Web Critic - Fair Warning of Web Site Content

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.

Fair Warning of Web Site Content

When I was in law school, "hiding the ball" was the name for a teaching technique that deliberately obscured the point of a discussion. Nobody cared for it except the professors. The game was agonizing and frustrating and made us ache for straight answers, which were withheld for fear of spoon-feeding us, but it did, ultimately, did help us learn to reason.

I’ve run across this game recently and, no surprise, I still don’t like it. The difference now is that I’m stumbling onto it in places where no one will benefit from it. While hiding the ball may arguably have a place in law school, it has no business in Website design, especially when the point of the site is legal materials.

When I go to a Website, I look for fair warning of the site’s contents. It doesn’t matter whether the form is a hierarchical index (as FindLaw uses), columns of headings or a row of labeled buttons; the important factor is how well the top page serves as a table of contents. If a particular resource isn’t mentioned on the top page, it should fall logically under a button or an index heading. If the headings do not obviously include a particular resource, there should be a site map that reveals the structure and location of all the contents.

Would that this were always the case.

Finding Slip Opinions, Operating Report, and Recent Orders on Court Web Sites

Consider slip opinions. You might think that the top page of a court site would indicate whether it archives opinions. Most court sites do. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, for example, greets the visitor with only a handful of headings, but they’re clear and use expected language, such as daily calendar, online forms and, just what we’re looking for, recent opinions. The Southern District of Indiana gets by on even fewer, but each is pertinent and self-evident: court information, case search, publications/resources, court opinions and site map.

Some courts, however, are not as straightforward. Their sites do not list opinions as a category of their own, but file them under some other heading. The problem is that the names for these headings vary from site to site – and do not necessarily bear any relationship to the terminology that courts and lawyers use in the offline world.

The joint homepage for the bankruptcy and district courts for the U.S. District of Idaho has a baker’s dozen of buttons, which include items as specific as announcements, FAQs, forms, attorney information and rules. Opinions, however, are not one of the choices. Under which heading do they fall?

Not under publications, which is where the US Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California files them. If you run the mouse down the buttons, a menu of further options appears to the right of each one. The heading Case Files/Queries requires you to choose between bankruptcy or district. Highlight either and near the bottom of the next level of choices you’ll see: opinions.

Filing resources under less than obvious headings or terminology isn’t limited to opinions. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Nevada posts three monthly operating report forms, in a variety of formats, under Documents, then Downloads. (Downloads is a particularly multi-faceted category among court sites; it could lead on one site to download sites for software, such as the Adobe Acrobat Reader, while at another it might be home to the court’s forms.) To find recent orders at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California site, you have to know to look File Review and then Noteworthy Filings, which will produce a list of case names. Only when you click on a name it is apparent that an order from that case is available for viewing online.

Site Maps

These examples point out the importance of a site map. If you don’t know what to expect at a site, a map is the most efficient way to get a picture of its contents. (Search engines have their place, but they won’t help if you don’t use the site’s terminology – if, for example, you search for "opinions" and the site calls them "decisions" or "rulings.") The site map should give more detail about the site’s contents than the front page and not merely duplicate every top page heading, as Law.com’s pie chart does. Fortunately, the court and government Web sites that include a site map do recognize its potential and use it as a multi-level table of contents. An example of a useful site map is on the home page of the State of Mississippi, which lists the major subheadings for each of the eight headings on its welcoming page. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maryland and the State of Illinois make even better use of the feature by putting two levels of information under each heading, outline style. (Illinois’s includes, under Judiciary, Supreme and Appellate Court opinions.)

I don’t think that any of the examples of "hiding the ball" that I’ve run across online have been intentional, because they undercut the usefulness of a site (and, by extension, the designer’s efforts.) Making two simple design rules universal would avoid the problems: Say what your resources are, and use your off-line terminology for them.

Copyright © 2000 Kathy Biehl