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Features - The New Legal Browser that Could: The Law.net Examined and Explained

By Roger V. Skalbeck, Published on January 15, 2001

Roger V. Skalbeck is the Technology Services Librarian and Webmaster at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Virginia, and he is a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C. Opinions included in this article do not necessarily reflect those of his current employer or any other organization.
This column is, of course, 100% free of any legal advice.


Introduction

There is another "new kid on the block" in the world of online legal research services, and this company has come up with a very intriguing spin on providing access to Internet-based sources for legal research. TheLaw.net has produced a standalone Internet browser program incorporating an extensive collection of Internet links along with access to the primarily law databases provided by VersusLaw. In this review, I'll provide a comprehensive introductory review of the service, along with insights into the genesis and intent of the product.

I began consideration of TheLaw.net after seeing questions from listservs and colleagues about this new service. In the spirit of efforts furthered by T.R. Halvorson here on LLRX.com, I had initially intended this review to be a full-rounded database review using the SCOUG guidelines.[1] Two SCOUG-inspired reviews of this nature appeared at the beginning of the month right here on LLRX.com, covering the new research services EastLaw [2] and LawProbe [3]. The difficulty with the prospect of doing a comprehensive review of this nature is that it might appear duplicative at best and confusing at worst. This is because the core of the primary law content on TheLaw.net is coterminous with that provided by VersusLaw. This content is also provided on the Eastlaw and LawProbe services. For additional analysis of the VersusLaw service, including search options and scope, refer to T.R. Halvorson's review here on LLRX.com.[4] As best I can, I've adopted the basic framework of the SCOUG guidelines, and the following review focuses more on the information environment of TheLaw.net than on the direct content per se.

Overview, Coverage and Scope

In a nutshell, TheLaw.net Corporation provides subscriptions to legal materials and categorized Internet sites which are accessed with proprietary Internet browser software program, which is presently only available for the Windows operating system. The two major components of the content consist of caselaw and statutory access provided by Versuslaw and a categorized catalog of links to legal-related Internet sites.

The caselaw portion of TheLaw.net includes State and Federal Appellate and Supreme Court cases, with the core of the coverage appearing in the highest-level courts in respective jurisdictions. All federal appellate courts are available for long spans of time, but there are fewer than a dozen federal district courts available, none of which have cases older than 1997. At the state appellate level, dates vary widely, going as far back as 1930 in several jurisdictions. For current coverage status, refer to the Court Coverage page on the VersusLaw site. Jim Corbett, Vice President of Business Development at VersusLaw, indicates that any additions to VersusLaw coverage should also be made available to the partner companies such as TheLaw.net.

Internet links within TheLaw.net software are divided up into several broad categories, with hierarchical groupings and sub-groupings within each area. Whitney reports that there are around 60,000 individual links provided within the scope of the software. As an example of the category selection, TheLaw.net currently provides 48 separate topic and practice area resource sections, as detailed on their site. The broadest categories are indicated in the yellow strip of the below toolbar.

While there are very extensive links within each of the available categories, it should be noted that the coverage does not generally go beyond legal topics. The RefDesk category does incorporate some very useful travel, trip planning, mail tracking and related business productivity links, but it is very possible that the needs of very specialized practices won't find all of the necessary link categories available.

Following is one example of the hierarchy of Internet links provided within TheLaw.net. In addition to the bookmark-like view of links, TheLaw.net resources can also be browsed in a fashion that closely resembles a Windows explorer file view. The below example includes links to the legislature of Missouri, which includes sub-category links within the state house and senate as well as a site for joint bill tracking. As you can see from the above toolbar, there is also a separate link section for statutes.

Timeliness and Updates

TheLaw.net provides gateway access to content maintained by VersusLaw, pointing subscribers to the respective databases located in Washington state. This content is updated four (4) times daily, which was confirmed by Corbett. Any cases added to VersusLaw will immediately be available through TheLaw.net, as they access the same resources.

Updates to the Internet link aspect of the TheLaw.net software can be downloaded directly from the vendor's site, and Whitney reports that they issue around 30 updates each year. These updates include changes to URL addresses as well as site and category additions and deletions. Each update to the Internet links involves downloading a single, encrypted file containing all necessary link changes. Updates are cumulative at the time of download, so users can obtain updates as often or infrequently as they wish. Note that because the categorized links are encrypted and integrated with the software browser, it is not possible for individual users to change or update links themselves. TheLaw.net provides a direct facility for reporting on link status and suggesting enhancements, but users are required to rely on the selection and placement of links maintained by TheLaw.net.

Software Technology

To use TheLaw.net, you need to download specialized software as a part of the registration process. This software is relatively small in size, and I had no problems installing it on a modest laptop. TheLaw.net service exists as a standalone Internet browser that is separate from Netscape or Internet Explorer. At the core of this specialized browser is a version of the Opera browser, which has been specially customized for TheLaw.net. For those who may not have heard of Opera, it can probably be best described as the "third Internet browser", behind Netscape and IE. Opera was developed by computer programmers in Norway as an alternative browser, and it continues to be updated and supported.

Mark Whiney, President and CEO of TheLaw.net comments that Opera was selected because it was a fully-developed product, which didn't require that they hire dedicated software developers. Instead of doing significant development themselves, TheLaw.net worked together with Opera developers to customize an existing product. Whitney indicates that this version of Opera was selected for its stability and small download size, with the added advantage that pages can often load faster in Opera than in the other browser programs. As a technical point to note, TheLaw.net is currently based on version 3.62 of Opera. Though it doesn't employ all features found in the most current version of the separate Opera program, it does allow for a history view, a hotlist of topics as well as the display of multiple browser panes within a single application window (as displayed below).

 Accessibility / Ease of Use

The fact that TheLaw.net requires proprietary software to be loaded in order to access the system might likely put some people off. However, once the software is installed and set up, I found it very easy to use. It functions like a standard Internet browser, and there are not a lot of extended features, functions or settings within the software that need to be learned. If you are an avid user of either Internet Explorer or Netscape, you might find that TheLaw.net takes a while to get to know. Common keyboard shortcuts and conventions found in other browsers tend to be different or non-existent in TheLaw.net. If you primarily use your computer's mouse to navigate, there will likely be an even shorter learning curve with this software-based service. As it is specialized software that you must install, it can only be accessed on the computer(s) where you have loaded the program.

Customer Support

The vendor provides both technical and research support for all subscribers. Based on information provided by Whitney, it sounds like the research support is provided by reference attorneys, similar to that provided by Westlaw. The chief difference here is probably that reference support from a service like Westlaw will focus on the content of their proprietary databases. Reference needs for TheLaw.net might just as likely focus on subscribers-only content or freely-available resources. It is important to note that I did not require

For questions of coverage and/or scope within the subscribers-only content provided by VersusLaw, it is likely that users will have to consult directly with support personnel at VersusLaw. Whitney of TheLaw.net and Corbett of VersusLaw seemed comfortable with this situation, and Corbett said that their support staff will also be able to answer questions pertaining to VersusLaw content that might come from TheLaw.net customers.

During the course of my review of TheLaw.net, I did not have a need for technical or research support, so I cannot speak to the quality or availability of people to answer questions, but the support is included as part of the subscription cost.

Pricing and Subscription Options

Pricing for TheLaw.net depends on the number of people using the software as well as the nature of use, with access plans generally offered as annual subscriptions. Additionally, subscription plans for larger groups can be reduced in cost if users elect to exclude the caselaw content. Following is a quick sample of selected pricing options. For the most up-to-date information, refer to the subscription terms and conditions page.

Type Annual Price Details
Personal Edition $295 Install on a single PC
Convenience Edition $345 Install at work, home and on a laptop
Micro Enterprise Edition: 10 - 24 Attorneys

$175/attorney

deduct $100 for each plan not using caselaw access

Minimum of 10 users.

Users install at home, work and on laptop.
Most plans include a, 30-day money back guarantee, and all plans include unlimited technical and research support.

 Conclusion

If you are already comfortable with performing extensive research on the Internet, and if your practice area is stable and consistent, you might not have a need for the scope of coverage offered through TheLaw.net. If, however, you provide or support a dynamic legal practice, or if you want to be able to rely on somebody else to find, organize and maintain extensive Internet links, TheLaw.net is worth a look. Also, if your practice requires that you have access to updated appellate-level caselaw databases in several jurisdictions, TheLaw.net provides additional valuable content through a uniform interface. 

With an annual single-user subscription price of under $300, your money appears to go as much towards the indexing and organization of Internet links as it does to pay for access to primary legal materials. It is true that a significant portion of TheLaw.net points to Internet sites that individuals could find on their own, but the beauty is that you don't have to spend the time doing so. By getting them through TheLaw.net, the process of locating, updating, categorizing and maintaining Internet links can be left up to somebody else.

TheLaw.net might not be quickly adopted in the librarian or information professional community, but for the day-to-day practicing lawyer, I think that it could be extremely attractive. For any group of users who regularly access the Internet for legal research, I think that TheLaw.net is worth considering. TheLaw.net provides a new and innovative twist to using the Internet for legal research, by providing what aims to be a standalone and all-inclusive legal research software program. It is not positioned as a direct competitor to Lexis or Westlaw, and they actually link to both services within their software. Time will tell how well this new access method is received in the marketplace, and individual user experience will speak to the value and applicability of the Internet link portion of TheLaw.net. If TheLaw.net sounds like it could assist your practice or research, take it for a test drive. You might be surprised.

Footnotes

[1] SCOUG analysis guidelines date back to 1990. Reva Basch, "Measuring the Quality of the Data: Report on the Fourth Annual SCOUG Retreat," Database Searcher, vol. 6, no. 8, October 1990, pp. 18-24.  <back to text>

[2] T.R. Halvorson "EastLaw: A View through the Southern California Online Users Group Rating Scale Lenses", LLRX.com, January 2, 2001.  <back to text>

[3] T.R. Halvorson "LawProbe: SCOUG Rating Scale Review In Brief", LLRX.com, January 2, 2001.  <back to text>

[4] T.R. Halvorson "VersusLaw's V.: A View through the Southern California Online Users Group Rating Scale Lenses", LLRX.com, March 15, 1999. Note that additional details on search options and updates on coverage within VersusLaw content can also be found in the review of EastLaw and LawProbe noted above.  <back to text>

Copyright © 2000-2001, Roger V. Skalbeck. All Rights Reserved.