Features – Internet Reality Check at the ABATech Show99

Hazel Johnson is a Reference Librarian in the Richmond office of McGuire,
Woods, Battle & Boothe, LLP
and has more than twenty years experience
as a law librarian. Her expertise encompasses both legal and non-legal
research in academic as well as law libraries and includes explorations of
the boundaries of the electronic resources. She serves as Official
Representative to the American Bar Association Law Practice Management
Section for the American Association of Law Libraries and as a member of the

The Internet is an excellent source of information that is very current or very historical, but there is a wide gap between those two periods.


During the ABA TECHSHOW held recently in Chicago, Genie Tyburski, Research Librarian at Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia and columnist for LLRX, and I explored and exploded a number of myths that are associated with the internet. Our presentation was an attempt to provide some boundaries for researchers venturing into the overwhelming and omnipresent world that the Internet has become.

Internet Myths: Everything is on the Web

One of the myths we discussed is the following gem: All information resides on the Internet. The difficulty exists in finding it. For anyone who has spent much time trying to locate a specific tidbit of information on the Net, this is obviously false. But can ‘ t we set some parameters of the types of materials that are frequently available on the net? How about information generated by a governmental body? Federal and state governments are embracing the internet as a delivery mechanism for information. Some do it better than others, but the efforts are increasing. The Internet is an excellent source of information that is very current or very historical, but there is a wide gap between those two periods. You can find the Magna Carta or a current Virginia statute, but you won ‘ t find the Code of Federal Regulations for 1990. If the information you seek is a hot topic in the news or of interest to an advocacy group or trade association, the internet is a very good source. The work of the South African Truth Commission, the Pinochet decision in Britain ‘ s House of Lords, and the status of Y2K litigation all have appeared quickly on the internet. If what you seek is factual (names, addresses, phone numbers) or involves public opinion or relates to technology, medicine, or other popular topics, the Internet is a very good resource. The reality in all this is that the Internet doesn ‘ t replace all your other resources yet even though there is a wealth of valuable material out there in cyberspace.

A second and very popular Internet myth is You do not have to pay for any information you find on the Internet. Again, a frequent researcher who uses Internet sources learns very quickly that the traditional philosophy of sharing information at no cost that guided the Internet in its early days has disappeared somewhat with the opening of the web to commercial entities in 1991. A very good discussion and time line of the growth of the use of the Internet by commercial entities can be found at PBS Net Timeline. With very few exceptions, the materials that remain free on the Internet can only act as a supplement for traditional research sources. The movement of commercial publishers to use the Internet as a delivery system has brought costs to the internet.

More Web Myths: It is possible to conduct in-depth case law research on the Internet

This myth requires some definition as to what constitutes in-depth research on the part of the individual seeking to conduct the research. Having LEXIS-NEXIS and Westlaw available through the Internet makes this a reality for firms having a subscription to one or both of those services. If you are seeking less expensive or even free case law databases, the answers become more complicated. For the most part, other sites provide only sporadic collections. If you are seeking only U.S. Supreme Court opinions, Findlaw ‘ s site is quite comprehensive. All of the Federal Courts of Appeal and many states are making their current decisions available, but comprehensiveness is not a goal. Decisions of the Federal District Courts remain problematic. With some geographical limitations, LOIS ‘ s collections of case law are quite comprehensive. The state case law collections of Versuslaw are also quite complete, but the decisions of only one federal district court are included. The choice of resource will depend on the jurisdiction(s) in which you do research most often. An example is the case law for Rhode Island. Westlaw ‘ s coverage begins in 1885, Versuslaw in 1950, LEXIS in 1965, but LOIS collection begins in 1828.

Is it possible to obtain an individual’s personal information on the Web?

The proliferation of personal information on the internet and the need of law firms to obtain that information has led to another myth: It is possible to obtain an individual ‘ s personal information on the Internet, including home address, phone number, social security number and credit history. Our initial reaction was that all parts of the statement were true EXCEPT the portion about credit history. After our presentation, a member of the audience identified a web site which does allow access to full individual credit histories (National Credit Information Network. The requesting entity is required to be a business, and the site purports to be in compliance with the requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. There are many sites on the internet that provide more or less accurate factual information on individuals. Genie ‘ s People Chase II provides an excellent annotated overview of the best sites. Among the commercial sites offering personal information are KnowX and CDB Infotek. Both are reasonably inexpensive. The records in the KnowX database are the same as those that Westlaw obtains from Information America, including some real property data, liens and judgments, bankruptcy and asset records. The material is available on a pay as you go basis and can be billed to your credit card. CDB purports to include 1600 databases and 4 billion records. It requires a subscription and assesses a monthly subscription fee on top of the cost of retrieving the data. Among its records are Motor Vehicle and credit bureau headers. A researcher must be very careful to check the inclusiveness of the records prior to searching..

There are many sites on the internet that provide more or less accurate factual information on individuals.

The reality of EDGAR on the internet is that you may have to use two sites, one to locate the materials you need, a second to obtain a print or downloaded copy.

Are All Edgar Sites Created Equal?

A more focused myth is that All EDGAR sites are created equal. That one is definitely not true. Even among the free sites, there are numerous variations in the fields that are available for searching, the type of search engine that is used on the site and the documents that are available. A fairly new site, 10K Wizard is the only free site that allows content searching, but you must limit your search to a specific year, and, at this point, you cannot search with alpha and numeric combinations. Consequently, if you are looking for language that companies are using to disclose Year 2000 preparations, you won ‘ t find it using 10KWizard. The SEC EDGAR site is a plain vanilla WAIS search in the header information only, which can lead to some pretty bizarre results. The SEC is in the process of re-vamping the search engine, so we can hope for better times. FreeEdgar provides a very nice search interface with company descriptions as well as the filings. Printing options here are rather limited. Finally, a reasonably priced fee based site is LIVEDGAR, which offers extensive search capabilities and impressive download options. The reality of EDGAR on the internet is that you may have to use two sites, one to locate the materials you need, a second to obtain a print or downloaded copy.

Labor and Demographic Data on the Web

Labor and demographic data is readily available on the internet. Absolutely. Access to statistics is easier than it has ever been, particularly if you are not located close to a large academic or public library. A few of the better sites include FedStats, a product of the Federal government that includes a compilation of links to a variety of federal agencies and includes both an agency and topical index and a very powerful search engine. Another fine source is Statistical Resources on the Web. Based at the University of Michigan, this site has a very helpful topical organization with very extensive annotations and includes many sources of state statistical sources in addition to federal sources. The Government Information Sharing Project at the University of Oregon provides access not only to statistical websites, but also to many of the governmentally produced statistical CD-ROM publications.

These are just a few of the internet realities we explored during TECHSHOW. As internet researchers learn readily, there is an amazing amount of material on the Internet, but one must approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism. Websites are far too easy to create for us to blindly trust without asking serious questions. One should keep in mind that what appears on a website is what that entity feels is important. Unfortunately, that is often not what a researcher needs. Decisions on what remains available on the Net are not necessarily being made by someone who has a stake in the data. They may be made by someone simply trying to conserve space on a server.

This program was one of more than seventy that were presented during the 3 days of TECHSHOW. Topics ranged from Moving to Your Next Windows Desktop to Building and Keeping an IS Team to 50 Tips for Evolving Your Dinosaurs. The programs are designed to showcase the cutting edge ideas and the technology leaders of today ‘ s law firms. There is something for everyone. The educational programs were organized into eight themed tracks: General, Solo & Small Firm; Corporate & Large Firm, Practice Automation, Litigation & Judicial, Decision Makers, Court Technology Now!, Nets and Advanced IT. Although there were many programs that ranked a 4″ on the geek-o-meter (for advanced geeks, undeniably technical), there were also many for those at geek-o-meter level 1″ (understandable by anyone regardless of their real or apparent technical knowledge). The Exhibit Hall was packed with all the major and minor players in the legal technology market. It was a great opportunity to talk to the folks that create time and billing or case management software and have your questions about the product answered one on one.

As a board member for ABA TECHSHOW 2000, I would encourage all of you to consider attending the meeting next year in Chicago, March 30 – April 1. It is truly a fabulous experience, jam packed with informative educational sessions and loaded with extensive opportunities to talk with some of the leading lights in law firm technology. Additional information on ABA TECHSHOW 99 and TECHSHOW 2K can be found on the TECHSHOW website.

Posted in: Evaluation of Internet Resources, Features