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September 2002

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.
Its Weaknesses

    For lawyers accustomed to Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis, VersusLaw has shortcomings.
    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 VersusLaw.
    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 these.
    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 courts:
·    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 1995.
·    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 rambrogi@legaline.com.


© 2005 Robert J. Ambrogi.