Attorney and author Kathy Biehl practiced law privately in Houston, Texas for 18½ years before relocating to New York City in 1998. She has taught legal research and writing at the University of Houston Law Center and business law at Rice University. A member of the State Bar of Texas, she earned a B.A. with highest honors from Southern Methodist University and a J.D. with honors from the University of Texas School of Law, where she was a member of Texas Law Review and Order of the Coif. She is co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research (Scarecrow Press, Nov. 2000), with Tara Calishain.
Web Critic evaluates legal research Web sites in terms of the informationthey convey, how effectively they convey it and how well they take advantage of the possibilities of the Internet -- or don't
I've previously talked about the importance of navigational tools such as search engines and site maps (see Web Critic 2). The best, most extensive resources on a subject won't do a Website (or its visitors) much good if they're hard to locate.
Recently I've come across a search aid that sidesteps this potential problem in a novel way. The State of Maine has equipped the State Government area of its home page with a trio of pull-down menus that direct visitors to resources they are likely to seek under the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
When the page first loads, "Can I help you?" appears in each box. Click on executive, and the menu offers four options. When I saw the first one, "Contact the Governor," I expected an e-mail form or a page with phone and address listings. Instead, that heading leads to the top of the Governor's Online Office site, which is also the destination of the second choice in the menu box, "Governor's speeches." "Subscribe to the Governor's Newsletter" takes you to the newsletter page, which has recent issues, as well as a link for subscribing. "Contact a State Agency" brings up an alphabetical index of links to agency pages.
The pull-down menu for the judicial branch also offers four options. "With court fees" points to the Judicial Branch's schedule of fees; the branch's database of opinions beginning in 1997 appears, as could be expected, under "Supreme court opinions." "Court directions" and "Jury duty" jump to the Maine Juror's Home Page, with links to each city and explanations of procedures, exemptions, excuses, and deferrals.
Eight choices appear in the legislative menu. "Law & legislative librarian" goes to the state reference library, which has a Quick Start Page of the reference links the library's staff actually uses. The page also contains extensive data on state officials and votes (in the form of historical tables), as well as on public, private, and special laws. "Get disability information" leads to the Office of Legislative Information's page on services available in the legislature's chambers in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The other options are more self-evident, with labels that make the nature of the underlying resource obvious. "See the legislative calendar" points to the weekly legislative calendar index. "Schedule of Public Hearings" leads to the Legislative Session Index, where the link to the schedule is in the thick of the listings under Public Information. "Results of voting bills and legislation" brings up a bill status search engine, while "Text of bills and amendments" jumps to a bill text query box. The remaining options go to portions of the Division of Elections site: "Election issues and ballot questions" to a page of appropriate links, and "Election results" to a page of links to tabulations by date.
Maine's menu tool reflects an astute appreciation of visitors' perspectives. It assumes that some visitors might not know how to find their way around a government home page. It also acknowledges that others might prefer to jump directly to a specific resource, rather than surf deeper and deeper through the site's pages to reach it.
Still, the tool has room for improvement in two minor ways. The first is following grammatical parallelism in phrasing the menu options. Most of the entries in the executive menu box continue the opening question "Can I help you?" Append "Contact the Governor" or "Subscribe to the Governor's newsletter" to that question, for example, and the result is a grammatically correct, complete sentence. Most of the options in the other two boxes are noun phrases that are labels of the underlying resources, rather than continuations of the initial question. For consistency's sake, the phrasing of the options should follow the same structure.
The other suggestion also touches on parallelism. Most--but not all--of the links go directly to the referenced resource. Several of them, however, lead to a higher level page, which you must examine to determine the location of the resource. It makes sense for "Court directions" to point to the general jury duty page, because it umbrellas the various courts to which a juror could need directions. But it's hard to see why the legislative calendar link jumps right to the described resource, while the public hearing schedule link, for one example, doesn't. There may be an internal reason for the difference in programming, or it may be merely a lapse in planning. It's just not discernible to the outside user.
Even if the design remains exactly as it is, though, Maine's tool still represents a valuable and effective alternative to site navigation. This pull-down menu system reflects a respect for visitors' time and varying frames of reference.
ã Kathy Biehl 2000