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legal.online, December 1995
copyright 1995 Robert J. Ambrogi
Legal Research On The Internet: A Primer
By Robert J. Ambrogi
When it comes to legal research, the Internet remains a promise waiting to be fulfilled.
The promise is of virtually no-cost, electronic access to vast libraries of information, of an easily affordable alternative to Westlaw and Lexis that will put solo and small-firm lawyers on the same footing as their large-firm brothers and sisters.
The reality is that the Information Superhighway is littered with speed bumps. Courts, legislatures and government agencies have been slow to put their resources online. Those that do offer only recent information, with little in the way of archives. Secondary sources, such as treatises, remain even rarer. On top of it all, information on the Internet can be hard to find, requiring resort to a variety of indexes and search engines.
But progress is being made. Just last July, you could find only three U.S. circuit courts of appeal on the Net. Today, you can find them all. Federal and state legislatures have made their bills and laws available. Moves are under foot to require that public information be accessible through the Internet and to standardize the format for citing to electronic versions of court cases.
A year from now, legal research on the Internet is likely to be a very different undertaking. But what of for now? How does one begin to perform research on the Internet?
No single article can catalog all the sources of legal information online. However, with a few nudges in the right direction, even a novice can learn the way around.
Places To Start
There are now several sites that attempt to catalog the legal information and resources available on the Internet. These are often the best places to begin any research. Most are indexed by subject and type of resource.
A word of caution, however. These sites are not necessarily exhaustive or up-to-date. It is not unusual to click on a link, only to find that it no longer exists. Likewise, there may be new resources related to the subject that the site's indexers have yet to discover.
Among the most comprehensive listings of law-related sites on the Internet is WashLaw Web, http://lawlib.wuacc.edu/washlaw/washlaw.html, the Internet site of Washburn University School of Law. It organizes its extensive listing of legal sites into a variety of categories, making it fairly easy to find what you are looking for.
Another law school site that is a useful jumping-off point for legal research is Emory University School of Law, http://www.law.emory.edu/. It features an "Electronic Reference Desk" where you can scroll through a list of legal topics, select one and go to list of available resources.
LAWLinks, http://www.counsel.com, is the home page of Lexis Counsel Connect, the online service of American Lawyer Media and Lexis/Nexis. Its listings of legal materials are not as extensive as WashLaw's, but it includes most key resources. The materials are well organized by topic and also by source.
Not to be confused with LCC's LAWLinks is the American Bar Association's starting point for legal research on the Net, LAWLink, http://grover.abanet.org/lawlink/home.html. It offers useful links to several key legal reference sources.
Law Journal EXTRA!, http://www.ljx.com, the home page of the National Law Journal, also offers a good place to start your legal research. A major distinguishing feature of this site is that it includes all the U.S. circuit courts, including some, such as the 1st Circuit, not found elsewhere on the Internet. Its database allows you to perform a single key-word search of all circuit court decisions since October 1994. (Use this address to skip right to the search page: http://www.ljextra.com/Legal.pointer.html.)
In Search Of The Law
If it is law you are looking for, there are a handful of sites that will speed you on your way to court opinions or legislative materials.
For federal and state legislative and regulatory materials, one of the best places to start is the Web site of the U.S. House of Representatives, http://www.house.gov. Here you will find links to the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, the Congressional Record, and a host of federal materials. In addition, the site has fairly comprehensive links to state law materials on the Internet.
The Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov, also offers fairly extensive links to state and federal government resources.
An easy way to find federal courts on the Net is to use Emory Law School's "U.S. Federal Courts Finder," http://www.law.emory.edu/FEDCTS. This is a map of the United States, click anywhere on the map to link to the appropriate federal court. The Courts Finder is not perfect, however. Click in the 1st Circuit, and you will get a message, "At this time, there are no cases on the Web for this circuit." In fact, 1st Circuit cases are available through the Law Journal EXTRA! site.
Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute, http://www.law.cornell.edu/lii.table.html, is a useful place to begin researching cases and statutes. It is home to the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and New York Court of Appeals. It also has a hypertext version of the U.S. Code and other useful legal resources.
If All Else Fails
If you have not yet found what you are looking for, or if your search is for something that might not fit into ordinary categories, it is time to try a search engine. There are various sites on the Web that attempt to "catalog" everything else on the Web. You can search these catalogs using key words.
Lycos, http://www.lycos.com, calls itself "The Catalog of the Internet." It claims to have indexed 91 percent of the Web. You can use the Lycos search form to type in key words and you can restrict your search using connecting and defining search words. Once you enter your query, Lycos returns the results, which often will number in the thousands. These are displayed 10 to a page, ranked in order of the appearances of your search terms. For each result, there is an excerpt from the Web page and a hypertext link to the site.
A similar site is Yahoo, http://www.yahoo.com, where you can also perform key-word searches of the home pages Yahoo has indexed. In addition, Yahoo offers an index of Web sites organized by subject matter that you can browse through at your leisure. Another feature of Yahoo is its daily listing of new sites on the Web. On any given day, the number of new sites can number close to 1,000.
Relatively new to the Web is Excite NetSearch, http://www.excite.com. A nice feature is that after you key in your query, it returns the results ranked by its degree of "confidence" in the match.
The Internet Sleuth is a Web site that attempts to link a variety of these search engines in a single site. Its law page, http://www.charm.net:80/~ibc/sleuth/lega.html, includes in a single location the search engines for several court, legislative, law firm and legal support Web sites. From here, you can search advertising law, communications law, the Code of Federal Regulations, the U.S. Department of Justice, several courts, Wests Legal Directory, and more.
Robert J. Ambrogi, a lawyer in Rockport, Mass., is editor of "legal.online," a monthly newsletter about the Internet published by Legal Communications Ltd., Philadelphia. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (978) 546-7898.