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Features - Options in Electronic Subscriptions: New Players and Old Favorites in Your Email In-Box

By Roger V. Skalbeck, Published on September 14, 1999

Roger Vicarius Skalbeck is the Electronic Initiatives Librarian at Howrey & Simon in Washington, D.C., and is the Web Master for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C.  Current work activities cover myriad aspects of electronic research resource evaluation, intranet content development as well as research and technology training, all from a librarian’s perspective. This article is 100% free of legal advice and reflects the personal views of the author, which are not necessarily those of his employer or any other organization.


Introduction

In today's fast-paced world, it is critical that legal information users be able to efficiently keep up-to-date on legal developments. Lawyers and others need to have access to a variety of targeted sources for learning about developments from the courts, legislatures and general litigation activity to keep abreast of practice-critical issues. Over the last few years, a variety of new subscription-based services have become available to deliver news of developments electronically.

In this article, I will take a look at the marketplace and status of selected subscription-based news and notification services to examine possibilities for keeping current with legal-related news. Along with this source-by-source analysis, other highly customizable notification services will be mentioned but not elaborately detailed. In addition to summarizing some significant aspects of these services, I will suggest ways in which they might be best utilized for higher productivity and targeted filtering.

I do not address electronic access to general legal databases, treatises or CD-ROMs. Email discussion lists and listservs are similarly excluded from this article. For some topics in electronic subscriptions that are not covered here, see the notes at the end of this article for suggestions on further reading.

Newsletters, Commentary and Analysis

The first group of electronic subscriptions to be considered are those that come chiefly from traditional publishers, but allow for added functionality in receiving the materials electronically. As examples, I have selected three very different types of subscription-based services. With each example, there are likely to be other versions of these in the legal information marketplace, but the selected services are different enough from each other to serve as good examples.

Below is a diagram of the chief components of each service covered in this study, followed by a quick narrative for each of them.

Edited Content, Newsletters & Analysis

Provider

Service

Features

Comments, Caveats

Bureau of National Affairs Email distribution of a host of BNA’s edited subject-oriented publications, available on the WWW or via Lotus Notes Full-text electronic equivalent of the counterpart print titles, with a feature-rich search engine and online archive Can be more expensive than print; equivalent for higher number of users
Law News Network Legal Newswire compilation of coverage from American Lawyer Media and related publications Selected full-text articles from a variety of existing print publications Daily general news service is free, and there are also subscription-based practice sections with weekly newsletter components
FindLaw Legal News General Legal News divided by topic Daily emails with hyperlinks to specific, targeted topics.

Material can also be viewed by visiting the news section of FindLaws web site

Coverage is from Reuters, so there’s overlap with other general news services.

Entertainment Law section available as a separate subscription

Bureau of National Affairs: There are a host of varied titles available through BNA, and they cover almost all of the print subscriptions that have been coming out for years. These range from their Patent, Trademark and Copyright Journal to the Antitrust and Trade Regulation Reporter to a host of daily services, including those for tax, labor, antitrust and executives.

Subscriptions are available via email and the World Wide Web as well as via Lotus Notes. In general, these have made a great transition into the electronic medium. Obvious basic advantages are that "routing list" recipients get the updates at the same time, and don't have to worry about losing physical items. Also, BNA recently has greatly enhanced the online search capabilities and usefulness of the archives for most, if not all of their titles. You can search by case name, general topic, browse by date, and they host or link to online versions of many key cases or documents that they reference.

Law News Network: In an interesting turn of events, Counsel Connect and Law Journal Extra! have both passed by the wayside, merging into the Law News Network, which also encompasses some new features and content. The daily news provided by Law News Network is a free service provided by this new entity. Each day's coverage spans a variety of legal news topics, with the majority of the content coming from sources owned by American Lawyer Media. Each story is summarized with a brief paragraph accompanied by a link to the full article. Interestingly, some of the sources, such as the Legal Times, are not otherwise available on the Webbut the articles come online in a heavily filtered fashion, so the Law News Network doesn't serve well as a historical archive for any specific publication.

In addition to the free "Today's Legal News" service, LNN provides three topic-specific Practice Centers, namely Employment Law, IP Law and Tech Law. Each of these fee-based subscriptions has a weekly email newsletter component. Readers of the daily service are sure to notice overlap in coverage, but the Practice Centers are obviously much more focused in their coverage. Based on early testing of the IP Law and Tech Law Practice Center newsletter services, I noticed that there was a fair amount of overlap between these two Practice Centers, sometimes as much as 60-70%. Presumably, this is more an area of law issue, as technology law is often very intertwined with intellectual property law, especially within more generalized legal information sources.

FindLaw Legal News: FindLaw Legal News is available on the Web as well as by email subscription. Subscribing is as easy as simply submitting your email address through a form provided on the FindLaw web site. News comes from Reuters, and is divided into major topic areas in each regular email that you receive. In addition to the very broad and somewhat generalized Legal News subscription option, you can also elect to receive only the Entertainment Law portion as a separate subscription.

For topics that are widely reported in the media, such as the Microsoft antitrust trial, there are likely to be a large number of stories each week or day. Overall topic areas include Criminal Law, Cyberspace Law, Business Litigation, Tobacco Litigation and about ten additional subject areas.

Primary Law and Agency Materials

The next category of available subscription services to be covered here are those that deliver (in whole or in part) primary law and agency materials to you via email. All of these services are currently available free of charge, and come directly from universities, agencies or the courts themselves. As with the first set of subscription options, these are only a select few of the services available.

Free Delivery of Primary Materials and Agency Information

Provider

Service

Features, Comments, Caveats
Environmental Protection Agency Delivery of Federal Register materials Subscribers select by section (water, air, etc.) or type of document

Though put out by the EPA, the entire Federal Register table of contents is available

Consumer Product Safety Commission Announcement list for agency press releases and related information Features information about product recalls, other safety information and a public calendar
Cornell University's Legal Information Institute U.S. Supreme Court, NY Court of Appeals, Patent Decisions of the Federal Circuit Emails contain summaries with links to full text of opinions
5th Circuit Court of Appeals Automatic receipt of 5th Circuit opinions as they are released on the Internet Email delivery of new opinions as they are issued, which are sent in WordPerfect format.
FindLaw subscriptions Email updates for S.Ct., 9th Cir., Ca. S.Ct. and CLR Federal Public and Administrative Law Announcement service provide abstracts of issued decisions
Willamette University College of Law Summaries of court decisions from the Sup. Ct., 9th Cir. Court of Appeals, and higher-level state courts in Oregon, Washington, California and Alaska Summaries are written by Willamette students, and are sent out between 24 and 36 hours after being made available

Federal Agencies

Environmental Protection Agency Federal Register subscriptions: This was one of the earliest electronic subscription services to be provided by a government agency. Email updates were first provided long before the Federal Register became available through the Government Printing Office in the flexible and sophisticated manner in which it now exists. Though the focus is obviously geared towards environmental issues, the service is likely to be useful for anybody with a need to closely follow administrative law developments. Casual users and those with specific research needs might want to use the Federal Register database page on GPO Access to search or browse the publication. In circumstances where you only want or need to monitor something on a limited basis, the email service is likely to be beneficial.

Consumer Product Safety Commission: As described in the above matrix, this is a notification service for product recalls, press releases and an agency calendar. As with the Federal Register materials, casual users and people with specific research needs will probably want to either browse their recent list of recalls or search for specific products.

Other agencies at the federal and state level provide similar update and notification services, so if you find that you follow the activity of a specific agency, check to see if they provide an email-based notification service. One example along these lines is an update service provided by the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, which provides information on updates to their website. This service is particularly useful for keeping up to date on new reports, and it provides hyperlinks directly to the updated element(s) of the web site.

Universities and Courts

For the options in caselaw delivery, each noted provider has a somewhat different focus, but all provide a similar service of notification for new common law developments. FindLaw also provides an announcement service for administrative and public laws. With all of these services, delivery speeds are almost certain to be slower than those for commercial providers. In some cases though, if commercial services are only utilized on an infrequent basis such as weekly or monthly, the noted free services might likely prove to provide comparable speed. Of course, the big caveat is that there is no filtering option for these free services, so you either receive them or you don’t. Commercial services such as those covered in the following section will allow much more focused and lower-volume results.

Other Customizable Notification Services

In noting email subscriptions, it is worthwhile to briefly mention other options for delivery of news, developments and updates in legal information. Almost all of the major providers of legal information also have email-based notification and automatic delivery options for selective dissemination of information. Westlaw carries the WestClip service, which is now also available for their KeyCite service. Lexis-Nexis provides their Eclipse service, which now offers a limited online archive for results on their Web-based service. Dialog offers their Alert service, and a host of other database providers have additional options for delivery of search results from any of probably thousands of databases.

If the field is expanded to services that also utilize proprietary software systems, there are at least two other options. For federal case filings, you could use the CaseStream service, which monitors new case filings, and can allow you to also track dockets, firms and even judges. At the other end of the litigation spectrum, you could also use a fairly new system called Oliver’s Cases to monitor topical subsets of new opinions at the federal and state appellate level. Though I haven’t directly tested this system, it is advertised as offering selective delivery of topic-related caselaw decisions, which you can receive on a subscription basis. Notification is then provided through a proprietary software interface.

Productivity Tips

Now that we’ve looked at a variety of options for receiving news and legal developments via email, your are probably wondering how you are going to deal with all the new messages in your in-box. If you subscribe to any listservs or similar discussion lists, you might feel that you have already reached the saturation level with new messages. I can’t offer magic solutions for alleviating this traffic, but there are a few options that you might consider for better dealing with this new level of content delivery.

With almost all commercial email programs, there is a simple option for filtering messages as they arrive in your in-box. Though this feature lacks depth of sophistication in many programs, it provides a very handy way to manage and file the messages you receive. Based on simple rules that you set up, you can have messages automatically copied into folders that you create and arrange. Email programs such Netscape, Eudora and a host of other commercial programs call this option the email filter. Microsoft Outlook calls its filtering option the "Rules Wizard", but for email, it functions the same way. Check the list at the end of this article for a very straightforward article on using email filters.

Once you are comfortable with filtering options and organization of storing email updates in logical folders within your email system, check to see what advanced filtering options are available. For materials that arrive with a substantial amount of text, you might have a secondary filter set up so to check messages for specific key words to flag them as important or to copy them to a secondary folder. The amount of flexibility that you have in filtering messages will depend both on the email program you use as well as on the type of updates that you receive. If messages arrive as file attachments or in HTML format, they will probably be read differently by the software.

Other Things to Consider

Electronic subscriptions to legal information sources take on a variety of manifestations, and the applicability of each of them should mesh well with your practice area and with the way that you monitor new developments. For monitoring information publicly available on the Web, some users might prefer to simply visit a core group of sites on a regular basis to check for updates. This might also prove to be a better option if you are overwhelmed by your current volume of email. For information from commercial services, especially those provided with edited content, email receipt of updated content might be the best option. If you travel with a laptop, you could keep up to date on new developments by simply accessing your email on a regular basis. Since all of the major subscription services covered in this article provide a link into a counterpart World Wide Web site, you would only need a connection to the Internet in order to utilize them well.

Future Developments

Looking to the future of electronic subscriptions and content distribution of the nature considered in this article, there are a few things that are likely to come about soon. First off, most commercial email programs will probably start to allow for higher-level filtering at the level of the individual user's desktop. At the same time, a host of new options will presumably appear for filtering and organizing materials as they arrive electronically. Through the process of selecting topics and materials to cover, traditional publishers are already performing the process of filtering content for you. Those publishers that utilize electronic distribution mechanisms are taking the traditional editing and filtering procedures to a higher level of technological sophistication. Another development somewhat outside of the legal information market can be found in the services of push technology, which are available to make the end-user have very detailed control of what is received and how it can be used.

Beyond just addressing your individual needs for personal updates, filtering and organization, another large growth area is likely to be in continuous intranet content development and updating. As the systems for implementing dynamic and automatically-updated intranet resources become more available, the content delivery and organization options will likewise begin to be more precise.

In closing, I hope that the small sampling of available subscription services presented here will give you both concrete examples of ways to stay current, as well as ideas for considering how to best use other electronic subscription services.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Accessing Electronic Journals, by Sharon Cline McKay, DATABASE, April 1999, http://www.onlineinc.com/database/DB1999/mckay4.html

How to Implement Electronic Subscriptions, by Mary Ellen Bates, ONLINE, May 1998. http://www.onlineinc.com/onlinemag/OL1998/bates5.html

The Economics of Electronic Journals, by Andrew Odlyzko. First Monday: Peer-review Journal on the Internet, vol. 2, no. 8, August 4, 1997. http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue2_8/odlyzko/

Acquisitions, by Joann Hounshell and Marla Schwartz. Technical Services Law Librarian, vol. 23, no. 3 (March 1998). http://www.aallnet.org/sis/tssis/tsll/23-03/acq.htm – The column in this issue is dedicated to looking at four library collection issues to consider in implementing electronic subscriptions.

Mining Mailing Lists, by Kenneth E. Johnson. Posted 9/15/1998; Archived 10/15/1998. LLRX http://www.llrx.com/features/mailing.htm -- This is a great overview of available mailing lists for performing research and keeping up to date with communications from colleagues with similar interests.

Managing Your E-mail With Filters, by Kenneth E. Johnson. Feature article hosted on the ABA TechShow '98 website. http://www.techshow.com/feature2.html

Copyright © 1999 Roger V. Skalbeck. All Rights Reserved.