Features - The LOIS Law Library: A View through the Southern California Online Users Group Rating Scale Lenses

T. R. Halvorson is a lawyer in sole practice in Sidney, MT, President of Pastel Programming Co., and author of How to Avoid Liability: The Information Professional's Guide to Negligence and Warranty Risks and Legal Liability Problems in Cyberspace: Craters in the Information Highway.


Make a date with LOIS. She has a great personality.
Now wait! She's good looking, too.
She's got plain, durable good looks without a lot of cosmetics.
She has a good memory, is multi-talented, and has a lot of friends.
And hey, as fun as she is, she's not a high-rent date.

I like LOIS well enough that I could wish to write a whole review in that metaphor. The trouble is, I hemmed myself in by something I already said. Elsewhere I have written that searchers are responsible for quality in the Web world and proposed that we publish SCOUG-inspired quality evaluations of selected Web resources.1 Now I have to practice what I preach.

First Look

LOIS is a subscription legal research library on the Web provided by Law Office Information Systems, Inc. LOIS provides comprehensive law libraries for 32 state and federal jurisdictions and is actively adding new databases every month. For a number of the other 18 states, the libraries are started but not yet comprehensive. State libraries include case law, statutes, administrative codes, court rules, jury instructions, attorney general opinions, and other materials.

Among Web legal resources, LOIS is immediately interesting because:

  • it provides one-stop shopping for multiple jurisdictions
  • it supports multi-file searching
  • the backfiles of state case law are much deeper than on any free Web site and in some instances they go back farther than any other electronic source
  • the search engine is reasonably capable and the search syntax is fairly obvious for professional searchers
  • all of the cases and statutes on the site are hyperlinked
  • pricing and subscription options can be attractive for smaller firms

The SCOUG Rating Scale

The earliest full-orbed view of quality and value of information in the electronic age I can find is the work of the 1990 annual retreat of the Southern California Online Users Group (SCOUG). The retreat produced the SCOUG Rating Scale, a framework for judging performance in ten broad categories: consistency, coverage and scope, timeliness, accuracy/error rate, accessibility/ease of use, integration, output, documentation, customer support and training, and value-to-cost ratio.2 The SCOUG Rating Scale has proven sturdy as we moved into the Web world and has inspired a number of rating scales adapted to Web resources. My proposal to publish SCOUG-inspired evaluations of selected Web resources would be ridiculous for many legal research sites: they aren't worth rating. While viewing LOIS through SCOUG lenses reveals her blemishes, at least this is a resource worth looking at that closely.

Consistency

Searching LOIS follows the same general rules from file to file. LOIS obtains court opinions directly from the courts but neatly reformats them as ASCII text. This makes them more attractive than the way they look as typed by the courts and it gives a consistent look and feel from file to file. LOIS consistently adds value by providing parallel citations. LOIS supports field or segment searching with a fairly consistent field structure. For my state, Montana, one may search: all fields, official citation, parallel citation, appellant and appellee names, docket number, appellate court, argued date, released date, case topics (headnotes), judge and court appealed, panel, majority opinion, concurring justice, concurring opinion, dissenting justice, and dissenting opinion. The search page for every case law file displays the searchable fields in one column of a table with text boxes to enter search terms in the next column. This self-documenting approach reduces the inconveniences of any differences in field structure. If a court includes headnotes as part of its official decision, LOIS includes them.

Coverage and Scope

Although documentation is a separate category in the SCOUG Rating Scale, I have to say something about it here so you can understand the limitations and probable defects in what I am about to report on coverage and scope. There is a serious flaw in the documentation of LOIS' coverage and scope. LOIS has a central page documenting the coverage of all files, but it's badly out of date and does not say when it was last updated. For example, the system's comprehensive coverage for 19 states is completed and for 29 states is started, but the centralized coverage page only lists 24 states. It does not list any of the states whose libraries are started and useful though not yet comprehensive. My state, Montana, is not listed although LOIS has a good start on Montana materials. To find out for sure what LOIS covers, you have to navigate to the search page for a particular database where, fortunately, there always is a Currency command button at the top of the page. LOIS generates the information on the currency page displayed by clicking that command button automatically every time the file is updated. At least there is some good news in this: overall coverage is better than the centralized page reports. Understand, though, that I chose not to run all over the system to verify the true extent of coverage; I report here on the basis of the centralized page.

Federal Coverage

U.S. Reports From Oct. 13, 1899 to present.
Rules of the Supreme Court of the U.S. Adopted July 26, 1995;  Effective Oct. 2, 1995.
U.S. Constitution Current Through 1996 Session.
U.S. Code General and Permanent Laws of the U.S., in force Jan. 16, 1996.
U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Current to November 10, 1997.
U.S. Federal Regulations Current From November 24, 1997 to present.
Circuit Courts From various dates in 1971 to present, except Eleventh Circuit from 1981 to present.

 

Sample State Coverages

Nebraska

Supreme Court Reports From Dec. 12, 1949 to present.
Court of Appeals Reports From March 24, 1992 to present.
Attorney General Opinions From Dec. 20, 1976 to present.
Revised Statutes Through 1998 Supplement.
Uniform Commercial Code Through 1998 Supplement.
Court Rules Through material received by October 19, 1998.
Civil Jury Instructions Through 1998 Supplement.
Administrative Rules and Regulations Through Update No. 239, September 9, 1998.

North Carolina

Supreme Court Reports From November Term, 1778 to present.
Court of Appeals Reports From February 21, 1968 to present.
General Statutes of North Carolina Through 1997 Cumulative Supplement.
1998 Session Laws Through Acts ratified August 13, 1998.
1997 Session Laws Through Acts ratified August 28, 1997.
1996 Session Laws Through Acts ratified August 3, 1996.
1995 Session Laws Through Acts ratified July 29, 1996.
Rules of North Carolina Through material received by August 13, 1998.
N.C. Administrative Code Through Register Volume 13, Issue 3, August 3, 1998.
N.C. Workers' Compensation Decisions From October 13, 1994 to June 12, 1998.

Timeliness

The U. S. Supreme Court database is updated two hours after release of new decisions. All other case law and statutory databases generally are updated 72 hours after new opinions or laws are received from the official sources. I checked the two example states at 7:00 a.m. Monday morning on January 18, 1999. The Nebraska Reports database was current through January 8, 1999. In the North Carolina Reports database, the Supreme Court was current through December 31, 1998 and the Appeals Court was current through January 5, 1999. The U. S. Supreme Court database was current through January 13, 1999. Take out the weekend and LOIS' claim of 72-hour currency of U. S. Supreme Court cases looked true.

Accuracy/Error Rate

All of the databases are duplications of the official sources with an accuracy rate of 99.995%. Even if something in an opinion is wrong, it is official.

Accessibility/Ease of Use

Connecting is simple. The service is on the Web. A user navigates to the access page, clicks on an obvious graphic or the alternative text link, responds with a User ID and Password in a standard authorization dialog box, the system promptly processes the authorization and displays the initial database selection page. LOIS wisely keeps that initial page simple. I tried it with a least-common-denominator configuration: 14 inch VGA monitor, Netscape with all interface elements visible (command buttons, location, etc.) reducing the page viewing area to the minimum, and the graphics portion of the page still was only about one screen-full. The alternative text links below the graphics were about a half-screen. Different users may have different preferences, but I think that's smart for an initial page. The sequence through the next pages is logical and simple. Because the pages are short, they load fast. The fact that it might take three clicks to get where you want to go probably won't be an annoyance because they system responds quickly and you always have a good "sense of place." You know where you are on the system.

The search page displays a table in two columns. The left column lists the fields and opposite each field is a text box in the second column where the searcher enters search terms or parameters. The first row is always "Search All Fields." This is different from what veteran command line searchers probably prefer, but for the Web it's a fair balance between power and self-documentation of each database. As a matter of accessibility and ease of use, it's good because is makes searching obvious from the beginning without providing so much help that the help gets in the way.

We are searching with so many search engines on the Web now and they all work differently. One could fill a ring binder with laminated pages of search language instructions. LOIS removes the need for that by always placing a Search Tips command button near the top of every search page. That's accessibility.

The search page for the Montana Case Law database is about two screens and prints as one full 8.5 x 11 page. If you are using fields and not just searching whole records, you might scroll into the second screen to enter search terms or parameters. On a lot of systems, that means the command button to submit the search is out of view and you would have to scroll back to access it. Not on LOIS. The command button is vertical to the right of the text boxes for entering search parameters. That makes it accessible no matter where you are on the page.

LOIS does suffer from my pet peeve: you can't just press Enter to submit a search. You have to click the Search Data command button.

LOIS supports AND, OR, NOT, and NEAR. Each connector may be entered either as the typed, case-insensitive word or a symbol, &, |, %, and /, respectively. The default proximity range is twenty words and you can specify any range you want easily, for example, NEAR5 or /5.

The implicit order of operation is NEAR, AND, OR, then NOT. Explicit order of operation can be commanded in by standard nesting expressions using parentheses. The search engine supports compound nesting.

Phrase searching is simple. Unless the phrase contains a Boolean operator, just type it: habeas corpus. If it contains an operator, use the Web's familiar quotation marks: "search and seizure".

LOIS has built-in support for variant forms of words of more than three letters. The documentation illustrates this with the search term inflict which automatically retrieves inflicts, inflicted, and infliction. A search I ran using injunction hit on injunctive relief.  LOIS supports right truncation with the asterisk *.

There is no relevancy ranking, concept searching, or natural language searching.

When viewing a retrieved document, LOIS' displays hit terms in bold. The documentation mentions a strange exception when right truncation is used, but my injunctive was bold. The display is fairly smart. If my search used a proximity operator, LOIS bolds a search term only where it is in proximity to the other term. If the term appears elsewhere but not in proximity to the other term, it does not display it in bold.

Integration

LOIS is well integrated. You can search multiple files. Selecting them is easy: click check boxes for the files you want to search. Then enter your search terms in the field name/text box table the same way you would when searching a single database. My state of Montana is a low population state with a relatively small number of appellate decisions each year. We encounter cases of first impression more often than many other states. Practitioners here learn to know which other jurisdictions our court looks to most often for persuasive authority. LOIS' cross-file searching makes it easy for me to select and search those several jurisdictions at once. You can do the same thing with statutes, regulations, attorney general opinions, and jury instructions.

All of the cases and statutes on the site are hyperlinked. Montana is in the Ninth Circuit so I search Ninth Circuit cases often. On LOIS, while reviewing a Ninth Circuit opinion which cites what looks like an important decision from the Fifth Circuit, I can click on the hyperlink and soon read that decision without having to navigate to the Fifth Circuit database to pull it up. Some providers put their data on the Web, but they don't make a web out of it. LOIS does. LOIS knows where it is: on the Web.

Output

When you submit a search, LOIS returns a page of hit citations. For case law, the most current cases are displayed first. In multiple-file searching, the hits are sorted by jurisdiction. In case law databases, the hit page gives you the abbreviated case name, official citation, year, docket number, and full date decided (with subsequent history if applicable, e.g., rehearing denied with full date). Click on a citation to call a document.

Here's the chief omission: there is no KWIC-like display format.

LOIS displays documents in cleanly formatted ASCII text. Cases have parallel citations to West's reporters and pagination based on the official reporter. There may be other parallel citations; LOIS displays Montana Supreme Court decisions with a third citation to the unofficial State Reporter (the official reporter is the Montana Reports).

Graphics are missing but noted. One Montana Supreme Court opinion I retrieved included this note:

[EDITORS' NOTE: MAP IS ELECTRONICALLY NON-TRANSFERABLE.]

When you chose File Save As in your browser, the proposed file name always is v_view.exe. If you just press Enter, nothing happens. It won't save the file and the dialog box does not clear. You must think of a file name and type it manually.

When you save a document, the bolded search terms are saved in bold. For some purposes, that might be an annoyance. It would be nice if there were an alternative to save documents without that mark-up.

Documentation

LOIS does not have a user's manual as such. You wouldn't need one. The documentation of how to search consists chiefly of a single Web page which becomes eight 8.5 x 11 pages when printed. Read it once and you'll remember most of it. What you forget always is handy via the Search Tips command button on every search page. The documentation, though not too long for the impatient searcher, gives a good amount of examples of formats to use for specific search tasks and offers advice on search strategies to avoid. There is a good section on formatting statute section numbers. That's helpful because, of course, they vary from state-to-state. There is no citator on LOIS, but with that help on formatting statute section numbers, you can do a fair amount of indirect statute citation work. There is another good section on finding cases by name or citation.

Customer Support and Training

Subscribers receive unlimited toll-free support Monday to Friday from 7:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. and Saturdays from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. Central Standard Time.

Value-to-Cost Ratio

LOIS offers several subscription options.

Subscription Options

All Libraries Unlimited access to all libraries $2,595.00 per year
Your State & Your Federal Unlimited access to all libraries for your state and your federal circuit, the U.S. Reports, and the U.S. Code $1,195.00 per year
Your State Unlimited access to all libraries for your state $500.00 to 700.00 per year
State Statutes & Regs Unlimited access to your state's statutes and regulations $300.00 per year
All Federal Libraries Unlimited access to all federal libraries $1,995.00 per year
CFR & FR Unlimited access to Code of Federal Regulations libraries $995.00 per year

The single price includes everything. There are no printing or downloading charges. A single subscription allows all members of your firm to use the service, one at a time. Discounts are available for multiple simultaneous user access. Counsel Connect members enjoy a ten percent discount. LOIS offers a twenty-four hour visitor pass to let you try before you buy.

LOIS is adding data rapidly. It also is enhancing its features and interface. This review is based on working with Classic LOIS. A newer service, Enhanced LOIS, is in beta. My reviewer's account did not give me access to that. I was able to look at some preliminary documentation of the enhanced product. There are some useful features coming and the interface is being made prettier. I hope it does not get too pretty, though. I like plain, durable good looks with fast loading pages, a little self-documentation and help, but no unnecessary or dumbed-down clutter.

Of course LOIS cannot be a Westlaw or Lexis. For a small law firm focusing on the law of a single state and perhaps also needing federal primary sources, LOIS presents a favorable value-to-cost ratio. It is encouraging to see a new service like this and for its age, it is credible and satisfying. The rapid development has to cost a lot of money. It will be interesting to see whether LOIS can make its prices even more competitive with an expanding user base and sales recovery of initial development costs. If LOIS does not seem right for you right now, check back later. She might not always be daddy's little girl.

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Footnotes

  1. T. R. Halvorson, "Searcher Responsibility for Quality in the Web World," Searcher, vol. 6 no. 9, October 1998, pp. 12-20.  <back to text>

  2. Reva Basch, "Measuring the Quality of the Data: Report on the Fourth Annual SCOUG Retreat," Database Searcher, vol. 6, no. 8, October 1990, pp. 18-24.  <back to text>


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