After listening to a classmate’s presentation on Yahoo Finance, I was inspired to try out a few other business research websites for my blog post this week. I have done very little business research in the past, but when I have, I’ve used Westlaw, Lexis, or CCH, all paid sites. I decided to look into a few free sites to see what they had to offer.
First, I tried Hoovers, which is a business directory/database that connects researchers with more than 65 million companies (http://www.hoovers.com). At first glance, it looked really promising: the website appears to be easy to use and looks like it houses a lot of company information. Unfortunately, although it is very user friendly, a lot of the information is available only with a subscription. Some company information is blocked behind the paid subscription wall, while other companies (I think the smaller, less frequently searched ones) are available. For example, I entered “Apple” into the search box at the top of the page, and was brought to a page with very limited company information, and several offers to try a subscription. I then tried clicking on “Browse directories: Companies” (note: there is also a way to browse companies by industry) and was brought to an alphabetical list of all of the companies for which Hoovers has a profile. Also on this page was a way to sort the companies, either by industry or business classification. Further, it provided industry overviews. I randomly selected 1800Mattress.com from the company list, and was provided with an overview of the company, including its location and stock information, a list of executives, and the competitive landscape. Although you would need to subscribe to access the full competition report, even without the subscription, you are provided with a list of competitors and the industries in which the company competes. This type of information is incredibly helpful in the event that you are working on an antitrust assignment, where it can be really difficult to figure out what exactly a company does, and who it competes with. In all, I think this might be a useful site to use as a supplementary source, when you know exactly which company you are looking for and you need only quick, basic information about that company.
Next, I tried Manta, which claims to be the world’s largest online community for connecting small businesses, with more than 64 million company profiles from the U.S. and beyond (http://www.manta.com/). It is rated the third largest business news/research website. Like Hoovers, this is a site that offers its best information to members of the site, but also like Hoovers, there are some great features available for free. At the top of the page, there is a way to browse through companies. You can either browse by state or industry, or you can access the entire list and refine your search from there. Using filters on the left-hand side of the page, you can limit your results to companies created as of a certain date, companies with a certain number of employees, or those with a certain level of revenues. To try out the site, I chose to browse through the entire list. Then, I narrowed down my search by industry to “food” companies. Within my new list, I perused the subheadings, and chose “chewing gum.” This brought me to forty-one different chewing gum companies. When you select a company, you are given some basic information, and asked to register for free in order to view more information. Although this site has a lot of potential, and can again help you out if you are looking for some quick answers, it is definitely inferior to yahoo finance in terms of usability and content. And, I needed to keep reminding myself that it was a collection of small businesses, so this is not the place to find information on a company like Apple.
I then tried CNET Ticker Look-up, a great site for getting quick stock information (http://www.learnwebskills.com/company/ticker02.html). The website comes with directions, making it extremely easy to use. All you have to do is enter a company name into the search field, and you are provided with a host of stock information, including price and volume, a company overview, financial strength and profitability and the ticker symbol. The search also brings up a number of news stories related to the specific company. And, even if you are not researching a particular company, you can use the website to get general stock market information. The site provides US indices, Global indices, a currency calcuator, and information by sector. One downside of the site however is that you need to put up with a lot of advertisements, so many that I would recommend turning off the sound on your computer.
Finally, not to be forgotten are the company websites themselves, which can be some of the best sources of free information. Often, a company will have links to their most recent SEC filings, including 10Ks, 10Qs, and 8Ks. With our last research assignment in mind, I used Borders as an example. At first, it seemed that the website would only be helpful for finding a book or a store location, but on closer inspection, I found an “investor relations” link on the bottom of the homepage (http://www.borders.com/online/store/PartnerSiteInvestorsView). This brought me to a page with a company profile, the NYSE ticker symbol, and the price of the stock. It also showed that the data was current as of March 3, 2011 at 12:08pm (only 20 minutes old at that point), so I knew the information was very current. In addition to links to recent news stories involving Borders, the site also contained links to information regarding corporate governance, analyst info, press releases, annual reports and SEC filings. When I clicked on SEC Filings, I was brought to a table with links to all of their recent SEC filings. In fact, the table included filings from as far back as June of 1996 (not bad!). Also helpful was a way to search for keywords in the SEC filings, and to limit the search results to specific forms. There were links to search tips and descriptions of the different forms themselves on the site as well. Finally, the link to annual reports brings you to a list has a pdf version of the actual, glossy annual report, from 2000 to 2009. Although the SEC website and other free resources can definitely produce the same info, it’s good to remember that when researching a company, sometimes it’s easiest, and maybe even fastest, to go directly to the source itself: the company.
As a summer associate, I worked on a lot of corporate and capital markets matters—subjects that I find interesting, but that don’t exactly make me feel passionate about the law. However I was fortunate enough to work on a pro bono immigration assignment, a matter that reminded me of why I wanted to be a lawyer in the first place. I was asked to work on a brief for an appeal of the Board of Immigration’s decision to deny asylum to a deserving applicant from the Gambia. While I did a lot of my research in Westlaw, I also spent a lot of time, especially in the beginning, in some free resources. Because I hope to do this kind of work when I return to the firm, I thought it might be a good idea to revisit some of these websites as a refresher, while applying some of the techniques that we have discussed in class as a way to find new sources.
My first problem was figuring out how the immigration court system actually works and which law applies. I assumed that it would be federal law, as the decision of whether to grant asylum is a federal concern, but I had no idea if the appeal would take place in a federal district court or what the courtroom procedure would look like. I started with Google, as I so often do, and searched for “Immigration Court.” Immediately, a suggested search of “Immigration Court Practice Manual” popped up. This search led me to some great free resources that described the workings of the immigration court system. The Office of the Chief Immigration Judge provides a detailed practice manual (http://www.justice.gov/eoir/vll/OCIJPracManual/ocij_page1.htm), which I found to be one of my best friends during the brief-writing process. Specifically, the manual has a link to a detailed table of contents, which is great when you don’t know where to begin. By scanning through the descriptions of the headings and subheadings, I was able to focus in on the areas that were most confusing to me. The manual also included citations and references to pertinent sections of the Code of Federal Regulations, which significantly decreased the amount of time that I had to spend searching in Westlaw. The practice manual included such basic information as how to file a motion, what to expect when appearing in front of an immigration judge, the effect of decisions, and basic information about the immigration court and the scope of the practice manual itself. This was necessary information that I don’t think I could have found easily using a paid resource.
Another aspect of the website that I really appreciated was a link to updates to the practice manual (http://www.justice.gov/eoir/vll/OCIJPracManual/updates.html). This made me more confident that I wasn’t relying on old information. Additionally, the website included a link to the Board of Immigration Appeals website, which provided essential information, including sample cover pages for court documents, information on where to file motions, and details regarding the requirements of an appeal of an immigration judge’s decision (http://www.justice.gov/eoir/vll/qapracmanual/apptmtn4.htm). As a downside, there is no way to search the practice manual for a specific term or issue, but my Google search also yielded a full-text copy of the practice manual, so at the very least, searching through the text for a certain word or phrase was possible. (http://www.justice.gov/eoir/vll/OCIJPracManual/Practice%20Manual%20Final_compressedPDF.pdf).
After getting a better understanding of where I was heading and after reading through many sample briefs, I discovered that the inquiry into whether to grant asylum is highly focused on the facts of each case. My next step then was to develop an informative and persuasive statement of facts, one that would convince any immigration judge to grant asylum for our client. This involved an intensive look into country-specific data, and for this, I found some resources that did a lot of the work for me. In particular, the United States Department of State website compiles country profiles and human rights reports for many, if not most, countries (http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/). The website is very easy to search and provided me information that I otherwise would have had to rely on many different sources to obtain. On the right-hand side of the homepage, there is a drop down menu of “country profiles.” After selecting “Gambia, The,” I was provided with information explaining the geography, demographics, political climate, and the country’s history. This gave me an idea of the backdrop against which this application for asylum was made.
Also on the homepage is a link to human rights reports (http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2009/index.htm). It is essential to know this type of information when seeking asylum, and according to caselaw that I later came across, the U.S. Dept. of State reports actually qualify in an immigration court proceeding as official, objective corroboration of country conditions. The human rights reports are grouped by year going back to 1999, and when you select the most recent year (or whichever year is relevant), you are brought to a page with a list of countries. Again, I selected The Gambia, and was brought to the official human rights report written in 2009. These reports include the country’s respect for human rights, instances of discrimination, the freedom of the political system, and the transparency of the law enforcement and judicial system. The reports also give specific instances of violations of human rights abuses, which was particularly helpful as I was trying to craft a convincing statement of facts.
We mentioned in class this week how the websites put forth by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can be very helpful when doing foreign law research, and this is equally true when researching a foreign locality itself. I have found that the website for Amnesty International is one of those helpful sites (http://www.amnesty.org/). Because it is not geared to only legal professionals, the site is incredibly user friendly. The main page has a news section and an “in focus” section, highlighting recent events in the international arena, but also includes many useful search tools. You can simply look up information by country by selecting the appropriate country from the drop-down menu at the top of the page, or enter in a country or search term in the search field. On the right-hand side of the page, there is a way to search for human rights information, either by country or by topic. When I looked for “The Gambia” under human rights information, I was brought to a page of Amnesty International news and publications, and also links to the annual human rights reports for those countries. Again, this is very helpful when you are trying to fill in the particulars to make a claim for asylum.
Finally, although I didn’t do this last summer, I decided to try searching twitter feeds for info that might be of use. I’m pretty new to the whole twitter thing, and I always assumed it was just a way for people to follow celebrities or share mundane details of their everyday lives, but I never really thought of it as a way to answer legal questions. I visited the Justia Legal Birds website and entered in “asylum” (http://legalbirds.justia.com/). This generated several tweets that seemed useful, one of which was entitled “Entering Illegally and Applying for Asylum.” There were also a few posts announcing the success of asylum applications, which might contain helpful hints for other asylum attorneys seeking the same thing for their clients. I’m still not sure if I will ever join twitter, but I can definitely see the value in searching these sites for legal professionals who might be share insights and give advice on an important legal topic.
This week, we have been talking about some of the benefits of human-generated search engines versus those of computer-generated search engines. According to Pete Cashmore’s article, Humans vs. automated search: Why people power is cool again, it seems that the scale might be tipping in favor of human-generated research results. Citing “Google fatigue” and the creation of content farms—efforts to manipulate Google’s algorithmic search capabilities to deliver high quantity but low quality sources—Cashmore explains that “the pendulum appears to be swinging back: Google is broken . . . and people-power is the best fix.” Despite Cashmore’s declaration that machine-powered decision making might be on it’s way out, yesterday I stumbled across an interesting, and somewhat scary blog post that seems particularly relevant in light of our class discussions. In earlier blog posts, classmates have commented on Watson, the computer that is wiping the floor with the human contestants on Jeopardy. As it turns out, Watson might pose a threat not only to the Ken Jenningses of the world, but also to junior associates at law firms everywhere.
According to a recent post on the Wall Street Journal Law Blog (http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2011/02/15/the-next-threat-to-associate-hiring-its-elementary-my-dear/), Watson might actually be a viable threat to the number of first-year associate jobs in the market. Watson, named for IBM’s first CEO, Thomas J. Watson, Sr., is a machine that possesses artificial intelligence. It is able to both understand questions asked of it and learn to deliver better answers over time. And it does all of this in a matter of seconds. Although making it clear that computers will not actually be able to replace attorneys, in that a computer would not be able to substitute a lawyer’s “mature and sound reasoning,” the article suggests that this technology could certainly cut down an a law firm’s need to hire so many first year associates.
IBM’s general counsel Robert Weber directly addresses the use of Deep QA, the technology underlying Watson, as a new way to conduct legal research. In a recent article published in the National Law Journal he writes, “you could have a vast, self-contained database loaded with all of the internal and external information related to your daily tasks, whether you’re preparing for litigation, protecting intellectual property, writing contracts or negotiating an acquisition. Pose a question and, in milliseconds, Deep QA can analyze hundreds of millions of pages of content and mine them for facts and conclusions — in about the time it takes to answer a question on a quiz show.” (http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202481662966&Why_Watson_matters_to_lawyers&slreturn=1&hbxlogin=1).
This is scary stuff for a generation of law students that has already faced the near insurmountable task of getting hired following the collapse of the market in October of 2008. Just as the tide looks like it might be turning, it seems that a new obstacle is presenting itself. IBM is just beginning to look into how this technology can serve as a boon to the legal profession (Weber notes that Watson could also prove helpful as a fact-checker in courtrooms during trial), if not a bust to young lawyers hoping to break into it. Watson can successfully and efficiently accomplish much of a first-year associate’s workload—gathering facts and identifying ideas that might be useful in crafting legal arguments. And, in a fraction of the time that it takes a young lawyer to complete these tasks. Whereas a first year associate must spend time trying to come up with the search terms to enter into a Westlaw or Lexis search (or a search using free legal resources!), there is no need for Watson to waste time on this task. It will spit out answers to the natural language questions asked of it.
In Cashmore’s article, software developer Jeff Atwood wonders, “[a]re we seeing the first signs that algorithmic search has failed as a strategy? Is the next generation of search destined to be less algorithmic and more social?” According to the articles referenced above, it seems that the answer is probably no. With the possibilities presented by Deep QA, it seems that Google’s algorithm might just be scratching the surface of machine-generated research. Watson shows us that any definitive death knell for machine-based research is premature.
Although unable to explore the real-life benefits of Deep QA (at this time, anyway), for fun I decided to conduct my own experiment to see if I got better quality results using people-powered or machine-powered search engines. I looked up “Hudson Valley weddings” on Bing and on Yahoo. To my surprise, the results were exactly the same. The results pages actually matched. I then decided to add Google to the mix, and found that the Google results page was slightly different. Google actually listed some vendors, adding some variety to the results that Bing and Yahoo provided. Despite the variety, I might give a slight advantage to Bing. Bing offered other related search terms, which can be pretty helpful when you do not know exactly what you’re looking for. In particular, “Hudson Valley Outdoor Wedding Sites” and “Small Outdoor Weddings Hudson Valley” both generated a list of links I had not yet viewed. Although it seems that computer-generated searches worked best for me this time, and that the research benefits promised by IBM and Watson could change the legal landscape, for the time being, I’m not quite ready to give up on human-powered searches altogether. I’m hoping Pete Cashmore is right.
Last summer, I was given a pro bono assignment addressing a housing issue with a lot of wrinkles. Without going into any confidential details, the City of New York was proceeding to evict the residents of a housing development for eminent domain purposes. The City, pursuant to an administrative rule, promised to provide the residents with moving expenses and to help them find comparable accommodations. Time had passed, and the City had not followed through on its promises and the residents were faced with the prospect of homelessness. Initially, we were dealing with the complex eviction issues, but our assignment was complicated by the fact that each tenant, for different reasons, seemed to have different eligibility levels for the promised services. It was further complicated by the fact that we had no idea which law applied—New York State law or the myriad of rules and regulations imposed by the City itself.
Even though the firm’s resources would have paid for a Westlaw search, I had no idea where to start. Because it was a pro bono assignment, I, a clueless summer associate, was the first set of eyes on the problem. Also because it was a pro bono assignment, I was afraid of how much I would cost the firm while spinning my wheels. Unsure of which court system to search (supreme court? city court? housing court?), or for that matter, whether there would be any cases on point, I turned to Google first. My Google search pointed me to some great free sites that ultimately answered our questions for us.
Trying to figure out which set of rules would apply, I looked for a database of the Rules of the City of New York. I found a great site that allows searching through the Rules (http://22.214.171.124/nyc/rcny/entered.htm). On the upper left-hand corner of the page, there is a “search” button that brings you to a page where you can search for words and phrases. The page includes a list of Boolean operators that the site recognizes, and a way to limit the search to different documents. This type of searching assumes that you know which terms to search, but just in case you do not, there is a table of contents for the rules on the left side of the page. The rules are divided by title number and heading, and you can expand each section to read the different sub-headings. When I first came to this site, I searched for “eviction” within the Rules of New York. This generated several results, most of them within Title 28. I then went to the table of contents and selected Title 28, reading through the subheadings. It was while perusing these headings that I found something of interest: “Chapter 18: Relocation Payments and Services.” I never would have thought to search for these terms, but upon seeing the section within the rules, I knew that this was applicable to our case.
Another site that I found through a simple Google search was the website for the New York City Housing Court (http://www.courts.state.ny.us/courts/nyc/housing/index.shtml). We’ve discussed in class how going directly to a court website can be helpful, and this was incredibly clear to me last summer. This website seems to be geared toward litigants who do not have access to an attorney and might have to engage in some self-help. On the left side of the page, there is a link for “Legal Information.” This brings up a list of different issues that are of interest to someone going to the City Housing Court. I clicked on “holdover proceedings,” the type of proceeding with which we were dealing, which brought me to a page with a lot of valuable information. Specifically, it broke down what goes into an order to show cause, how to answer a case, how to stop an eviction, and the effect of a judgment. It also explained some of the substantive areas of law, in particular RPAPL 375, which shows what is needed to effect service of process. This site also has links to court-produced publications and videos on a variety of subjects, including “How to Prepare for a Landlord-Tenant Trial” and “How to Try or Defend a Civil Case When You Don’t Have a Lawyer.” Because things move very quickly in housing court, this page was great in terms of helping our clients. We were able to come up with some stopgap measures that would help them in the meantime, while we tried to address their larger concerns.
After class this week, I decided to give the research guides we discussed a try, to see if one of them would have been helpful had I known about it last summer. I went to the Cornell Law Library site and clicked on “Research Guides.” I didn’t see anything pertaining to housing, so I searched the Legal Research Engine “I want it all” option, which searches legal research guides, the legal Internet, and academic blawgs. After entering “NY Housing Law,” the search produced a number of helpful sources. Among them, a chapter on Housing Law produced by the Sadin Institute on Law & Public Policy. This document provides a detailed summary of the different levels (federal, state, city) of housing laws, and thorough descriptions of eviction procedures. I then searched for “NY landlord tenant,” and found a source that I will be book-marking for future use. It’s a comprehensive guide to Landlord-Tenant law in New York State, discussing the applicable laws and different proceedings. As I’m hoping to continue to do a lot of pro bono work in the future, it’s great to know that this stuff is out there, and that the Cornell Library website makes searching for it so simple.
Our class discussions about using free, online resources to search for federal law reminded me that I wasn’t always so quick to jump to Lexis or Westlaw. Before law school, I worked for the New York State Assembly, at first doing research and later writing press for certain Assemblymembers. With limited access to paid search engines, my office routinely relied on free resources to look up new bills and to research legislative history, helping us to better understand how a bill would affect a particular Member’s district. These resources can be incredibly helpful when trying to understand the nuts and bolts of a complex law, and the reasons behind and the implications of a new bill.
One such source is the website of the New York State Legislature (http://public.leginfo.state.ny.us/menuf.cgi). This website allows a user to search for Senate and Assembly bills, past and present. By entering a session year and a bill number (for example “A123” or “S456”), this source will retrieve the text of the bill, the names of the sponsors, the location of the bill in the committee process, the number of the companion bill, and the accompanying sponsor’s memo. As the purpose of some of these bills can be difficult to determine—the bills originating in the Judiciary committee are famously inscrutable—the sponsor’s memo succinctly provides the aim of the legislation and summarizes any changes that the bill hopes to achieve. The sponsor’s memo also provides the fiscal impact of the bill, and any relevant legislative history. In addition to allowing searches for legislation, this website has a link to the Laws of New York. The laws are organized by category, providing links to chapter and title numbers, which will help you narrow down your search. And, there is a search field for “words and phrases,” just in case you are not sure of the appropriate category.
The Senate and Assembly websites can also be pretty enlightening, however it’s wise to recognize that some of the information is most definitely politically motivated. Both websites (http://assembly.state.ny.us/, http://www.nysenate.gov/) offer a database of press releases, arranged by elected official and by category. These press releases often summarize the essential components of a new law in bullet points, and explain the practical effects of the law. But again, even though the press releases provide valuable background information, it is important to look beyond the rhetoric. These are political documents, and it’s a good idea to peruse both the majority and minority publications to get a more objective sense of what the legislation actually accomplishes. In addition to the press releases of Members and Senators, these sites also compile legislative reports, committee reports, and a way to quickly search for bills, which can help to supplement the information provided in the press releases.
I’ve also found that blogs that report on state legislative proceedings can provide invaluable supplemental material. Every morning, my workday began with coffee and “The Daily Politics,” a blog on the New York Daily News website (http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/dailypolitics), covering all things Albany. I also highly recommend “Capitol Confidential” (http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/) and “Capitol Tonight” (http://www.capitaltonight.com/stateofpolitics/), blogs that contribute sound bites from bill sponsors, which can really shed light on the intentions of the legislation. The posts on these blogs, while occasionally catering to the more tawdry details of the New York State legislative process—Spitzer anyone?—are always incredibly timely, offering an objective view of legislative actions and the motivations behind them.
I left the Assembly shortly after the Governor Spitzer scandal (and thankfully before the embarrassment that occurred in the New York State Senate in the summer of 2009), which spurred a movement towards more transparency in New York’s legislative process. A final website that I’ll leave you with is that of New York’s “Project Sunlight” (www.sunlightny.org). I think this website has had some growing pains (the mission statement is signed by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo) and might not yet be realizing its full potential, but the motivation behind it is great. It aims to increase public access to legislative materials. In doing so, it has created a way to browse bills, state contracts, member items (think “pork” that legislators bring home to their districts), and lobbyist activity. The site also has a collection of bill and veto jackets, which provide a view of the legislative history by displaying documents submitted in support of and in opposition to particular pieces of legislation. Although this website admittedly relies on the efforts of other agencies to submit information to it and it might not be totally complete, the goals of the site are laudable in that it strives to provide a free and full picture of the New York State legislative process.
As an associate editor of the Cornell International Law Journal and as an exchange student at the University of Amsterdam, there have been times when I have had to quickly familiarize myself with the substantive law of the European Union. With very little knowledge of the EU legal system, I relied heavily on law blogs to give me the background necessary to conduct research, cite court cases, and write an intelligible paper on an unfamiliar issue. Below are a couple of the sites that I have found to be very helpful jumping off points.
One great website, geared toward students, academics, and professors, provides excellent summaries of recent cases (http://eulaw.typepad.com/). It also gives detailed background information, breaking down some of the more difficult concepts of EU law. The author cites to relevant case law often, and includes hyperlinks to official versions of the cases, making corroborating the information quick and easy. The only drawbacks of the website are that there is no information about the author, and occasionally the posts, though informative, sound politically charged. Additionally, the site is not comprehensive, in that you cannot find any and all European Court of Justice cases. However, the posts are categorized by subject matter, making searching simple. Although it is probably not a source to ultimately use as authority, it is a great tool in understanding a complex legal system.
Another website that I found useful is a European Court of Justice blog (http://ecjblog.com/). This website is also not comprehensive, offering only a sampling of court cases, but the search function allows a user to sift quickly through relevant cases. For example, if you needed to learn more about the “free movement of goods,” one of the EU’s four freedoms, you can select that subject area under “labels,” which generates a list of appropriate cases. Each case description includes the background, the provisions of EU law at issue, the analysis of the case, and a link to the actual text of the judgment. Additionally, citations and links throughout make checking work much easier. A lawyer specializing in European administrative law oversees the postings on the blog, adding to the credibility of the information presented. Again, while probably not sufficient to use as a citation on its own, the blog provides very helpful information for someone unfamiliar with EU law.