Parker & Waichman, LLP
Like many of us, I spend a lot of my time searching for information. As I conduct extensive research for litigation, I find myself with a sea of documents in a dozen different formats from scores of different sources. It’s a real problem to organize the results of all this research in a meaningful way which will permit later document retrieval.
As we all know, the more research you do, the more organization you need, the more time and effort you find yourself investing. I’ve spent quite awhile looking for a software tool that will significantly reduce the time-and-effort side of the equation, while enhancing the meaningful-organization side and facilitating fast retrieval of the saved research materials. One that’s easy to use, intuitive and powerful. Finally, I think I’ve found it. It’s called Net Snippets.
Consider the problems and the needs of legal research
- If you’re researching via the Web, you’ll find documents in many different formats: HTML pages, of course; a few Word files; a lot of PDFs, especially articles; even plain text. I’d like to file the research materials from any of these formats together, by subject. Of course I could bookmark them, but then I’d never be sure that the material would still be on the Web when I needed it. So I prefer to save everything to my hard drive. That means I either have to link the saved files to my browser’s “favorites” or create an elaborate folder system on my hard drive to organize the material. It all takes too much time and is too cumbersome – it just won’t happen on a consistent basis.
- Most of us also use databases, such as Lexis or Westlaw (my firm uses Westlaw). However, you can’t link the results of a database search, or dynamic HTML pages, to your “favorites” at all.
- I also subscribe to news services that send notices with hyperlinks in them directly to my desktop. I’d like to merge the articles sent by these services with the other types of information found on a given topic.
- Some of the time I don’t really need the entire document, only a section (or a few non-contiguous sections) of it. I want a select, focused, information resource, not a vast array of full-text documents. So it would be nice to be able to cut-and-paste quickly and efficiently. But I also need the source information: where the material came from in a recognized, readable format (not just a long, meaningless URL).
- I need all these disparate documents organized in a deep hierarchical structure that reflects the needs of each case or project, starting from a top folder for each case or project with virtually unlimited sub-folders.
- To make the material really useful and to enable me to find it quickly and efficiently, I need to add keywords and other metadata to it. (Try doing that in your “favorites”!) To help me speed-read it, I want to highlight the especially relevant sections and have them in a separate area in the database attached to each document saved. Also, I need to be able to annotate or add comments.
- Although I rarely need to send material from this resource to clients, I do need to send some of it to colleagues working on the same project.
Software that will let you do such things is called post-processing software. Net Snippets is the best example of post-processing software that I’ve seen yet.
So What Does Net Snippets Do?
Net Snippets is an Internet Explorer add-on (the company promises Netscape/Mozilla support in the next version, due in October). It displays a hierarchical folder system that looks like Internet Explorers’ -- in fact, you can import your current Internet Explorer favorites into the Net Snippets folder hierarchy. But there the resemblance ends. While your browser can only save links, Net Snippets can save anything: a link, a selection from a document in any format, or the entire document. Whether it’s graphics, text, or tables: anything Windows can copy, Net Snippets can preserve. Each such “snippet” of information can be saved separately, or added to one previously saved. You can even capture a screenshot as a snippet, though I don’t often use that feature myself. The quickest way is to drag the address to a Net Snippets folder, which will save the entire document as a snippet. You can also right-click in it and choose “add to Net Snippets” from the menu, which will result it Net Snippets saving only the text selected. If there’s no selection, Net Snippets will save the entire document. (As I mentioned, it’s intuitive). However, I find myself using the Net Snippets toolbar that was added to my browser when I installed the software.
After you select the text, document, screen or snippet to be saved, it appears -- in a separate window (top frame of the screen) – in a simple WYSIWYG HTML editor that looks like FrontPage or Word, with the Net Snippets database in a bottom frame attached to the document displayed. Before you click “Save”, Net Snippets displays the text that it captured to ensure that what you wanted is what you actually got (no unpleasant surprises when it’s too late as there often are when adding links to “favorites”). You can highlight it and perform other basic text editing; choose which folder to save it in, add metadata, such as: name, comments, an unlimited number of keywords, level of importance and “custom” information (you can add customized labels to fields). You can “block and drag” text from the snippet to fields in the Net Snippets database “attached” to the document: for instance, you can “block and drag” the title of the article to the “name” field, the entire abstract in the article to the “abstract” field, the author’s name to the author’s name field, etc. without any re-typing! It all saves time and makes maintaining an accurate database concerning your documents easy (I actually smile each time I perform the “block and drag” function!). Net Snippets automatically captures the title, URL and date you captured the document, and files that information in the database under the heading “source”, which you can view and change.
Most of the time, I add the entire page or document as a snippet. If that doesn’t work (on a rare occasion it doesn’t), I save it to my hard drive. I almost never have to go through the time-consuming process Windows needs in order to save a file to my hard drive. But if I do, I then add the file to my Net Snippets folder hierarchy from the disk: to be sure all the information I’ve found is kept together as well as to be able to add the metadata I need (especially keywords).
Another handy feature is the Net Snippets “Drop Spot” which you can add to your Windows task bar. Drag-and-drop anything selected from any Windows application (Office, e-mail, you name it) to the “Drop Spot”. You can then add it as a snippet. Or you can copy it and then add the contents of the clipboard as a snippet. “Drop Spot” image -
For law librarians, legal researchers and others who need to send material to their clients, Net Snippets will automatically generate a “final report” which merges all the folders, subfolders and snippets (from any folder you choose to start from) into one integrated document. If you don’t want them all, you can select which folders and snippets to include. You can add an automatically-compiled bibliography of sources and a table of contents, hyperlinked to the relevant sections of the text. I don’t need to send material to clients myself, so I only really looked at this feature when I sat down to write this review. But it looks good: clever, efficient, fast. I do, however, take advantage of another trick: the ability to right-click a folder and email it to a colleague. Net Snippets automatically packages the entire contents of the folder (all the documents along with the related database) into a single file for email delivery.
So is it better than the competition?
There are quite a few other programs out there that claim to do all or at least part of what Net Snippets does. I checked some out and even used one for quite a while; but I wasn’t too happy with it because it lacked a lot of features that I needed, wasn’t friendly enough and stored all my data in a proprietary format, which is a big disincentive for any professional researcher -- you don’t have direct access to the data and you risk losing it all if the file gets corrupted. Let’s not even talk of what happens if the software company is no longer in existence. Net Snippets saves everything in its original format and the information is always accessible via Windows Explorer as standard files. It’s also much lighter and faster than my old program, it doesn’t slow my browser down. The folder system and interface are more professional and more user-friendly; and the editing features are a real time-saver.
Everything good can be improved
Net Snippets still doesn’t do everything I’d like:
- I'd especially like to be able to import material from Net Snippets into our firm’s knowledge base which is part of our case management system, SmartAdvocate. This would also enable us to share the snippets with colleagues in other law firms who have access to SmartAdvocate.
- I'd like to be able to “copy” snippets from folder to folder, not just “move” them as application now permits. For instance, I’d like to file an article (and its related database) that mentions several products in the folders for each of those products. (I’m told by the company that this feature is coming in the October 2004 upgrade).
- Apart from that, I have a few minor quibbles about the user interface. However, my current version (3.2) is already greatly superior to the first release and the company is promising interface improvements in the next version too.
Which brings me to my final point: I really like this company
They’ve been very responsive to questions. I get answers to my gripes within 24 hours, even on weekends (and for those of you who know me, you know I can gripe a lot!). That really impresses me. They’re also very receptive to ideas for improving their product. They issue frequent updates incorporating these ideas. So I’m looking forward to seeing the new version, expected in October. I’m sure a good portion of my “wish list” will be there.
Note: The company also has an “Enterprise” version of Net Snippets which works over a network (or the web) allowing large groups of users to share one database of documents and related data. A single user edition and its database can easily be upgraded with all of the documents and data transferred to the Enterprise edition.