Return to Articles, column 7

September 1995

First Look: The Microsoft Network Offers Little For Lawyers

By Robert J. Ambrogi

The Microsoft Network is to the Information Superhighway what Route 1 is to the interstate: slow and tedious, with areas of glitz but little substance.

Lawyers will find little here of use to their practices, except, maybe, the chance to advertise to a potentially enormous market, if MSN, as Microsoft calls it, takes off.

MSN is the latest entry in an increasingly crowded field of commercial online services. Lawyers can choose from among the mass-market services -- Compuserve, America Online, Prodigy, Genie, and MSN -- or they can opt for one of the services catering to them -- Lexis Counsel Connect or Law Journal Extra. Soon, West Publishing will enter the fray with its West Network.

Each has something to offer lawyers. Among the mass-market services, the most popular among lawyers seems to be Compuserve, which not only has a popular legal forum but also offers the broadest array of information resources.

Likewise, MSN is seeking to attract lawyers to become subscribers through a component it calls, "The Law Office." But, so far, The Law Office lacks even a comfortable waiting room.

An Empty Office

MSN officially opened for business Aug. 24, coinciding with the release of Windows 95. In a marketing move that has led other online services to the doors of the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, Microsoft has "bundled" the MSN software with Windows 95. Anyone who loads the much-touted operating system into their computer will find the MSN logo right there on the screen, making any Windows 95 purchaser just a mouse click away from subscribing to MSN.

MSN has unofficially been online for several months, allowing Windows 95 testers also to test the new network.

A visit to MSN on Aug. 23 -- the day before its opening -- gave meaning to the expression, "There's not much there there." A second visit several days later confirmed this.

At first try, finding The Law Office was not easy. The opening menu included a selection, "Categories." Clicking on that brought up an array of file-folder icons much as one would seen on a Windows screen. None of these said "law." There was one for "Public Affairs," but clicking on that did not lead to anything involving law. "People & Communities" did not lead to law. Finally, the right one, "Business & Finance," led to a subcategory, "Professions & Industries," and from there to "Law."

The Law menu has two items: The Law Office and the Court TV Law Center. The latter is similar to the Court TV center on America Online, although in a stripped-down format. Its primary offering was a schedule of Court TV events.

The Law Office leads to a screen full of selections, including "USA Legal Topics," "Ask A Lawyer," Lawyer To Lawyer," "Legal Research Center," "Focus Groups In Law," "Legal Discussion Groups," and more.

A click on "USA Legal Topics" brings up a sub-menu listing areas of law, including antitrust, bankruptcy, criminal, employment, family, real estate, and more.

Clicking on just about any of these substantive areas brings up virtually the same subdirectory, with selections for a newsletter, a chat area and a library. On Aug. 23, attempts to retrieve any of these choices were met by the message, "This service is not available at this time. Please try again later." OK, the MSN had not officially opened for business yet. But several days later, the directories remained empty and continued to bring up the same message.

Just about everything in The Law Office looked good from the outside, but was empty on the inside. Try the "Lawyer To Lawyer" section. Nothing there. Try the "Ask A Lawyer" section. Nothing there. "Legal Discussion Groups." Nothing. "Legal Research Center." Empty.

One of the only substantive legal topics that actually had any substance was the relatively esoteric field of maritime law. A Seattle law firm has put together a maritime page that has information on recent cases and a link to the U.S. Coast Guard site on the World Wide Web. Problem was, MSN does not come with the software needed to access the Web. That must be downloaded separately.

The only other substance to be found was the "Tip of the Day," which described itself as advice for the legal consumer, not provider. The tip is posted each day by the Washington, D.C., firm of Preston, Gates & Ellis. Yes, this "Gates" is the father of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.

User Unfriendly

If Windows 95 is supposed to be a step forward in user-friendliness, MSN is a leap backward. Anyone who has used American Online or Compuserve knows what an online service should look like. It should use text and graphics to provide a clear and easy-to-follow map through the system.

MSN has some fancy graphics, but that is as far as it goes. Its interface is confusing, slow and tedious. It is easy to take a wrong turn on your way through the system and end up having to retrace your steps.

Every time you click on a menu item, MSN takes you to a new "window," much like the Windows desktop. On the Windows desktop, you can move backward by closing the top window. In MSN, if you close the window, the system tries to disconnect you.

Say you have navigated your way from the main menu to a subsection of the law page -- for example, the maritime page. MSN is slow, even with a 14,400 bps modem, so this has taken several minutes to do, assuming you knew where you were headed. You finish the maritime page and want to examine the antitrust page. The only obvious way to do this is to close the "window" in which the maritime page appears. Whoops. MSN is asking you to confirm that you want to sign off. You can remain online by answering "No," but now you are back at the main menu and have to work your way back to the law page. Another few minutes pass.

There is an easier, if not obvious, way. On the file menu across the top of the MSN screen is a selection, "Up One Level." Clicking on this moves you to the prior screen. There is also a well-hidden "go" command to move quickly from one place to another. Problem is, these commands are not obvious or easy to find.

To be fair, MSN is only weeks old. But it has had a head start of several months of beta testing and it is backed by the mighty Microsoft. Its young age helps explain why there is so little substance; as more people use it, more will be added. But age does not explain its tediousness. Anyone who uses MSN for their first entry into Cyberspace will come away wondering what all the fuss is about.

If nothing else, it is affordable. MSN costs $4.95 a month plus $2.50 for each hour over three. Of course, you must first buy Windows 95, which will set you back roughly $90.

Update: More Courts Online

Several months ago, this column reported on where to find court cases on the Internet. Since then, decisions of several more courts have become available. Here is a recap of all courts on the Internet as of Sept. 1, 1995.

Decisions of three other states are said to be "coming soon" to the Internet:

Robert J. Ambrogi, a lawyer in Rockport, Mass., is editor of "," a monthly newsletter about the Internet published by Legal Communications Ltd., Philadelphia. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at (978) 546-7898.