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Web Critic - Evaluating Legal Research Web Sites

By Kathy Biehl, Published on July 5, 2000

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 information they convey, how effectively they convey it and how well they take advantage of the possibilities of the Internet -- or don't.

Evaluating Legal Research Web Sites

You don’t have to spend much time online to notice how wildly web sites vary in their design. Some are minimalist, others packed with graphics and animations, and a few are an outright mess. The differences aren’t critical when you’re surfing for pleasure; if you don’t like or can’t figure out a page, you can always find amusement elsewhere. When you’re using the Web as a research tool, however, the designers’ choices have a dramatic and often aggravating impact on you

How a site is structured, how you move from page to page within it, and even the terminology that it uses all affect how efficiently visitors locate information. These concepts take on heightened importance when a site is among the few sources (or, worse, the sole source) for a particular type of information – which is especially the case with legal materials online.

The disparity among legal resources became a personal obsession of mine while I was researching the Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research (Scarecrow Press, November 2000), which I wrote with LLRXBuzz columnist Tara Calishain. Plowing through one site after another in a compressed time frame, I couldn’t help noticing how easy most of them made my job – and how much a few of them impeded it.

And so this column was born. Its purpose is evaluating legal research Web sites in terms of their usefulness and functionality. I’ll look at what information they convey, whether they do it effectively, and how well they take advantage of the possibilities of the Internet. The focus will be on court and government pages, but I reserve the right to detour occasionally into the commercial and academic arenas.

Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of California

To inaugurate the column with a positive note, I'll start with an example of outstanding design and usefulness. A couple of courts have postured their home pages as a virtual courthouse. The bankruptcy court for the Southern District of California pushes the concept into interactive reality. The site’s areas include a front counter, file room, library, the lobby bulletin board and courtrooms, each of which is marked by a thumbnail photograph of its in the district’s "real" courthouse. It’s easy to figure out where to go, because the site places its resources in the same spots that you would look for them in the courthouse.

In several instances, the home page also makes it possible for visitors to perform tasks electronically that they could do in person. The front counter accepts electronic filing of pleadings. This system requires registration to use it, and the counter provides instructions for registering, as well as a procedural manual. The counter also posts fee schedules and procedures for bankruptcy filing and using the after-hours drop box.

The file room provides three ways for visitors to look up files online. A query form (which is currently free) allows retrieving cases filed since January 1, 2000 or with numbers in the 30000 series. Certain Chapter 13 documents since June 1, 1997 are also available; they require plug-ins for viewing, and the page directs visitors to three alternatives. Registered PACER users may access the system through the page. For information that’s not available online, the file room offers both an online file reservation system (which will notify you when the clerk’s office has retrieved a requested file for viewing) and step-by-step instructions and forms for obtaining a closed file.

You may request a hearing date electronically in the courtrooms, which also have calendars and the code of conduct. Visit the library for local rules, guidelines of the U.S. Trustees, and recent published opinions of this court; check the bulletin board for announcements that affect local practice. You can even look around the rest of the building by taking the courthouse tour, which requires QuickTime. (The tour page has a link for downloading the free application.)

It’s easy to move from area to area. Each page has links to every other area, which appear in a uniform button bar on the left. The buttons include the site map, which offers a laudable level of detail. Each heading contains a list of (and links to) its resources and the actions it allows visitors to perform online.

The Southern District of California’s bankruptcy court reflects intelligent, logical planning. Someone took the time to think about the reasons that people call or come to the courthouse, and then pinpoint how many could be handled on the Web. This is a site that deserves to be emulated.

Copyright © 2000 Kathy Biehl