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Features - Survey of Online Legal Information Alternatives for Small Law Firms and Public Law Libraries

By T.R. Halvorson, Published on November 1, 2001

T. R. Halvorson is Deputy County Attorney in Sidney, MT, President of Synoptic Text Information Services, Inc., webmaster of LexNotes, and author of Law of the Super Searchers:  the Online Secrets of Top Legal Researchers.

At standard Westlaw and LEXIS prices, small law firms and some public law libraries would suffer an economic disadvantage in online legal research.  They are not in the same market as large firms, yet the standard prices are based on large firm market factors.  Westlaw and LEXIS do recognize that among law firms, there is more than one market.  They have introduced special offers to smaller firms.

Westlaw and LEXIS Special Pricing

Westlaw offers a WestlawPRO subscription. As an example of the coverage, the Montana Primary Law Library includes Montana cases, Montana annotated statutes, Montana administrative code, Montana court rules, all federal district and circuit court cases originating in Montana, all U.S. Supreme Court opinions, and the U.S. Code Annotated. WestlawPRO includes West's editorial enhancements like case synopses, headnotes, key numbers, annotations, cross references, and hyperlinks to related information, including instant links to materials outside the subscription that can be accessed on a case-by-case basis for additional charges. On condition that a subscriber makes a one-year commitment, the price is a flat rate of $195.00 per month or $2,340.00 per year. The one price provides unlimited access to the subscribed materials.

LEXIS offers a special arrangement too, called MVP Advantage for Small Firms, but establishing the price is work. In general, its flat rate plans are negotiated according the sources and services selected by each subscriber, and by the number of attorneys in the firm, but LEXIS also advertises pre-built packages. Some of these packages are practice-focused, such as the Litigation Law Flat-Rate Library.  Others are jurisdiction-focused.  Using Montana as an example, LEXIS offers three plans:  Montana Primary Law, Montana Flat-Rate Library, and Montana Enhanced Flat-Rate Library.  The primary library includes: Montana Supreme Court opinions from 1868 on; Montana Code Annotated; Table of Contents for the Montana Code; Montana Constitution; Montana Court Rules; and Advance Legislative Services. The Flat-Rate Library includes various administrative materials, more legislative materials, and some public records files. No federal law is included until one reaches the Enhanced library. At that level, a subscriber has access to U.S. Supreme Court opinions, 9th Circuit District and Appeals Court, the U.S. Code Service, and U.S. Public Laws.

The trouble is, LEXIS does not publish the prices of these pre-built packages. It is easy to understand why it cannot publish prices of negotiated flat-rate plans because each one includes negotiated contents. Pre-built plans have pre-built content, however, so it is not clear why they cannot have advertised prices.  After considerable effort, I was able to obtain prices per month for one user ID from a LEXIS Publishing representative, as follows:  Montana Primary Law/State Shepards, $106.00; Montana Flat Rate Library/State Shepards, $140.00; and Montana Enhanced Library/Full Shepards, $204.00.

The Alternative Services

The alternative services are:  Loislaw.com; VersusLaw; Quicklaw America; National Law Library; RegScanLaw (formerly EastLaw); LawProbe.com; and fastcase.com.

All of these services are available on the web. This means you can do research wherever you have web access. It also means you do not need any special software. All of these services may be used with a standard web browser like Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Netscape, or Opera.

The best known of these new services are Loislaw.com and VersusLaw.  Loislaw.com has grown to the extent that a major publisher, Wolters Kluwer nv, acquired it on December 19, 2000. Loislaw.com is operated by Aspen Publishers, Inc. a member of the Wolters Kluwer Worldwide Group.  LexisNexis has a minority position in VersusLaw.

Quicklaw America and National Law Library are newer than Loislaw.com and VersusLaw, and they are coming on strong. Quicklaw America was developed by a combined effort of highly experienced former West Publishing Co. employees and Quicklaw, Inc. Quicklaw, Inc. is the provider of Quicklaw, a premier Canadian online legal research service. Quicklaw and its predecessor, the QUIC/LAW Project at Queen's University Faculty of Law in Kingston, Ontario, has provided online legal research for over 28 years, longer than anyone else in the world.

RegScanLaw and LawProbe.com acquire their case law data from VersusLaw. They will be covered here more briefly for that reason.

fastcase.com is in development and is not yet available except to registered beta testers. It expects to launch its service late this year. It has had the advantage of seeing the reviews that have been written about the other services mentioned. If they take the criteria of the reviews to heart, they might develop a fine service.  They have a substantial beta test group, many of whom are law librarians.

There are additional firms either working on new services or assessing the prospect of entering the American market for online legal information.  Over the next few years at least, the decision whether to use one or more alternative services and, if so, which ones should be reviewed periodically.

Cost v. Coverage and Scope

Loislaw.com
www.loislaw.com

Loislaw.com offers various subscriptions at different prices that provide access to various combinations of its libraries. More than 10 million documents of official law are available. Loislaw.com publishes case law, statutory law, constitutions, administrative law, court rules, and other authority for all 50 states and D.C. plus the 22 most important Federal law libraries.

The federal libraries include:  U.S. Supreme Court opinions from 1899 to present, all thirteen U.S. Court of Appeals case law from 1971 to present (11th Circuit from 1981), federal district court decisions (selected jurisdictions), federal rules (appellate, criminal, evidence, judicial panel, bankruptcy, and Supreme Court), U.S. Constitution, U.S. Code,  Public Laws of the United States, Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Register, and U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Commission Manual.

State collections vary by state. As an example, the Montana collection includes:  Montana Supreme Court opinions from 1924 to present, Montana Code Annotated, court rules, current legislative acts, and administrative regulations.

Loislaw.com uses flat rate pricing. A single concurrent user Internet license can be shared among multiple users. Thus three to five attorneys in a firm can share the same ID for just one monthly payment, so long as only one of them uses it at any given time. There are no separate charges for online access, printing, downloading and linking to embedded cites to other cases, statutes and regulations.

The Loislaw.com's National CollectionSM includes all 50 state law libraries and 22 federal law libraries, for $200.00 per month.  Loislaw.com offers other subscription options with various combinations of state and federal materials.  A single state collection is $79.00 per month.  The State and Federal Collection combines your state and all Federal Circuits, plus the U.S. Reports, U.S. Code, Rules of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Public Laws of the U.S. for $99.00 per month.  The Federal Collection combines your state, U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Circuit Courts, Federal District Courts, U.S. Code, CFR, Federal Register and Federal Sentencing Guidelines for $150.00 per month.

Each Loislaw.com subscription includes use of its GlobalCite citation research service.  For a review of GlobalCite see Tobe Liebert, GlobalCite: Is it a Third Citator?LLRX.com™, March 1, 2001.

VersusLaw
www.versuslaw.com

VersusLaw charges a flat rate of $8.95 per month per attorney in the firm. That's per attorney in the firm, not per user in the firm. VersusLaw's core customers are solo practitioners, small firms, appointed counsel, public defenders, indigent legal services providers, pro se litigants, attorneys providing pro bono services and the like.

For such a small fee, what do you get?  VersusLaw's coverage of federal cases is as follows:  U.S. Supreme Court from 1900, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 10th Circuits from 1930, 9th Circuit from 1941, 11th Circuit from 1981, D.C. Circuit from 1950, and Federal Circuit from 1982; and selected federal district courts for a few recent years.

VersusLaw's coverage of state court opinions varies by state.  Following are some examples:  California from 1930 (Appeals Court from 1944), Minnesota from 1930, New York from 1955, Pennsylvania from 1950, Texas from 1950 (contains all but the 10th and 11th Districts), and Virginia from 1930.

VersusLaw recently introduced USConline and CFRonline.  These are among the most current, if not the most current, sources of the U.S. Code and the CFR available.  VersusLaw also recently announced CFRupdate!, an e-mail alerting service that lets subscribers know when titles of the CFR change.  These new products are priced a la carte; a subscriber who does not want them does not have to pay for them.  Monthly charges for the USConline and CFRonline are $15 for one or $25 for both, while the annual rate is $180 for one or $300 for both.  CFRupdate! costs $15 a month for each title being monitored.

Quicklaw America
www.quicklawamerica.com

Quicklaw America is unique among the alternative services in the extent of its materials beyond U.S. case law. Besides federal and state statutory codes, administrative rules, and rules of court, the service offers outstanding coverage of Canadian law and has good coverage of foreign law of a number of countries. It also offers numerous valuable topical collections in specific practice areas.

Quicklaw America's U.S. Supreme court opinions are as current as humanly possible. It obtains the cases from the Project Hermes feed. The Project distributes them electronically two hours after issuance. Quicklaw America receives them continuously. A case decided yesterday will be online today.

Quicklaw America's coverage of American federal case law is as follows:  U.S. Supreme Court from 1900; 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 10th Circuits from 1930, 9th Circuit from 1941, 11th Circuit from 1981, D.C. Circuit from 1950, and Federal Circuit from 1982.

Its coverage of state appellate courts varies by state and court.  Following are some examples:

California
Supreme Court 1930
Court of Appeal 1944
Superior Court, Appellate Department 1944

 

Minnesota
Supreme Court 1930
Court of Appeals 1983

 

New York
Court of Appeals 1956
Supreme Court, Appellate Division 1955

Pennsylvania
Supreme Court 1950
Superior Court 1950
Commonwealth Court 1971

 

Texas
Supreme Court 1950
Court of Appeals (Criminal and Civil) 1950

 

Virginia
Supreme Court 1930
Court of Appeals 1985

Quicklaw America offers two pricing options.  The first is flat-rate pricing.  This option provides unlimited access to all Quicklaw America databases for a flat fee of $70.00 per month per user.  The second is transactional pricing.  On this plan, U.S. users of Quicklaw America's service through the Internet may pay a single charge of five dollars for each complete search of one or more databases. The five dollar charge covers unlimited browsing, saving and printing of documents retrieved by a search, as well as unlimited access to decisions cited in retrieved documents.  “Global searches” in which two or more databases are searched simultaneously by a single search are charged as single searches rather than as separate searches for each of the databases.

National Law Library
www.itislaw.com

The National Law Library's case law databases cover all 50 states. The scope for all states is from 1950 to the present.  A growing number of databases include state statutes, constitutions and other materials.  Its federal cases coverage is:  1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, and D.C. Circuits from 1950, 2nd Circuit from 1924, 11th Circuit from 1981, and Federal Circuit from 1982.

National Law Library offers several pricing plans:

Federal Plan: $25.00 per month
Single State Plan: $34.00 per month
Single State Plus Federal Plan: $50.00 per month
All States Plus Federal Plan: $75.00 per month
Pay by the Search: No monthly fee; $2.95 to $4.95 per search

Subscribers are also charged Texas sales tax.

RegScanLaw and LawProbe.com
law.regscan.com and www.lawprobe.com

RegScanLaw's data derives from VersusLaw. The service now also includes the U.S. Code and the CAR.  RegScanLaw offers flat rate pricing at $24.95 per month.

LawProbe.com is a wrapper for VersusLaw. The pages, query processor, indexes, databases, hit lists, and documents are served from VersusLaw into the LawProbe.com screens. LawProbe.com charges $40.00 per month per user for unlimited access. It offers discounts for prepayment: $30.00 per month with prepayment for six months ($180.00); and $25.00 per month with prepayment for one year ($300.00).  With a LawProbe.com subscription, a user can use the service's collections of links to free web resources. The link collections are good. They are not superior, however, to the collections available for free at various legal portals.

Ease of Use

There are many ease-of-use factors in online systems. We will limit the discussion here to a single aspect, the query language.

All of the systems mentioned provide Boolean searching.  Of the services discussed here, the ones that have the most standard Boolean query processors are Loislaw.com, VersusLaw, and Quicklaw America.  They use the standard AND, OR, and NOT operators. They are case-insensitive. They let the operator be expressed as the expected word itself, e.g., "and" or "AND" for AND.  Quicklaw America has a few special quirks. Those quirks can be beneficial, though, and for advanced searches the quirks allow a searcher to more easily formulate some powerful queries that would not be easy to formulate on other systems including Westlaw and LEXIS

Some systems do not allow operators to be typed as such; they require the representation of operators by symbols. For example, on RegScanLaw, the AND operator is represented by the space, the OR operator is represented by the pipe symbol or vertical bar, |, and the NOT operator is represented by the caret symbol, ^. The standard Boolean expression parent or mother or father on RegScanLaw becomes parent | mother | father.

National Law Library's search engine supports Boolean operators and proximity operators, but it has a number of oddities.  Operators must be preceded by a backslash, e.g., \AND or \and. Searches must begin and end with parentheses even if they have only a single term and no operator. The opening parenthesis must be followed by a space and the closing parenthesis must be preceded by a space. While on most systems the statement livestock or cattle is sufficient, on NLL it must be ( livestock \or cattle ).  The single-word search replevin on NLL becomes ( replevin ).

National Law Library does not support phrase searching directly in its query language, but the effect of phrase searching can be accomplished with the directional proximity operator using a proximity of 1.  National Law Library provides a number of user interface features to round off the rough edges of its nonstandard language.  For example, a section of the search form allows a searcher to type a phrase and the system inserts the proximity operators.  National Law Library is strong on retrieval of cases by known citation to West's reporters.

Output

The clear leaders in output format are National Law Library and Quicklaw America.

National Law Library offers two document formats. The first is the default format. This format highlights search terms to aid in determining relevance. The second is a print version that removes highlighting and other clues to the thought process of the researcher, which may be an aspect of work product. This is important when printing cases for courts or opposing counsel. This version also removes hyperlinking to cited documents. The format is appropriate for formal presentation.  National Law Library's opinions consistently provide West pagination.

Quicklaw America's documents are nicely formatted. The documents are coded to support highlighting of search terms at the searcher's option according to his or her browser settings. Browser settings also let the searcher turn highlighting off for printing. There is no separate print version, but with highlighting turned off, the documents print in a format that is appropriate for formal presentation. Quicklaw America has Locate Next and Locate Previous commands at the top of the display to scroll the document for you to the next or previous occurrence of search terms.  This is superior to using the browser's Find and Find Next commands.

The output formats of the other services vary in their aesthetic appeal. On some of the services, formats vary within the service itself. The usual cause of this is that the format in which the opinions were received from the courts has been retained.

Accuracy / Error Rate

Some cases on some services are blemished with data errors.  Occasionally, initial letters of words are missing on VersusLaw and the services that acquire their data from VersusLaw. For example, see ¶ 21 of Weng v. United States, 137 F.3d 709 (2nd Cir. 1998):

[21] "otice [must be] reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections . . . . hen notice is a person's due . . . he means employed must be such as one desirous of actually informing the absentee might reasonably adopt . . . . " Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306, 314-15, 70 S. Ct. 652, 657 (1950) (citations omitted).

Value-to-Cost Ratio

Assessing the value-to-cost ratio can be complex. These are new services that are evolving. The ratio today won't be the same next year. Among the alternative services, their strengths and weaknesses are in different areas. The comparison requires one to prioritize the quality factors, and that involves some tough decisions.

For many, the paramount factor is database coverage and scope for particular jurisdictions. The ease of use of a service like VersusLaw would not overcome shallow coverage for some jurisdictions.  The quirky query language of a service like National Law Library might be overcome by its greater depth of historical cases, its nicely formatted print version of court opinions, and its strength in retrieving cases by known West citation.

The decision tree should start with coverage and scope. Decide what you need and rule out services that don't have it. Then assess the importance to you of the other quality factors. The best choice for one firm might not be the best for others.

Westlaw and LEXIS offer some important features that we have not discussed. Among these are citators and West's Key Number System.  Aside from Quicklaw America, none of the alternative services offers a true citator.  Several claim that they have features that are equivalent to citators.  Usually those claims are overblown. It's true that with a little finesse (using the numbers from a citation with proximity operators to overcome citation format variations), one can accomplish a lot of full text citation searching and, if the hit list for a citation is not too long, be as confident that a point in a case is still good law as if one had used a citator.  When it is essential to be exhaustive, expert researchers use citators and citation searching.  They do not rely on citators alone.  Citators sometimes miss things.  Nevertheless, citators are an important research tool, and they are important not only to validate cases but to find cases.  In some practices, the citators alone might be a good enough reason to either chose Quicklaw America or pass by all of the alternative services and subscribe to Westlaw or LEXIS.