Features – Technology Bunny Hop: Two Bits Forward and One Byte Back

Roger V. Skalbeck is the Technology Services Librarian and Webmaster at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Virginia.

When any new electronic service, software or gadget comes around, my first impulse is to check to see what it has that didn’t exist before. What’s new to KeyCite, CheckCite, Acrobat 6.0, Lexis.com, Microsoft Office 2003, Adobe Photoshop CS, West Integration Solutions and on and on. With each new version, enhancement or product, the goal is to determine which exciting features could make my work more productive, streamline mundane procedures or provide previously unavailable tools. Of course, the problem is that I have to learn about these new tools, figure out how they will really improve life and hope that they didn’t displace something I had grown to love and rely on.

In this year-end article on LLRX, I take a broad view of some widely used legal technologies to present evidence of steps forward, and backward. As the title suggests, this technology bunny hop might not always seem like we’re moving forward. Probably we are progressing, but sometimes it just doesn’t seem to appear that way.

  • Almost every imaginable service is available over the Internet through a standard web browser. Desktop software is mostly a thing of the past for accessing database content.
  • Forward → Gone are the days of having to install localized programs such as WestMate, Folio, SearchMaster, DialogLink and related database connectivity software. Now almost every service, even the decidedly unsexy PACER, can be accessed through an Internet browser, theoretically making access platform-independent and accessible anywhere you can get to the Internet.

    Back ← To use enhanced navigational features of Lexis, you can only use Internet Explorer (IE). Many sites require IE, and features frequently depend on the version you’re using, while providers often fail to produce content that works in “alternative” browsers like Netscape or Mozilla. Former database power users have long decried the disappearance (or at least obscuring) of dot commands, command stacking and innumerable efficiencies that disappeared when the software went away. Beyond the traditional database providers for Internet content, there is something of a “plugin application” can of worms, often requiring users to know about Flash, Shockwave, QuickTime, competing media players, and Acrobat just to be able to view content.

  • Judicial decisions are on the Internet Free from all manner of federal, state and local providers.
  • Forward → The day that a Supreme Court decision is handed down, you can download it free in a format that looks identical to the printed version published by the Court. All U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal have long published their opinions on the Internet, and by using a site such as Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, you can even search decisions from all Circuits spanning several years without being charged a nickel.

    Back ← Supreme Court decisions are often issued as multiple documents, requiring you to separately download and print the dissent, concurrence and so forth. Beyond this, the Supreme Court is probably the only U.S. court where you can find a case for free with an official citation. Even if you know that 101 F.3d 832 came out in the last two years, you’re out of luck if you want to get this on the Internet for free. Moreover, if you have to bill for your time, it’s really unlikely that much “free” content will be any cheaper for the client, even if significant issues of reporter citations, internal pagination and authenticity are ignored.

  • Lexis and Westlaw are extremely sophisticated services, providing an impressive array of searching, ranking, and delivery options. Moreover, their content coverage is unparalleled in the legal industry.
  • Forward → Lexis and Westlaw consistently enhance their services to provide new ways to rank information and assess quality and currency. The Eclipse and Alert services allow you to track developments without having to re-run searches, and KeyCite and Shepard’s help answer the critical question of “is it good law?” Flat-rate database options provide predictable monthly fees. Also, the Lexis “Focus” and Westlaw’s “Locate” functions allow you to save money by refining searches without incurring additional charges. System enhancements like Search Advisor and KeySearch provide efficient and targeted search options for novice and expert users alike.

    Back ← Every hyperlink in every document on Lexis or Westlaw could cost you money to click. Services like KeySearch, Search Advisor, “most cited cases” and headnote searching make questions of cost more opaque than ever. Moreover, expert searchers often wonder what exactly lies behind these pre-defined queries. Also, billing clients under flat-rate billing can be an administrative nightmare. System enhancements, re-branding and redesign can cause the occasional user to lose track of where to find the simple tools, thus impeding both productivity and efficiency.

  • Email is a fast, reliable means of communication that allows you to contact and communicate with multiple people in an asynchronous manner.
  • Forward → You can send email messages immediately, and it is just as easy to reach one or a dozen recipients at the same time. You can send sophisticated messages with numerous attachments so that lawyers and researchers receive documents in all manner of remote locations. Email messages can be sent at any hour of the day, and recipients respond when they have the time, not when they happen to pick up the phone or read regular mail. Wireless devices like the Blackberry allow users to send and receive messages from almost anywhere.

    Back ← Spam and viruses are almost always distributed faster than the email we want to receive. Listservs like lawlib generate dozens and dozens of messages each day, and users who don’t take advantage of email filtering can end up missing critical requests drowned out by even desirable messages. With some versions of the Blackberry device, you often can’t read messages if you are sent a carbon copy (CC), and long messages and attachments are generally unviewable. Viruses and worms like kournikova, nimda, sobig and msblast can cripple email systems, making it impossible to rely on this as a quick and stable communication method.

  • Microsoft Word and WordPerfect allow you to produce web content without having to know a single HTML tag. Now everybody can publish content ready for the Internet without having to learn about new software.
  • Forward → In the early days of the Internet, it often took a computer programmer to be able to produce web content. If you missed one closing tag or typed one wrong character, your page could mysteriously break. Then the Office Suite products from Microsoft and Corel provided you with the capability of publishing content in HTML format directly from Word or WordPerfect. In the case of Word, you don’t even have to know the letters H-T-M-L, as you simply save your file as a “web page”. WordPerfect even provides popup balloons for footnotes, and both companies allow you to save spreadsheets and database output in web-ready format.

    Back ← Anybody who knows web content and looks at Microsoft’s code can immediately see that there is a lot of proprietary and extra information included. And if you don’t know HTML code, you might have no way of figuring out or correcting mysterious formatting quirks and inconsistencies. In response to these problems, software like Macromedia Dreamweaver provides options to “Clean up Word HTML”, and Office XP offers an export option for a “Web Page, filtered”. With WordPerfect, a document with footnotes might work with wonderful onscreen references when your mouse hovered over a link, but it generally requires the IE browser, and you need to copy an image icon into an appropriate subdirectory.

    New versions of Microsoft Office 2003, Adobe Acrobat 6, Photoshop CS, and Macromedia Studio MX 2004 offer unparalleled advances in technology, productivity and interactivity.

    Forward → With Microsoft Office 2003, users can share documents more easily, Outlook users can restrict use of email messages, and Word users can restrict editing privileges in their documents. Adobe Acrobat 6 allows you to assemble PDF documents from multiple sources, including spreadsheets and different word processors. Photoshop allows you to customize workspaces, navigate and annotate files within the program, and touch up photos like you have never done before. Macromedia’s Dreamweaver MX 2004 has improved support for cascading style sheets and file management, and Fireworks MX 2004 provides better HTML integration and improved drawing tools.

    Back ← Each of these programs naturally comes at a significant cost, and it’s unclear that any of the new features are essential when considered independently. Moreover, most of the new features of these programs assume that every user will have the new software. Though Microsoft Office 2003 should be compatible with earlier versions, they released a 78 page (!!) whitepaper detailing migration issues between Office97 and 2003. Adobe Acrobat makes it difficult to set default parameters for anything below version 5 of the Reader software. And the look of all of these new versions has changed, forcing users to look in new locations for known menu commands.

    In closing, my personal belief is that technology has us all dancing a constant bunny hop, and the songs keep changing. In spite of this, it is still fun to work with technology in the legal environment. Also, there is little danger that our roles as librarians, technologists, searchers, teachers, and trainers will prevent us from being dance instructors and students for a long time to come.

    Note: A version of this article originally appeared in Law Library Lights, vol. 47, no. 1 (Fall 2003)

    Posted in: Email, Features, LEXIS, Technology Trends, Westlaw