Extras - Versuslaw Review

Bryan Carson is Bryan M. Carson is the Reference and Computer Services Librarian at Hamline University School of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  Bryan received his J.D. from the University of Toledo, and his Master's in Information and Library Studies from the University of Michigan.  Bryan is the author of "Finding Resources in Philosophy and Ethics," in Carson and Carson, Mindsearch (Big Rapids, MI: Ferris State University, 1993).  An updated version is available at http://www.hamline.edu/~bmcarson/philos.html/  He is also the author of "Librarians need certification and licensing," in AALL Spectrum, June 1997.

(Archived May 1, 1998)

Introduction

The information revolution and the World Wide Web have made more knowledge readily accessible than ever before. Librarians, Lawyers, and other researchers can now do sophisticated research online. This is a significant advance for those who are not physically located near a research center. However, there are potholes on the information superhighway. Since anyone can create their own homepage, how do we judge whether the information is reliable? As an experienced online researcher, I sometimes find the World Wide Web frustrating. When I try to do detailed legal research on the Web, I often find myself swimming in irrelevant or unreliable sites. Many times I have wished that the Internet could be "more like Lexis or Westlaw." Then I heard of Versuslaw.

Versuslaw is a subscription-based legal research service that is available on the World Wide Web. For a much lower fee than Westlaw or Lexis, Versuslaw makes available cases from all 50 states and from all the federal appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. The site loads quickly (the creators were smart enough not to use intense graphics), although of course the Internet is sometimes quirky. The search engine is excellent, and allows researchers to use natural language or Boolean search terms. Available search operators are similar to LEXIS, although the truncation marks (Stemming and Wildcard) are different. A Versuslaw Research Manual is provided.

 

Versuslaw Search Strategy and Associated Features

Phrases

Versuslaw is like Lexis in that words typed without a connector are treated as a phrase. I could type a search as child ADJ support, or as ‘child support,' but if I do not use a connector Versuslaw will assume that I mean ADJ. Therefore I will receive the same results from child support. This default connector makes Versuslaw easy to use, since students tend to think in terms of phrases. In fact, I have observed that the single biggest mistake that my law students make with Westlaw is to not use connectors for their search terms. Phrases must be put inside a single quotation mark (like this: ).   However, the single quotation mark can cause a problem because most researchers are used to using double quotation marks (like this ").  In addition, it is much easier for a researcher to simply type the phrase.

 
Search Connectors

For more information on Search Connectors, click here.

AND Versuslaw uses the connector AND. If you are looking for cases that discuss the impact of liens on bailment, you can use the search liens AND bailment. Using this search in the database for the U.S. Supreme Court results in a list of 15 cases. Remember that, like LEXIS and Westlaw, the AND connector will search for documents that contain both words, but they may not be near each other. To do a more stringent search, use some of the other proximity connectors.
OR The OR connector is similar to OR in Lexis or {space} in Westlaw. If I am looking for cases that discuss health insurance, but I also want cases that discuss medical insurance, I can formulate the query health insurance OR medical insurance. Since this is how researchers think, they can compose their search rather easily. On this point Versuslaw has Westlaw and the Internet search engines beat, since the single biggest mistake I observe students making is to type a phrase with spaces and not realize that they have used the connector OR. This kind of error generally causes poor search results. By requiring that the searcher type the connector OR, searchers will receive better results.
NOT The NOT connector is used when you wish to find cases that exclude certain words or phrases. This connector is best used in combination with other connectors. As an experienced researcher, I usually find that using the NOT connector is really a substitute for proper search formulation. The example that Versuslaw uses on their search connectors help screen is malpractice NOT medical. I believe that a much better way of looking for cases on (for example) legal malpractice would be to search for legal W/5 malpractice. The results will be much tighter. However, there are time when it is good to be able to use the NOT connector.
NEAR/# The NEAR/# command is used to find cases in which the search terms are within a specified number of words of each other in either direction. Therefore you can search for words or phrases regardless of which order they appear in. Versuslaw will always search for the terms within the specified number of words of each other. The search terms can be between 1 and 255 words apart. For example, child support NEAR/3 enforcement will find documents where the phrase child support is no more than three words away from the word enforcement. This search will find results that include child support enforcement as well as enforcement of child support.
W/# If you know the order in which the search terms need to come, use the W/# connector. Unlike NEAR/#, the search terms will always be found in the same order. To use our last example, child support W/3 enforcement will find child support enforcement, but will not find enforcement of child support.
 
Stemming and Wild Cards

Stemming (also sometimes called truncation) is the process of typing in the root of a word, and then finding all other words that begin with that root. Wildcard characters can be used to replace letters that are not known in the middle of the word. Versuslaw provides three types of searches: stemming using the + sign, a single character replacement using the ? character, or a string of unknown characters within the word using the * for replacement. This means that a searcher can look use the search term modif+ and will find modify, modified, and modification. If I was looking for a case involving a party named Stirn or Stern, I could search using st?rn.

The new type of connector that is not available on Lexis or Westlaw is a wildcard for a string of characters. This is particularly useful in looking for words where you are unsure of the spelling. For example, suppose I was not sure of the spelling for the word res ipsa loquitur. If I was not sure whether it was spelled loquitur or locwitur, I could enter lo*itur and I would get res ipsa loquitur. This is a type of search strategy that is not available in either Westlaw or Lexis, and I like it very much. Perhaps some day the Big Two will look at Versuslaw and learn about this type of wildcard search.

 
Scope Delimiters

One nice feature of Versuslaw is that it allows the user to group their search terms using parentheses. This is one of the most efficient ways of doing a search. If you do not use delimiters, Versuslaw looks at the proximity operators (W/n, ADJ, NEAR) from left to right first, then the NOT operator, followed by AND, then OR. If you do not use delimiters, you may not actually find what you are looking for.

For example, I could look for the terms (health or medical) W/3 insurance. My results would include both health W/3 insurance and medical W/3 insurance. The example that the search connector help screen uses is also a good one: (accountant or auditor) and (fraud or reckless or negligent). I heartily recommend searching with the scope delimiters, since it will prevent problems. If I tried the search accountant or auditor and fraud or reckless or negligent, Versuslaw would take the terms in a different order than I intended. The search engine would read my query as accountant or (auditor and fraud) or reckless or negligent. This would not give me the kind of results that I want. The use of the scope delimiters prevents this type of bad query.

 
Term Searching

One drawback of Versuslaw is also an advantage. Both Lexis and Westlaw have a specific button for term highlighting or Key Words In Context (KWIC). Versuslaw does not have a similar button. However, there are ways to find your key words using the Web browser. The {Find} function in Netscape or the {Search} button in Internet Explorer allow the user to pinpoint exactly where a phrase appears.

Using the browser's {Find} or {Search} is actually beneficial in some ways too. The {Find} or {Search} button allows the user to look for a word or phrase that was not in the original search request. I could pinpoint exactly where the words I want are located in the document, whether or not I used them in my search request. This is a good use of the browser's functions.

 
Printing

Printing is done via the Web browser's print command. One of the nicest features of Versuslaw is not having to learn new commands to navigate the software. Since Versuslaw uses the Web browser as its software, researchers can learn Versuslaw at the same time that they learn about the Internet. This feature makes it easier to teach than Lexis or Westlaw.

One disadvantage to using the browser to print is that selective printing is pretty much nonexistent. I do get around this problem at times, although it requires a little more technical knowledge. I select the section I want to print with the mouse, and then cut and paste it into my word processing program. This works, but I wish that the process was more simple.

 
Pricing

One of the areas on which Versuslaw has the Big Two beat is in the area of pricing. Lexis and Westlaw are very expensive. On the other hand, Versuslaw has the kind of prices that a solo practitioner can afford. Subscription options include a 24-hour unlimited subscription for $14.95, a monthly plan that costs $75, $375 for the six-month plan, or the annual plan for $595. The flexibility of the subscriptions is a definite advantage over Westlaw or Lexis. For more information on pricing, click here.

 
Coverage

The major drawback with Versuslaw is the poor coverage. Although the U.S. Supreme Court goes back to 1900, and some states are available as far back as 1915, other states are only on line since 1996. The problem with coverage detracts from the many good features of Versuslaw. What this means is that in many instances you are not able to use Versuslaw to do general research. If a specific case is recent enough you can retrieve it, but don't rely on research from Versuslaw to give you comprehensive legal materials.

For coverage of individual states or courts, click here.

 

Legal Dictionary

Versuslaw contains a link to the World Wide Legal Information Association's WWLIA Legal Dictionary. This dictionary is a "plain English" dictionary that contains definitions. I don't have any information about the editorial policies of the dictionary, and that is beyond the scope of this review. However, I am glad that Versuslaw makes a dictionary available for those who need definitions or spelling of legal words.

 

Legal Forms

The forms page is free. It contains links to legal forms on the Internet. This compilation of links to forms is one of the best on the Internet. It is arranged by topic, and contains many types of forms, including taxation. Although a researcher can always find these forms on his or her own, I would suggest using this index to find the type of materials that are needed. There is no need to even log onto the system in order to use the forms. Since Versuslaw is an Internet-based service, the forms often come from the very entities that create them. One caution is that some of the sites themselves do charge. However, many of the forms are available for free on the Web.

 

CLE Directory

Another service that Versuslaw provides is their Continuing Legal Education (CLE) Seminar Directory. This directory provides information on CLE seminars. They are listed by area of practice. Each listing contains the date, who is sponsoring the seminar, and information about the CLE opportunity and its location. There is a telephone number or address listed for more information.

Although the listings appeared to be national in scope, they were severely restricted. Versuslaw compiles this directory from those who voluntarily choose to post their seminars. Since most doe not even know about the CLE directory, each area of practice has only a few postings at a time. Another problem with this directory is currency. I noticed that a fairly significant number of the entries were for events that had already happened. In fact, some of the listings were two months old. It looks like they are not keeping up the CLE directory as much as they should be. Use this directory to search for CLE seminars, but remember that (like the rest of Versuslaw) this service is very incomplete.

 

Conclusion

My searches were very successful. I came up with similar results using Versuslaw, Westlaw, and Lexis, bearing in mind the coverage problems with Versuslaw. I especially liked using the scope delimiters ( ) and the wildcard string * character. The interface and search engine are easy to use, and my results seemed to be as accurate as Westlaw or Lexis (bearing in mind the coverage issue). The lack of a feature similar to Term™ in Westlaw or KWIC™ in Lexis is a drawback, but using your Web browser's searching capabilities can compensate for this problem. In fact, the only thing that I can say negatively about Versuslaw is the coverage. Until they are able to obtain more cases, Versuslaw will not be a viable alternative to the Big Two for general research. The producers of Versuslaw are on the right track, and I hope that they will be able to expand their coverage soon. Without the coverage I can not recommend Versuslaw for general research, However, this is a good product, and (subject to the coverage issue) I do recommend Versuslaw for retrieval of cases and research in jurisdictions that contain more materials.

All opinions expressed are my own and not my employer's.
All original content © 1997 Bryan M. Carson.  All rights reserved.