Web Critic - Getting a Grip on the Web: SurfWax Legal Researcher

By Kathy Biehl, Published on August 1, 2002
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.

Web Critic evaluates legal research Web sites in terms of the information they convey, how effectively they convey it and how well they take advantage of the possibilities of the Internet -- or don't.

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Whether you've tried out SurfWax yet or not, it may well be worth your time to test drive the company's new service for the legal field, SurfWax Legal Researcher. Launched in June 2002, the refocused tool continues the strengths of the general research product -- targeted meta-searching, result previewing and research storage/sharing capabilities -- with a few twists and an efficiency-minded enhancement or two. (For a full-blown refresher on the SurfWax approach, see my December 2001 review, SurfWax: A Surfing Tool With Real Research Potential.)

SurfWax Legal Researcher facilitates customized meta-searching, but not in the same way as the original version. Instead of permitting the user to select and save sets of engines, databases and other resources through which a search will be run, SurfWax LR has you access predefined search sets in as few as two clicks. LR has divvied up its main resources (about the nature of which in a paragraph or two) into 10 topics, each of which contains multiple subtopics. The main topics roughly comprise the universe of legal queries (Education, Federal Courts, International Law, News, Practice Areas, Practice/Procedure, Reference, US Code, US Government Sites, and the Web, the last of which is for general inquiries). These topics are the default starting points. It is possible, however, to switch the default approach to a specific state -- at present, only California. It will be joined, however, by 14 additional major states, according to president and CEO Tom Holt.

Whether for the Main Topics or for California, the subtopics break each category into narrowly defined areas, each of which represents a preprogrammed search set of relevant resources. (California's split into laws, court procedure, five levels of courts, legal associations, and news.) For an idea of what SurfWax means by a particular subtopic (or to view all the topics and subtopics at once), press the tiny link "View TopicMap" that appears above the blue-shaded topic menu. Each hyperlinked subtopic jumps to an explanation of varying degrees of helpfulness -- ranging from repeating the name of the subtopic (for example, Business News is defined as …. Business News) to detailing the matters covered in the subtopic (for example, spelling out that Employment Law covers ERISA, employment, labor, employee benefits, harassment, disabilities, human resources, and workers' compensation).

For each search, the user first selects a topic and subtopic. The selection process is simple, though not entirely self-evident to the first-time visitor. It is obvious that the topics are hyperlinked. Clicking on one amounts to choosing it, and causes its subtopics to load in the box labeled Search Sets (a development that should catch a neophyte's attention because the frame will refresh). Press the arrow to the right of the box to view the pull-down menu of subtopics; highlight one to select it. When you enter a query and hit search, LR runs the terms through the resources associated with your topic and subtopic selection.

Just what are those resources? In the case of the US Code, they are simply the chapters and sections within each title (the titles themselves being the subtopics) -- which, by the way, makes LR a handy place to retrieve code sections on the fly (or the cheap). Each other subtopic has "hundreds of thousands" of documents behind it, states Holt. These include the sorts of academic and government sites that you would expect, search engines such as FindLaw and Google, and -- in one of LR's most distinguishing characteristics -- legal memoranda from 250 large law firm sites. These are particularly abundant in the Practice Area subtopics, which cover some 50 discrete subjects, nearly a dozen more than in the FindLaw index.

As a basis of comparison I ran several equivalent queries through LR and through FindLaw. I say "equivalent" because I found it challenging to craft a query at FindLaw that approached the specificity possible at LR. For example, I tried the terms "patent trademark" in the European Law subtopic of International at LR; my best guess at FindLaw was selecting Legal Web Sites from the search engine pull-down menu and entering "patent trademark European law." My sample searches turned up a completely different tenor of information at the two sites. For the "patent trademark" search, for example, LR generated 66 results, which ranged from articles at a UK site called The Lawyer News to attorney listings at a Denver firm to a host of index entries from FindLaw. FindLaw had more than 10 pages of results from the USPTO, US law school libraries, and some foreign law firms, heavy on referencing the European Patent Office. I surfed three pages into the results and found no duplications with any of the non-FindLaw results from SurfWax. Running the phrase "insider trading" through the Legal News sections of the two sites was also revealing. LR picked up LLRX Newsstand, legal websites, Law.com, and news briefs on sites of firms such as Arent, Fox, while FindLaw generated only headlines from its own Associated Press news feed.

As with the original SurfWax, LR permits previewing search results without loading the referenced page. Pressing a magnifying glass next to a result generates a SiteSnap in the right frame of the page (the results remain in the left frame). The SiteSnap discloses the length of the page, summarizes its key points, extracts focus words that flesh out the page's contents, and makes it possible to view focus words in context.

LR also offers a twist on analyzing results, an enhancement called Facilitator. It appears in hyperlinked fine print (in a parenthetical, even) at the top of the search results, and it opens the full text of all the documents in the results, one after the other, in one, newly launched browser window. One more step makes the best use of the Facilitator feature. The SuperSnap function (available at the top of the left frame) pulls the key points out of each document and generates a synopsis. In each synopsis, keywords from the query are highlighted in yellow, as if tagged with a marker. To my thinking, Facilitator is a quick way to determine whether your query is hitting the mark, or whether it needs refining. Without selecting SuperSnap, the documents form one enormous page, which you can either scroll through to spot the highlighted keywords or navigate by using the hyperlinked document index that appears in the left frame.

The Facilitator feature also appears in LR's InfoCubby, which otherwise has the same document storage and sharing capabilities as in the initial product. Here the Facilitator is represented by a red Sigma next to the name of a folder you have set up. Clicking the Sigma opens a new browser window containing all of that folder's documents, on one page, with a hyperlinked index of the contents. A simple search tool will highlight specified terms throughout the documents, or you use SuperSnap to generate synopses based on terms you enter.

A further enhancement of the InfoCubby function now allows users to upload and store files in a variety of formats (such as HTML, PDF, Word, Excel, and multimedia).

The pricing of SurfWax LR is higher than the original product, but still within reason. An individual license is $150 a year, while multi-user licenses begin at $200 a month, with a one-time set-up fee. A 15-day free trial is available. It's worth the gamble.

ã Kathy Biehl 2002.