and sites, lawyer locators, forms and practice tools, libraries, and legal education (including CLE). The Minnesota materials are more developed than those for Wisconsin. Some primary legal materials are available for jurisdictions outside the target state. These consist of federal statutes and regulations and some Internet Law Library indexes (now hosted by Prithard Law Webs) for federal decisions and basic materials for California, Iowa, New York, and the Dakotas.

There’s no stinginess within each category, either. The legislation heading includes bill tracking and some local ordinances – all accessible directly from the top page of the index, I should point out. (To bring home the efficiency of this design: You can jump to any of the listed resources directly from the top page, without having to click deeper and deeper into the site.) The state and federal court sections have links to opinion archives and calendars, trial courts, judges’ biographies, and court rules (which are split out by type, such as sentencing guidelines, civil, criminal or juvenile procedure.)

An especially generous resource is a recent addition to the Minnesota Law Libraries and Special Collections category: the Web version of the Minnesota State Law Library’s legal periodical index, which contains 19,000 articles dating back to 1984. The index supports searching by title, keyword, or author. It’s also possible to specify a year or a range or years or select a journal title (there are about 20) or a subject (nearly 300) from pull-down menus. The specificity is laudable in the subject listings, which are helpfully arcane. Instead of merely “courts,” for example, the menu offers a wealth of choices, from those within a single county to those in one of several neighboring states. Multiple, narrow options also appear for topics such as employment or environmental law. Don’t overlook the links at the bottom of the index page. As is frequently the case at LawMoose, intriguing features lurk in the fine print, not drawing much attention to themselves. (My favorite appears at the end of About LawMoose: About Moose, the New World and the North Woods, which articulates a defense of this choice of animal for the site and points to a moose watcher’s guide.) The one on the index page deserves a bigger play. It’s a link called Find Cases Discussed in Articles, and it leads to a tool for searching by citation or case name (or phrase).

Usually, though, navigating LawMoose is not a re-enactment of the dreaded law school game of hide the ball. Going from one geographic section to another is easy to figure out; simply click on the colorful icon at the top of the page that depicts the section you wish to visit. For the world section, there’s a globe, while silhouettes of each state lead the way to Minnesota and Wisconsin.

And if you can’t locate something, the site map will point the way, though not as others would do it. LawMoose’s approach to a site map sidesteps the usual dryness. It offers three, customized to the geographic section you are visiting. Following the retro design sense of the early 1960s, each map features a central identifying bubble with sweeping tentacles in different colors, each tentacle leading to a heading that branches into a column of subheadings. Instead of parroting the heading set-up from the top page, the site map headings range from resources (Web Resources Directory, Minnesota Search Collections) to features (Search Help and Intelligence; Search & Display Options). Unlike on the front page, the subheadings are not hyperlinked and the subheading font is gray and small, but the site does offer printer-friendly versions.

One of LawMoose’s features is not particularly helpful to serious legal researchers on the state pages, but provides the cornerstone – and draw – of the global resources page. The feature consists of predefined searches that LawMoose runs without shedding much light on the parameters. On the Minnesota and Wisconsin pages, these searches appear under the heading Super-Easy Search. This feature is available for county or city names or for legal keywords. Minnesota also offers them for judges and companies.

My suspicion is that this feature is more likely to interest visitors outside the legal community. All the user does is make a selection, such as a county name, and hit search. The results are a dragnet of resources pertaining to the selection, which, as the site warns, may or may not contain what you were seeking. If they don’t, LawMoose does make it easy to do further research. It automatically inserts the selection into the search box at the top of the page, which you may delimit using the pull-down menu of collections. Thus you could choose Hennepin County, move from the search results to the box, and then highlight “Legal Assns,” “Lawfirms (midsize),” or other narrow topic of interest.

Although the global resources page doesn’t point out that this is how it works, everything that appears to be a linked resource on it actually sets a similar predefined search in motion. (This failure to disclose is another minor deviation from LawMoose’s usual clarity. It would be easy enough to repeat the explanation that accompanies the Super-Easy Search.) The page is set up, once again, in two clean columns. The left lists nearly 200 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, and their capitals. The country and capital names are highlighted; clicking on one brings up related documents from a spectrum of sources, such as Jurist, LLRX.com guides, and the Library of Congress.

The right column contains the states and Canadian provinces, each of which is linked to a predefined search through undisclosed sources. After viewing several state results, I did discern a pattern (admittedly, this might have been due to a desire to impose order, but the same sequence did occur in several places). Starting with the Library of Congress guide to the state’s law, the results supply U.S. Supreme Court decisions in cases to which the state was a party, court rules from LLRX.com, and resources from Cornell Legal Information Institute and SOSIG (the United Kingdom-based Social Science Information Gateway), followed by a spectrum of resources at government and commercial sites.

How useful this approach to state materials is to law librarians and attorneys is debatable. As with the Super Searches on the Minnesota and Wisconsin pages, LawMoose’s state searches are more likely to appeal to neophyte or first-time legal researchers. The ability to perform a meta-search of another country’s legal materials is quite a different matter. Given the sporadic availability of primary legal materials for other nations, LawMoose’s one-click dredge approach could well point a researcher to a document that otherwise requires sleuthing through many, many sites.

For that reason alone the site is worth a spot on the Favorites list of anyone whose research work wanders abroad. (It’s possible to make global resources – or Wisconsin, for that matter -- the default loading page for LawMoose; choosing one of the three pages as the default is what LawMoose calls personalizing the site, and instructions for doing it appear under Personalize.)

The global research “ecosystem” signals an interest in LawMoose expanding its reach beyond the north woods. The initial foray into state materials doesn’t pose significant competition to other portals (although the international meta-searches should trigger noticeable traffic) – yet. The Wisconsin page, though not as fleshed out as its two-year-old Minnesota counterpart, demonstrates that this site developer has a grasp of clear, efficient, and comprehensive presentation of materials. If these three sites are as far as LawMoose develops, they will provide valuable tools for Minnesota, Wisconsin, and foreign research, as well as a valuable model for other pared-down portals. In case LawMoose decides to roam a little more broadly, I’m keeping field glasses on this one.
 

ã Kathy Biehl 2002.