Preview of VersusLaws USConline, CFRonline, and CFRupdate!

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.

T. R. Halvorson is Deputy County Attorney in Sidney, MT, President of Synoptic Text Information Services, Inc., webmaster of LexNotes, and author of Law of the Super Searchers: the Online Secrets of Top Legal Researchers.

Introduction of Beta Tests

This summer, VersusLaw announced to law librarians and corporate librarians the free beta test of three new products.  The first two were USConline™ and CFRonline™.  These products are databases of the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations.  The beta test announcement generated a strong response.  Beta testers for each product numbered about 130.  Later, the third product announced was CFRupdate!  This third product is an automatic update version of the CFR through which users are notified by email of changes to user-selected titles of the CFR.  The firm again received a strong response with beta testers again numbering about 130.  The beta test period has been extended through the end of September 2001.  Prior to the announcement, VersusLaw assembled three focus groups of law librarians and asked them for their input on the product ideas, the user interface, pricing, functionality, and other aspects. 

Feedback from beta testers has pointed out a number of glitches in the preliminary iterations of the three new products.  Many of those glitches have been corrected.  Some remain but are slated to be corrected.  More might be identified in the remainder of the beta test period.  To provide readers with the earliest possible information about these new products, we inquired about and tested them in their beta form.  As a result, this article is a preview rather than a review of these new products.

Pricing

With its three new products, VersusLaw shows signs of outgrowing its trade name. The online service is moving beyond its initial focus on reported court decisions and expanding into federal statutes and regulations.  With this expansion, however, VersusLaw continues its pricing philosophy.  The firm charges the lowest prices it can while still making money, and it offers its various databases on an a la carte pricing basis.  Existing or new customers who only want the caselaw databases still pay only $6.95 per month per attorney for unlimited use of those databases.  Monthly charges for the U.S. Code and Code of Federal Regulations are $15 for one or $25 for both, while the annual rate is $180 for one or $300 for both.  According to Jim Corbett, Vice President of Business Development, the difference between the $6.95 charged for the caselaw databases and the $15 charged for either the U.S. Code or the CFR may be accounted for by the royalties VersusLaw must pay to its supplier of the statutory and regulatory data.

There is no option for one-day use of the statutory and regulatory databases, as VersusLaw offers for its caselaw library.  Corbett says, however, that VersusLaw is open to considering per-day use.  In contrast to free caselaw updates, the CFR update service costs $15 a month for each title being monitored. By breaking the regulations out by title, VersusLaw is putting updates within the budgets of solo and small firms who need to follow regulatory developments in only a few practice areas. For offices that need any appreciable portion of the CFR's 50 titles, though, the cumulative impact of a per-title monthly charge obviously would be much greater.  We leave for another occasion comparison of the cost of monitoring many titles on VersusLaw with the cost of doing so on competing services.

In an interview, Corbett said:

We always design products that we think will be of value to our core users, those in small law firms.  But with this we think it is also of great value to large firms and large corporate entities as well.  The code and regs are not of value at all in a large or small law firm if they are not current, so we think we are offering extra value by having our products so current.  Also, when I was a law librarian at a large NYC firm, we had to track certain titles of the CFR on a daily basis.  It was time consuming and filled with the risk of missing important information.  I know that the Update service will be of great value to librarians in the large firms and in the corporate research areas because it is comprehensive and easy - and inexpensive.

Source and Currency

VersusLaw acquires the data for these new products from Legal Content Incorporated.  LCI is a legal publishing company with an editorial staff that averages over 20 years of experience updating United States federal and state statutes, regulations and court rules. Its employees worked for West Publishing Company prior to its acquisition by the Thomson Corporation in 1996 and the closure of its Westbury, New York, facility in 1997. All of the editorial work for the United States Code Annotated as well as certain other federal and state materials had been done exclusively by the Westbury office.  In 1997, a group of those former employees of West Publishing Company formed Current Legal Resources, Inc. The work started by CLR is being continued by Legal Content Incorporated.

LCI acquires Public Laws from various government agencies once they have been classified.  They acquire regulations from the Federal Register daily.  LCI electronically transmits the data to VersusLaw daily.  VersusLaw loads new data the same day as received within hours of receipt.  LCI sends it to VersusLaw in a form that allows VersusLaw to perform updates programmatically.  VersusLaw’s U.S. Code is as current as the most recent Public Laws and its CFR is current within twenty four hours of the Federal Register.

The editorial work to integrate and cross reference the statutes and regulations is performed by LCI.

Using USConline™ and CFRonline™

In use, the new VersusLaw products continue key characteristics of the existing caselaw service: straightforward presentation of content without editorial adornment and, for the most part, self-evident navigation. We tested all three during August 2001 and found them clear and easy to use, with only a few minor glitches.

The first glitch was figuring out how to enter the USC or CFR databases. VersusLaw's top page specifically points to a few services (including the CFR update), but makes no mention of the two new databases. To find them, go to the Products page and click the box for CFR Online USC Online.

The USC and CFR databases both offer multiple routes to information, permitting browsing by title and searching by keyword, citation, and topic. Each method relies on clearly labeled boxes and links, so that it's possible to locate code sections quickly and without frustration (or reading the documentation).

Browsing follows the common format of hyperlinked headings, by which the user enters a code by selecting a title and clicking a chapter number, then a sub-chapter number, and so on down to the ultimate section.

All three search methods return the user's choice of 25, 50, 100 or 200 documents. The results give the citation, name of title, and name of statute or regulation, along with a statement of the total number of documents that match the search. For example, the query "endangered species" generated a list of 25 hits (the default number) and indicated that 129 documents matched the query.

To find a section by title and section number, use the citation search. Search results highlight the section number in yellow, as if drawn through with a marker.

For keyword queries, the broader option is the general search, which runs terms through the entire database. 

For a more targeted approach, the topic method takes the capabilities of the general search and limits a query to documents that fall under one of 40-plus topics  (such as antitrust, business organizations, damage awards), which is designated by the user.

While the search engine VersusLaw uses for its caselaw databases is PL Web Turbo, for the U.S. Code and CFR it uses DT Search, which has become widely used in web, CD-ROM, network, and desktop full text databases.  As implemented by VersusLaw, DT Search uses the Boolean operators "and," "or," and "not," as well as two that indicate proximity, "w/[# of words]" and "not w/[# of words]." It recognizes two wildcards ("?" for a single character; "*" for any number) and interprets a hyphen at the end of a term as the command to search for variations on a word root or stem. The help page explains and gives examples of each operator and connector.

At $15.00 per month, VersusLaw has no function for saving a search query (which is possible with such services as Lexis, Westlaw, and StateNet) so that it can be rerun later as a form of tracking. The Daily Update service fills this gap to an extent, but only for regulations -- and within that, only for the CFR titles for which a user is willing to pay. The only tracking option for legislation (and the no-cost alternative for regulations) is keeping a copy of a search and reentering it periodically.

Once retrieved, legislation and regulations follow a standard format. Internal references to other statutes or regulations are hyperlinked to the pertinent document. U.S. Code sections have legislative information at the bottom, including codification notes, effective dates, references to public and prior laws, and prior language for each amended subsectoin. Federal regulations are usually updated within 24 hours; the site does not disclose the currency of the statutes.

Going from the USC to the CFR is easy. Each database displays navigational pull-down menus for both, and it's possible to jump from one to the other (or move within a database) by selecting browsing or one of the three search options.

There is one navigational hiccup that does recur. The Code Online entry page requires the user to choose at the outset whether to enter the USC or CFR, but VersusLaw does not offer the opportunity to log in at this point. Instead, the site takes the user to an online menu with hot buttons for the three search options and a hyperlinked title index for the relevant code. The log-in prompt appears only after you press a hyperlink or a button. This design allows potential new users a look at the site layout, but some registered users accustomed to the opposite sequence may feel it requires a period of adjustment. A beta design oversight exists for anyone who takes the browsing option. If you click a title, there is no way to go from the code text to the search options except to use the Back button, twice, and return to the online menu.  We pointed this out to VersusLaw and Corbett says they are considering something like a “New Search” button.  The site's use of cookies makes it unnecessary to log in again once you choose a different option.

Using CFRupdate!

VersusLaw's email update service is available for any number of titles from the Code of Federal Regulations. On registration, the site displays all 50 titles in two columns, and you indicate the desired title(s) by marking the adjacent circle.  VersusLaw then sends an e-mail message each business day that reports on activity in all the subscribed titles. It identifies any titles that have changed and provides a link to an update page for each. It also specifies when no activity has occurred in a title.

This service was in beta during August 2001, and our experience with it was erratic. The first update arrived more than a week after we signed up.  Subsequent updates did not arrive at a consistent time of day.  Corbett acknowledged a problem in their distribution system at the beginning of the beta test.  He himself subscribed as a beta tester from his home computer and experienced the same phenomena that we reported to him.  Corbett believes the distribution problem is fixed and said updates are 3:00 p.m. Pacific Time each day.  The initial distribution problem is among the primary reasons the beta test period is extended to the end of September.

Each update did, as promised, report on the status of the more than 15 titles to which we subscribed. Clicking a link brought up a screen requesting my user name and password -- which it, in a startling break from privacy norms, displayed on the screen, rather than obscuring it with asterisks (as pay portions of VersusLaw do).   Corbett was duly concerned when this was pointed out and says this is being fixed.

The log-in procedure was surprising in another way. The site launched it each time we clicked on a link in the update message. This happened even if we had been at an update page from the same message seconds earlier, and even when we accidentally followed a link we'd already visited during that session.

Our inaugural update propelled us into a virtual maze of log-in requests. The first time we logged in after clicking a link, we encountered an error message, due, we suspect, to a lingering loyalty to Netscape 4.7. The update URL loaded properly after we copied and pasted it into Internet Explorer 5.5 (and entered our log-in information again). We selected a new regulation and tested hyperlinks at random within the document to ascertain that they worked. The first one took us to yet another log-in page, this one for USC/CFR. After verifying that the link was correct, we did not see a way to return to the update, so we hit the Back button. When we tested another internal link, the system recognized us and let us proceed without logging in yet again. Perhaps there is a way to expand the cookie system so that the update log-in suffices for the USC/CFR database log-in as well.  Corbett says VersusLaw is looking into this.

We returned to the e-mail and clicked each update URL in succession. Each time, we had to log in again. Then we decided to see whether the possible Netscape incompatibility extended to more recent versions of the browser. It doesn't; when we pasted an update URL into Netscape 6, the log-in screen was there to greet us. The update site worked with Netscape 6 as it did with IE 5.5 -- except that Netscape's Password Manager asked whether we wanted it to remember the "logon" and enter it automatically on future visits. By this point we had entered the log-in information 10 times, so we welcomed the opportunity and clicked "yes." And yet -- when we pasted in the next update URL moments later, the log-in screen demanded attention once again.

Once you venture past the log-in screen, the update page for each title contains a list of dates on which changes were posted. The list does not always follow date order.  The sorting is ascending according to ASCII values.  For example, as of August 21, Title 17 updates were listed for August 7, 6, 21, 19, 17, 16, and 10.

Clicking on a date leads to an index of new documents associated with it.  The only dates we could locate were the dates that a set of updates had been posted to the site. There were no dates within the index or within a document.  Corbett says this is being corrected.

The first new document we viewed was an appendix to part 226 of Title 12. The index listing disclosed the title and section number, name of the title, section number (yes, it's redundant), and the first few words of the document name. The document itself had hyperlinks to the title, chapter, subchapter, and part, as well as to every referenced section. It also contained 18 images that did not display, which the error messages indicated were tables or graphic information.

Conclusion

In sum, all three of VersusLaw's new products present valuable additions to the online legal research arena, in terms of content, currency and price. In the case of the CFR Daily Update in particular, there are still a few bugs in the execution.  Bear in mind, that product is still in beta testing.