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 .
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There’s something to the saying “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Lately I’ve been coming across evidence of how much the adage applies to
doing Internet research. When you spend your time focusing on specific Web
sites and research issues, it’s easy to fixate on the details and overlook
the big picture. Two finds of the past month — an independent survey and a
trend in my own search experiences — have prompted me to step back to a
vantage point with a broader view.
The public interest group OMB Watch has taken a well-needed, comprehensive look at state legislative Websites. Though much of OMB Watch’s work focuses on the federal government (it was founded to monitor and publicize the activity of the White House Office of Management and Budget), the state Website analysis is in line with the group’s dedication to explaining governmental processes in understandable terms.
The organization conducted an independent survey of state legislative
Websites between July and October 2000. It released a cumulative analysis
of the survey results in a March 2001 report entitled Plugged In, Tuning Up. Nineteen states have since responded to the report, with comments and updates from their information technology representatives. The IT response appear in an April 23, 2001 update.
The survey teems with eye-opening, even disturbing statistics. In her
discussion of the report in the May 21, 2001 LLRXBuzz, Tara Calishain
already pointed out the survey’s finding that undisclosed cookies abound at
one — Texas — bothered to mention the practice. A startling 96% failed to
say anything about storing information on visitors’ computers.
But wait, as Ronco commercials used to say; there’s more. Privacy policies
were almost as rare as cookie disclosures. Nearly all (92%) of the sites
tools were nonexistent at more than half of the sites. More than two-thirds
were missing a site index/outline (one of my pet peeves, which I pray will
someday become moot), and the same percentage failed to offer a basic help
section. Specific legislative resources also enjoyed erratic coverage.
More than half of the sites provided no information on such fundamental
topics as legislative calendars, committee schedules, or floor schedules.
While most (92%) supplied provide contact information for legislators, only
12% provided the means for contacting legislators online.
Take the time to prowl around this report. It’s easy to navigate and
digest, and it’s set out in a way that’s respectful of the reader’s time
and attention span. Instead of loading in one enormous, unmanageable
document, the report is broken into hyperlinked headings. These proceed
step-by-step through OMB Watch’s analytical process, moving from the scope, background, and methodology to an examination of specific site elements.
How the Survey Works
The main areas of assessment are legislator information, explanations of
the legislative process, legislative tracking and monitoring, legislative
administration, state resources, statements addressing user expectations,
site design, and site navigation. Each of these analytical sections gives
information at a glance, though bullet points of the specific assessed
features and a chart that summarizes the findings on each feature by state.
For legislative tracking and monitoring, for example, the OMB looked for
the presence of a session calendar; legislative calendar; floor schedule;
committee meetings, hearings, and agendas; reports or journals with
cumulative legislative activity; and any kind of alert feature for updating
calendar information. Each section concludes with specific recommendations
for minimum standards that legislative Web sites should follow.
No matter what your area of interest, this report has something to open
your eyes — if not make your jaw go slack.
If the shortcomings of a particular site concern or affect you, check
whether that state has submitted comments and updates. The states that filed responses by April 30, 2001 are Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.
FindLaw vs. Yahoo!
My experiences at FindLaw in the last month make me wonder whether my
memory is off — or whether something else is. The site has always been my
first (and frequently, only) choice for tracking down legal URLs that I haven’t bookmarked. (I rarely use it for dragnet searches; instead I generally browse the index or run a search to locate a resource that I know exists.) I’ve read the occasional squawking about the site on legal mailing lists, but none of the carping has matched my experience. Earlier this year, legal technology writer Wendy Leibowitz sent out the call for a revamping of FindLaw’s search engine and index. (See Three Things West Must Do With FindLaw.) After what’s been happening to me lately, let me jump on the bandwagon.
The Hunt for the New Jersey Law Journal
My eyebrow first went up when I tried to track down a site for the New Jersey Law Journal. I knew that its content is now available through law.com, but I wanted to be sure that there wasn’t any other page about the Journal somewhere on the Web. (My ultimate object was ascertaining whether
the Journal still offers a slip opinion notification service, all mention
of which had disappeared from law.com.) Running the name through the
FindLaw Guide search engine turned up leads to Law Lists and to the state
bar journal, but not to the newspaper I wanted. The same thing happened
with FindLaw’s LawCrawler Web engine. I tried to look for an entry
somewhere in the index for the Journal, but couldn’t find the category.
(I’ve since realized that legal newspapers are still under the Reference
heading, which has dropped “News” from its name.) Before giving up, I
headed for Yahoo!/Government/Law — where the search engine turned up an
entry for the New Jersey Law Journal, pointing to the law.com New Jersey
I’ve since taken a closer look at the law.com New Jersey page and found a
partial explanation for FindLaw’s results. The phrase “New Jersey Law
Journal” is not in the list of the page’s metatags (which you can see by
viewing the source code). Since metatags are keywords that search engines
use to generate responses to queries, it makes sense that FindLaw’s search
of legal sites on the Web didn’t pick up the law.com page. What is not
clear is why the Journal — a more than 100-year-old periodical, which is
still being published, in print — is missing from FindLaw’s index. I’m
certain the Journal was in the index at one time; my memory is that FindLaw
is where I first read of the paper’s existence. And it does appear in the
This search experience was not an isolated occurrence. When I needed a
pointer to Piper Resources, a wide-ranging state and local government
resource, FindLaw yielded only a reference to a summary of federal
government contracts. (I searched both the FindLaw Guide and LawCrawler
Web.) Once again, the proper URL was the first item in Yahoo! Law’s search
results. The same sequence of events replayed when a URL I was given for
Legal Dockets Online met with an error message. I found no mention at
FindLaw of the site, which is a compendium of online court resources (and
by the litany of sites linking to it, not exactly a low profile site at
that). Again, the home page topped the list of the search results at
The comparative utility of the searchable indexes became most dramatic when I was updating the Research RoundUp column on slip opinion listservers. The query “slip opinion service” generated two responses from FindLaw — and 71,600 from Yahoo!/Government/Law. Because many of Yahoo’s results were duplicates, I narrowed the search with queries consisting of “slip opinion” and each state’s name (one at a time). This approach knocked the results down to a couple hundred for each state (164 for Connecticut; 306 for Texas), which became a manageable eight to 20 when I changed the query to “slip opinion service” and a state name. I ran a few comparison searches on FindLaw but abandoned the exercise when they consistently turned up no results.
The moral of this story is: I’ve moved Yahoo!’s legal resources into
priority position. Old habits die hard; I still start at FindLaw’s index,
because navigating it has become second nature. If a search query becomes
necessary, though, I’m moving on. FindLaw has come up short too many times lately.
ã Kathy Biehl 200 1.