AMBROGI LAW OFFICE > ARTICLES
With Redesign, VersusLaw Remains Useful, Affordable
By Robert J. Ambrogi
Not long after its 1995 launch, Web research service VersusLaw
adopted the slogan, "Revolutionizing the way America does law." This was
no exaggerated boast. In an era when online legal research still required
expensive and cumbersome dial-up access to Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis, VersusLaw
pioneered use of the Web to offer lawyers an alternative.
At the time, it was the only place on the Internet where
a lawyer could find housed under one roof decisions of the Supreme Court,
all federal circuit courts and all 50 state appellate courts. In fact, it
was the only place anywhere on the Internet to find many of these courts'
opinions. Most revolutionary of all, it offered all this entirely free.
Recently, VersusLaw took the wraps
off the most extensive retooling of its service since 1996, featuring a more
sophisticated design and a more powerful search engine. While no longer free,
it remains one of the best deals in legal research, with a standard subscription
costing just $8.95 a month.
Thus, even though it dramatically revamped its site, it
needed to modify its slogan only slightly: "Still revolutionizing the way
America does law."
Low Cost Research
Even with its redesign, VersusLaw lacks the bells and
whistles of WestLaw and Lexis-Nexis. But for basic caselaw research at an
affordable price, VersusLaw is hard to beat.
VersusLaw stopped offering its library for free in 1996, when it began to
require a subscription of first $65 then $75 a month. But in a bid to make
its service affordable to solo and small-firm lawyers, it quickly dropped
its monthly price to $6.95. In the intervening years, it increased the price
only slightly, to $8.95 a month, where it remains today.
For that price, subscribers get access to opinions from
the Supreme Court, U.S. circuit courts, U.S. district courts, state appellate
courts, tribal courts and foreign courts, along with a subscription to AdvanceLinks,
a weekly e-mail case alert.
With its redesign, VersusLaw introduces two higher priced
tiers that build on the standard subscription: a $19.95 a month Premium Plan
and a $34.95 a month Professional Plan. The Premium Plan adds selected state
statutes, regulations, constitutions and court rules. The Professional Plan
includes everything the other plans do plus the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal
Regulations, and access to certain practice-area libraries.
Both higher-tier plans include VersusLaw's "eLLR," a CLE program with monthly
updates on legal ethics, professional responsibility and malpractice avoidance.
Features of Redesign
Along with new pricing plans, VersusLaw's redesign introduces
a number of improvements to its appearance, functionality and ease of use.
Changes include a more sophisticated design, a more useful and powerful search
engine and easier navigation.
Gone from the front page is the bulldog that has been
the company's mascot since 1996. In its place is a clean, more elegant look
that well serves both returning users and first-time visitors. For the first
time, subscribers can log in directly from the front page. First-timers will
find a quick introduction to VersusLaw's plans and pricing, with links to
more detailed information.
The new search engine adds several features to VersusLaw,
including the ability to save searches, set default preferences for searching,
find the next highlighted search term in the document being viewed, and jump
to the next or previous document from the current one.
Other highlights of VersusLaw's redesign include:
· V.Cite. Available only to Premium and Professional
subscribers, it allows a user to search for cases by citation.
· Color-coded watermarks. Certain documents bear
watermarks to identify and distinguish them: unpublished opinions have a
yellow watermark, statutory provisions have a blue watermark, and regulations
have a green watermark.
· Personal account pages. These have been added
to allow subscribers to check the status of their accounts, change personal
information or passwords, and set their subscription preferences.
For lawyers accustomed to Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis, VersusLaw
Foremost among these may be its lack of page numbers in
court opinions. Most cases carry the official citation at the top, but from
there, VersusLaw uses paragraph numbering instead of page numbering. This
means that you cannot cite to a specific page.
Page cites are nice to have, but few courts actually require
them any longer. The latest edition of the Bluebook provides alternative
and acceptable methods for citing to cases in electronic databases such as
The reason VersusLaw excludes page numbers is legal, not
technical. West continues to claim copyright in its pagination. Until that
claim is sorted out in the courts, VersusLaw will not risk using the numbers.
Another weakness has been VersusLaw's lack of a Shepards-like
system for following cases. Its new V.Cite is a major step towards addressing
this. It allows users to search for a citation. This means that you find
not only the original case that carried that citation, but also all subsequent
cases that cited to it. By reviewing these subsequent cites, you can determine
whether the case remains good law and also find other cases on point.
Also bothersome is the lack of any form of headnotes.
If VersusLaw is to remain low-cost, it obviously cannot employ legions of
headnote writers. However, many official reporters of decisions claim no
copyright in the syllabi they write, so at least VersusLaw could include
Balancing these weaknesses is a thorough and informative
help index that candidly addresses some of VersusLaw's shortcomings and suggests
tips for working around them. The help section includes not only pointers
on using VersusLaw, but also more general guides to performing legal research.
What It Includes
The VersusLaw library includes opinions from the following
· Supreme Court, since 1900.
· U.S. circuit courts, all dating back to 1930 except
for the 9th (1941), 11th (1981), D.C. (1950), and Federal (1982).
· U.S. district courts in California, Connecticut,
District of Columbia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine,
Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New
York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina,
South Dakota, Texas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Wisconsin. A standard subscription
includes these courts' cases to January 2002; for Premium and Professional
subscribers, the archives extend further back, although none go earlier than
· All state appellate courts, which archives dating
back as far as 1930 for many of the states.
· Fourteen Native American tribal courts.
· Foreign courts. As of this writing, the only foreign
courts VersusLaw includes are Australia's High Court and Federal Court.
Professional Plan subscribers also have access to decisions of the Board
of Immigration Appeals, the Court of Federal Claims, the Court of International
Trade, the Federal Mine Safety & Health Review Commission, the Occupational
Safety & Health Review Commission, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the
Armed Forces, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, and the U.S. Tax Court,
as well as to IRS revenue rulings, U.S. Social Security rulings, and NTSB
aviation accident synopses.
Besides opinions, VersusLaw offers state statutes, regulations, court rules
and constitutions, although only Premium and Professional Plan subscribers
have access to these materials.
The state libraries include:
· Statutes of 38 states.
· Administrative regulations of 27 states.
· Court rules of 29 states.
· Constitutions of 49 states.
With its low monthly price and enhanced search engine, VersusLaw is a practical
and affordable service for legal research.
Robert J. Ambrogi is a lawyer and author of, "The Essential Guide to the
Best (and Worst) Legal Sites on the Web." E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.