Features - Teaching Charlie, Esq. to Surf

By Kenneth E. Johnson, Published on July 1, 1998

Kenneth E. Johnson is Information Services Project Leader at Mayer, Brown and Platt in Chicago. Ken is author of "The Lawyer's Guide to Creating Web Pages," published by the ABA Law Practice Management Section, and the forthcoming "Lawyer’s Quick Guide to E-Mail" (available July 1998). He is Assistant Editor of the ABA's Network 2d newsletter, Webmaster of the TECHSHOW 98 Web site, and coeditor of the ABA/LPMS online newsletter page.

(Archived August 15, 1998)


In the last few years the World Wide Web has become a destination for legal research, just like Lexis and Westlaw have always been. Internet access has expanded from the law library to the lawyer's desktop, and lawyers are increasingly surfing the Web for themselves. But they are finding it's a wild and wide Web out there, and many don't have the surf experience that their law librarians have (often painfully) gained. So training is an important an integral part of giving attorneys Web access from their computer.

At Mayer, Brown and Platt, our lawyers get desktop access to the Web only after a mandatory training session, and our experience is the training has been very successful. This is an overview of how we did it.

The Training Program

The training program was developed jointly by our Chicago law library and the Chicago Information Services department. Such collaboration lets both departments bring their strengths to the table. The librarians are the search experts -- they know how to find things on the Internet, and already know hundreds of Web sites useful for legal research. The IS department handles the technical side of surfing -- installing and maintaining the firewall configuring the Web browser, and providing most of the instructors for the training class.

In developing the training, we had these five goals in mind:

Traditional Web training often only focuses on #3 and #5. We wanted to go beyond Boolean (teaching the AND, OR, NOT syntax of search engines) to create informed surfers that could quickly find what they needed.

What the WEB is, and why that "needle in the haystack" may not be a needle after all....

Most attorneys have a basic knowledge of the Web, since it has been hard to miss recently in the popular press, CLE sessions, Bar Association meetings, and the ubiquitous "http://www.something/ >www.something" that appears in many T.V. commercials these days. We wanted to formalize it more, discussing the Web as an interrelated collection of "documents" that can include text, graphics, forms, sound/video, and small programs. And to find a page you need the
address, which leads to our review of the URL and domain names.

But the absolutely most important point we want to get across is this:  the Web is a wonderful self-publishing medium. Anyone can put up a Web page on just about anything. There are few checks and balances. The Web has a lot of excellent information, a bunch of irrelevant information, and a whole lot of just plain junk. It's important to evaluate who the "publisher" of the Web
page is, in addition to the information that you find there. This may be a new concept for attorneys used to research on Lexis and Westlaw, since those are by their very nature "authoritative" sources. The Web can be anything but.

Some information about the Web page's publisher often can be inferred from the URL and the domain name. We review the current upper level domain names with this in mind:

COM used to be reserved for commercial entities, but now just about anyone can get a COM domain. I use myself as an example -- I have my own COM domain, and my commercial entity is just me. A COM site can very well be one individual.

EDU, the educational domain, also needs some attention. Many people think that just because it is on a university's Web site it must be true. They don't realize that universities and colleges often give Web space to students, faculty, and alumni, with very little oversight of what gets posted. Our favorite example is a Big Ten university, where a physics professor had a Web page that claimed that the Holocaust never happened.
ORG has come to mean a noncommercial organization, though originally ORG simply meant "none of the above," since it was used for domains that didn't fit into the other categories. Today there is often a lot of very good information on ORG sites, but again, understanding the publisher is important. Many of these are organizations with their own political, social, or cultural agendas, and that has to be understood when evaluating what is found there.
GOV, U.S. government sites, are probably more popular with lawyers that with public at large. Our training classes tend to focus on GOV domains, such as the SEC's EDGAR archives and the Patent and Trademark Office, since these sites are where much legal research begins.

Personal Web sites often can be identified by the URL. A URL that includes a "/~" often is someone's personal Web site on an Internet Service Provider. Their user name immediately follows the tilde, such as in www.interaccess.com/~kejohns, where kejohns is the user name. Likewise, most Web sites on America Online (aol.com/user-name) and CompuServe (compuserve.com/user-name) are individual subscribers' pages. It's not that these personal pages aren't reliable, but their credibility must be evaluated with the source in mind.

On the other hand, a personal Web site might be a find in another way. If you come across a really good site, with information you need for a case, the publisher of that site just might be the expert witness for whom you are looking.

Surfing with Internet Explorer, and Custom Library Pages

The next phase of our training class is more traditional, teaching attorneys how to use Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0, our Web browser. We cover the basics of the interface, using the toolbar, the menu selections, and how to save and use Favorites (Internet Explorer's saved URLs, similar to Netscape Navigator's Bookmarks). But most of the time is spent on our Start Page, and our custom Links pages.

As mentioned earlier, a major strength of our law librarians is that they know how attorneys typically use the Web for research. They've heard the common research questions, and know the best Web sites. We want to give this knowledge to the attorneys, so they would start off with a list of relevant Web sites. The library developed, and perhaps more importantly maintains, a list of these links in Internet Explorer's Start/Home page. This page (located on our network, not physically on the Web) is what initially loads with Internet Explorer and which can quickly be returned to by clicking on the Home toolbar button.

The Start page has two sections, General Sites and Search Engines. General sites contain URLs for resources such as the 'Lectric Law Library, GPO Access, Cornell Law School, the SEC, and MBP's own home page. Search Engines include legal specific search engines such as FindLaw, along with general purpose search engines and directories like AltaVista, Yahoo, Excite, HotBot, and Northern Lights.

Of course, there are more relevant sites that can easily be put on the Start page. One feature of Microsoft Internet Explorer is the ability to customize the Links toolbar. We have set up five link buttons to five Web pages, again stored on our network. These are Find It, Government, Legal, News, and "Wildcard." Most of the links on these pages are used firm-wide, but we also wanted to include links relevant to particular MBP offices. These office-specific sites were developed by the law librarians in those offices.

The links on these pages are checked regularly, and additional links are added by the library when they find new and useful sites. Since these Web pages are stored on the MBP network and accessed by everyone, they are very easy to update. And they give the attorneys many options for starting their surfing.

(Finally) On to the Search Engines, and Here's Your Test

Last but not least are the search engines and directories. Since not every legal research question will have a logical starting point with a particular Web site, our training also discusses the search engines and directories (including the legal ones such as FindLaw, LawCrawler, and LawGuru). Here the emphasis is that there is no one "best" search engine -- the best one is the one that found what you needed the last time you searched! We hand out a separate Search Engine guide, listing the most common search engines, their strengths, the special options they offer, and their search syntax.

Here we finally get into the Boolean operators, which most attorneys are familiar with from Lexis and Westlaw. But there are some tricks, such as whether to use NOT or AND NOT (HotBot the former, AltaVista the latter), and problems with proximity searching. Most search engines don't support NEAR, though AltaVista does (within 10 words), and Lycos offers very extensive proximity searching (near, far, adjacent, before, ordered). Although much of the syntax is similar, it is still important to know how the phrase the search for that particular search engine.

We end the training session with exercises. These were developed to be fun (they're usually done in groups), and also to teach a lesson or two. Here are a couple of examples:

While this may seem like a lot of information to cover, we generally do it in one and a half to two hours. The training has been well received, and our attorneys are surfing proficiently in that wide Web out there.