Features - Law.com: A Constructive Critique

Blake A. Bell is Senior Knowledge Management Counsel with 600-lawyer Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in New York City and is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of CyberSecuritiesLaw
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As the old saw goes, I’ve got good news and bad news about the law portal known as Law.com. The good news is that there is a tremendous amount of law-oriented information available at the site. The bad news is that there is so much law-oriented information available at the site that it can be difficult to wade through it. One must resort to the site’s excellent search feature to locate specific items of interest.

If you are looking to surf through index pages that present an immediate overview of all that is available on the site you will be disappointed. Yet, the site is one of the most extensive and content-rich law sites on the Web. It cannot be ignored by legal professionals trying to keep up with fast-paced legal developments and to grapple with cutting edge issues of importance to their practice areas. This is a constructive critique of the site from a practitioner’s perspective.

Background

Law.com is based in San Francisco and is owned by U.S. Equity Partners, L.P., a private equity investment fund sponsored by Wasserstein Perella & Co., an investment bank, and SOFTBANK Capital Partners LP, a late-stage Internet venture investment group affiliated with SOFTBANK CORP. Content on the site has been cobbled from a host of sources as varied as the old Law Journal Extra! site, LawNewsNetwork and a host of subscription publications offered by such institutions as American Lawyer Media, Leader Publications and more local ventures such as the New York Law Journal.

The entire site is tailored to the legal community and contains fresh and frequently-updated information of interest to lawyers and those employed in the legal industry. The site’s mission statement demonstrates precisely why the breadth of its content can be so overwhelming. According to Law.com:

Law.com is where legal professionals and law students come for news, legal information and e-law services. Today’s legal community needs fast, detailed access to a wide range of resources and Law.com delivers. Up-to-the minute legal news. Court decisions. Analysis and insight. Books, Software, and legal forms. 50-State specific sites. Online continuing legal education. And the web’s most sought-after career classifieds.

Does Law.com deliver on its promises?  It most certainly does. And, while this is intended as a positive review of an impressive site, there clearly is room for improvement. Indeed, as the title of this review suggests, this critique is intended as constructive criticism of a site near the top of its game that could, with a little effort, be even better.

Organization of the Site

Channels

In the most general sense, the site is organized into four “channels,” each of which presents a slightly different view of the content of the site based on the “channel” that the viewer selects. The four channels are: (1) Legal Professionals; (2) Law Students; (3) Business; and (4) Public. Each channel presents slightly different news items, information and resources tailored to the category that the viewer has picked through selection of a “channel.” A visitor to the site, however, does not have to select one of the four channels to access all of the information available through the site.

Career Center

The site includes a “Career Center” with career-oriented news, very extensive “Classified Job Listings,” a “Legal Search Firm Jobs Listing” area where legal headhunters post descriptions of available positions, a “Legal Search Firm Directory” with contact information for legal headhunters, links to “Law Firm Recruiting” pages available on law firm Web sites, links to the Web sites of “Temporary Legal Staffing” firms, and links to regional Web sites that collect job listings for “Legal Support Staff”.

Seminars

The site also contains a “Seminars” area where online seminars available through LegalSeminars.com may be accessed for a fee (and for Continuing Legal Education credits, in many instances). Some of the recent online seminars offered in this area are “Shifting Gears: Alternative Careers for Lawyers”, “Electronic Filing in the New Millennium” and “Elements of an Effective Corporate Compliance Program”. Each program is priced between $79 and $99. A premium subscription that permits access to all such programs for an entire year is available for $229.

Legal Newswire

The “Legal Newswire” section of the site permits a visitor to register by providing basic contact information before the newswire data is made available. Additionally, at the time of registration, the registrant can choose to subscribe to a daily e-mail newsletter containing digests of the day’s featured news stories with live links back to the full stories on the Law.com site. Each day’s newsletter includes links to national news stories about legal developments from such publications as The National Law Journal, The Recorder, Delaware Law Weekly, The Industry Standard and many others.

State Sites

Law.com offers what it calls a “State Sites Area”. This section includes pages devoted to all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Each page offers links to law-oriented news stories of local interest, as well as recent decision summaries of local interest. Each state’s page includes excellent and well organized collections of links to state and local government Web sites, state laws and regulations, local bar associations and CLE organizations, law libraries, law journals and other useful links. These state sites are an excellent resource. Each site is updated daily and includes, at the least, the following: (1) local and state-wide news summaries and features; (2) federal circuit and state court decisions (summarized and full text); (3) highlights from Law.com’s national legal news; (4) a state-specific legal practice guide (although many of these apparently are still under construction); and (5) annotated resource links.

Briefing Papers

The site includes a massive “Briefing Papers” section organized by practice areas. It includes links to featured briefing papers on topics related to 32 different practice areas from “Admiralty & Maritime” through “Technology & Internet”. While the briefing papers offer excellent introductions to hot legal topics of interest to practitioners, don’t visit the area looking for heavy duty legal research on cutting-edge legal issues. The vast majority of the briefing papers are the sorts of generalized overview articles posted by law firms on their Web sites. Indeed, many of the briefing papers are available directly from law firm Web sites and are simple “puff pieces” designed to show visitors that the firm has lawyers that are interested in the topic.

Legal Resources

The site offers an interesting “Legal Resources” area. This section of the site provides access to online legal research, government sources and legislation, laws and cases, U.S. courts, law enforcement information, U.S. founding documents, international law and legal resources by practice area. Additionally, the site offers so-called “Law Guides” on over 400 legal topics. Those topics are categorized into a “Public Law Guide”, a “Business Law Guide” and a “Legal Professional Law Guide”. As might be expected, however, the Law Guides are very generalized treatments of the legal topics addressed. They offer little of substance to a lawyer looking for legal research resources.

Expert Witness Directory

Law.com also includes an expert witness directory area. In this area, visitors can perform advanced searches for expert witnesses and can browse a large expert database organized by categories such as accident & injury, business & financial, construction & architecture, criminal litigation, environmental, family & child custody, legal & insurance, medical, science & engineering, and vehicle & equipment. Searches return a surprising wealth of information regarding businesses, organizations and individuals who offer expert witness services in these fields.

Law.com Dictionary

The site also includes a “Law.com Dictionary” described as a “Real Life Dictionary of the Law”. Definitions of legal terms are simple and easy to understand, but because they cite no sources for the definitions they are unlikely to be of any use from a legal research perspective — only from the perspective of someone who needs a quick and easy way to look up a term that they do not understand.

Law.com Store

If ever there were a law-oriented site that splatters advertising before the eyes of its viewers, Law.com is it. Most pages present banner advertisements (although most related to Law.com) as well as buttons linked to sites that offer services of interest to lawyers. A “shopping cart” icon appears on every page inviting users, in effect, to visit the “Law.com Store” where they can buy everything from word processing software to books, computers and peripherals and legal forms.

Some Room For Improvement

There is little doubt that Law.com is among the most professional-looking and aesthetically-pleasing law sites on the Web. Additionally, it is so content rich that it cannot be ignored as one of the Web’s best places to follow current legal developments and to start online legal research projects. But, there is room for improvement.

Web-savvy lawyers are drowning in information. Lawyers engaged in online research have dozens if not hundreds of different law-oriented Web sites from which to choose Among the most important features that can be offered in a world of information overload is the ability to craft automated searches that will analyze a site’s contents and alert the lawyer when new information of interest to the lawyer is posted anywhere on the site.

One of Law.com’s principal fee-charging competitors, LoisLaw.com, offers precisely such a service. LoisLaw.com offers a service known as LOIS LawWatch™ This service allows a user to craft an automated search query that uses intelligent search engines to “automatically and continuously” search: (1) more than 8.8 million pages of state and federal law; and (2) daily LOIS NewsFeeds™ that contain up to 7,500 articles a day from more than 45 domestic and international sources consisting of over 13,000 unique titles, reports and worldwide bureaus. Search results are automatically delivered to subscribers’ computers via e-mail or can be saved on the subscriber’s personal LoisLaw.com start page.

Such intelligent agent robotic services are springing up all over the Web, and most are free. There are so-called “News Bots” such as Excite News Tracker, InfoJunkie, NewsHub, NewsIndex, NewsTrawler and PaperBoy. There are Search Alerts offered by Northernlight.com which permit users to craft legal research queries that are performed automatically and result in e-mail notifications when new information is located. In short, Law.com offers so much that users would best be served if the site also offered an automated intelligent agent search feature to assist with legal and news-oriented research.

Another area where the site could use improvement is the site map feature. With a site as massive as Law.com this presents a particularly thorny problem. Other massive law sites, however, have mastered the problem with crisp organizational structures that permit visitors quickly to assess the overall content of the site and to find what is needed fairly quickly. Perhaps two of the best examples are FindLaw.com and Heiros Gamos (HG.org).

To understand the scope of the problem, try to solve the following “puzzle”. Visit Law.com and try to find the page that collects links to International Law resources without using the site’s excellent search feature. It most assuredly will take you quite some time to locate the page. (See the end of this review for the “solution” to the “puzzle” — the path to the page.)

Law.com’s Principal Competitors

In the fast-changing world of the Web, it is difficult to identify the competitors with which Law.com must deal. Several come immediately to mind. Some are “free” research services, others are “pay” or “subscription” services.

FindLaw.com and Heiros Gamos (HG.org) are Law.com’s two principal competitors in the “free” research space. Both FindLaw and Heiros Gamos present themselves as law portals and both contain a massive amount of data organized in a user-friendly way. If you are a practitioner interested in international law, Law.com is not yet the site for you. Heiros Gamos should be your first choice and FindLaw your second.

On the “pay” or “subscription” service side of things, LoisLaw.com is an important competitor. LoisLaw, like Law.com, is an impressive site. It is crisp, professional looking and offers an incredible amount of content and a wealth of user-friendly services. It is not, however, the only such service out there. Others include the grandaddies (Westlaw.com and Lexis-Nexis.com) and the upstarts (VersusLaw.com, LawResearch.com, and National Law Library at itislaw.com).

Conclusion

With an intuitive domain name like Law.com, the site better be good. It is. From a practitioner’s perspective, the site is particularly useful for those who want to access a Web site to check on current legal news and to identify hot legal topics related to a particular practice area.

Yet, as always, there is room for improvement. Indeed, with the venture capital backing that the site seems to have, an automated intelligent agent search feature would seem to be the site’s greatest need (in addition to an improved site map feature).