Over the past few weeks I’ve stumbled upon numerous online legal education resources. Free courses, ebooks, podcasts all online and all for free. I think these are great resources to use post graduation, or for anyone wanting to learn about a particular aspect of the law without taking an actual course through a law school.
Project Gutenberg is a digital library that offers over 34,000 books free of charge. The catch? All books listed on the site are out of copyright, which means they are fairly old. It is a great site to download classic novels. In fact, just about any classic you can think of is probably listed on the site. The “Top 100” page lists books like Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, Plato’s Republic, The Prince, etc. You can find religious texts, philosophical treatises, slave narratives, poetry, just about anything you can think of. As far as legal texts go, books by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Benjamin Cardozo, William Blackstone, and more are included on the site. Overall, the site provides some good material for those interested in legal history.
Websites like Scribd and Docstoc can also be incredible resources to get free ebooks or legal templates. Scribd and Docstoc are like the Youtube of documents online. People can upload documents for others to view and download for free. Both sites include a legal section where countless forms and templates can be found. These documents can be used to model your own contracts or agreements. Law related ebooks in PDF format can also be found on these sites. Like Youtube, though, Scribd and Docstoc have received a lot of criticism for allowing copyrighted material to be uploaded by users. When using the site, do not assume that everything you see is in the public domain (as opposed to Project Gutenberg where EVERYTHING on the site really is in the public domain).
Open Culture is another great educational resource on the web. The site offers free school textbooks, ebooks, language lessons, and even online courses. Although the language lessons were the most interesting to me (they have the nightly news in classical Latin!), they also have various talks hosted by law schools through out the country.
I’m definitely just scratching the surface with this list, but I think it’s a good start for anyone interested in acquiring free law related material (or very interesting non-law related material) online.
The investigative skills of an attorney can be the difference between winning and losing. With more and more of what we do happening online, being able to track down web users and website information will become a very important part of online investigative work. “E-discovery” is essentially discovery dealing with evidence in electronic format. A quick google search of “computer forensics” reveals numerous tools that allow individuals to gain access to hidden data on a computer. E-discovery and computer forensics is a broad and fascinating subject. Today, I will focus on the online aspects of computer forensics, which includes WHOIS, reverse WHOIS, DNS, or IP searches.
Want to find out more information about a site making defamatory comments about a client or infringing on a client’s trademark rights? Using a WHOIS look up on a website address can yield useful information as to who registered the site, when it was registered, when registration will expire, and where the site was registered. You can also find out what other websites were registered by the same person (or company). Often times, contact information such as phone number, (real world) address, and an email address can be found when conducting a WHOIS look up. A WHOIS look up is probably the single most important query you can use to track down information about a website and it’s administrators. A DNS or IP search seem to both track down information based on an IP address.
An IP address is basically the address that your computer uses while online. It can be used to track down your location or access your computer (with or without your permission). An IP address can also be used as a website address if the site does not have a registered name. For example, wikileaks’ domain name was shut down recently, which is why they now use an IP address for those wanting to access their site. Using an IP query, you can look up their IP address, which yields a PO Box number in Australia.
When “cornell.edu” is used in a WHOIS look up, you can see that the domain name was first registered in 1985 and the contact information for a “technical contact” as well as an “administrative contact” are available.
A “reverse WHOIS” look up is used to determine what domain names are associated with a particular individual’s name, email address, or physical address.
Most domain tools websites allow you to make basic queries, but to get in-depth reports you almost always have to pay a small fee. One of the more popular domain tools websites used is http://www.domaintools.com/.
Last semester, I discovered a self-help legal website through an entrepreneur class I took at the business school. The site is called “Nolo: Law for All”. Although the site is for non-lawyers, the site can be incredibly helpful for anyone wanting a quick primer in various fields of the law. Nolo is not a research tool in the same way that Wexis or Google Scholar is, but it is a great way to learn about the legal steps required to form a corporation or file a provisional patent application, etc. Not all research is case-law research and Nolo is a great example of a site that does everything, but case-law.
The site has articles, books, and legal forms (that must be purchased). The legal information part of the site has some case-law (I lied) in the form of a Supreme Court case database that includes all cases, in downloadable PDF format, going back to 1791. The site also has an extensive collection of Podcasts of experts discussing various legal issues. If you rather read, than listen, then you can check out articles, blogs, or FAQs pages on almost any subject in the law. There’s also a Q&A section of the site much like Yahoo’s Answers website. Many of Nolo’s articles cover common issues facing small business owners or solo practitioners. The articles cover everything from proving fault after a car accident to forming a 501(c)(3) Nonprofit organization. The site also has free ebooks on how to beat a traffic ticket, how to avoid probate, guides on foreclosures, small claims court, etc.
For my class last semester, we made use of all the resources Nolo had to offer. We read through dozens of articles on copyright law, labor law, business law, etc. The site is mainly a legal resource, but it also has a lot of great tools for business owners. We used the site to compare the pros and cons of C Corps., S Corps., LLCs, and other entities. The forms section of the site is also helpful to small business owners as well as lawyers. It includes Non-disclosure agreements (NDA), power of attorney forms, demand letters, and hundreds more.
The only thing I didn’t like about the site was that there were no free forms. The articles were all free, the podcasts are free, and you can even get the books for free if you get the online version. I understand they need to make money somehow, but it would have been nice to have at least some of the more common forms downloadable free of charge. The NDA is a good example of an easily found form that you can get anywhere online, but Nolo is charging for theirs.
Overall though, Nolo is a great site to get information on basic legal/business issues. The articles are short and the answers are direct, I definitely recommend you add this to your list of research sites.
The law is slowly moving toward greater accessibility and affordability. With the proliferation of legal websites and blogs, the general public has vast resources at their fingertips. As others on this blog have suggested, the days of Wexis being able to charge outrageous fees to use their sites are numbered. After reading about an idea for a Legal Wikipedia in “The beginning of the end for the Wexis duopoly”, I quickly googled “Wikilaw” to see if anything like it already existed. I was surprised to find several wiki style legal websites! Sites with names like Wikilaw, WikiLaw3k, Wikilaw-Meta, etc. filled my screen. Some of these sites target law students and provide information that would be useful while studying for finals. Others focus on creating a resource to read and interpret case law. These sites are clearly in their infant stages of development, but I was excited to see that someone out there was at least trying!
One of the most interesting of the Wiki style legal information pages I came across was called “JurisPedia.” The site is a project developed by a number of law schools from across the globe (there appears to be no American participation however). The international scope of the site is clear from the very first page. The main page has a list of new articles that range from Moroccan bankruptcy law to Canadian employment law. The site has various categories listed on the main page, like the “Principal legal systems of the world” section or the “Theories and foundations of law.” I was disappointed, though, when I tried to learn more about Canon law and Socialist law, and found that the page was empty. So far, the site only has about 1,500 articles, which is probably much less than what the Law portal of Wikipedia has.
Unfortunately, wiki-law.org has even less to offer. In fact, there aren’t ANY articles on the site. It looks like the admin made the first post on February 6th of this year! Clearly, we will have to wait and see how the site turns out.
Wikilaw3k is another disappointing site. It does not appear to be a wiki style site at all. It uses “wiki” in its title, but it is not open to user submitted articles. I tried to find out more about the authors of the site and could find absolutely nothing on the site. I did a WHOIS look up and found that the site was registered by a Cristian Florescu from RO (Romania?) and an IP address from Houston, Texas. I looked up Cristian Florescu and found that there is a famous Romanian dancer by the same name! Hopefully, the Cristian Florescu responsible for the site is not the same guy as the dancer or else this might be the face of free legal advice on wikilaw3k (click here).
Sometimes, it can be useful to look at the source code of a website to find clues about the authors of the site. This can be done by clicking “View”, then clicking “View Source”. A “.txt” box should pop up and you can read through the raw code used to make the site. You can find useful information in the source code that does not appear on the actual site like the last time an update was performed, what program was used to make a site, or the organization/individual responsible for the site. Although knowledge of html would help tremendously, it is not necessary to know in order to spot something useful. The downside to looking through source code is that it can be extremely tedious, especially if there is a lot on the page you are looking through.
I did look through the source code for wikilaw3k to find out more about “Cristian Florescu” from Romania, but found no clues as to the identity of the author. The reason I took the time to really find out who was behind the site was because I thought it was odd that someone would give free legal advice without all the legal disclaimers that usually come with legal advice websites. It seemed like the person responsible for the site was not worried about getting sued, which means two things. First, they are not a lawyer. Second, they probably won’t be easy to find (because they live in Romania…).
Most of the site is comprised of links that anyone can post. There are a couple of articles with some common sense legal advice. One article says that you may have hired the wrong divorce attorney if,
“You are ignored or abandoned by your divorce attorney when you go to court. This happens when your lawyer goes off to joke and laugh with his pals while you are waiting for your case to come before the judge, while you stand there alone and afraid of what to expect when your case is heard. This is particularly painful when the “pal” your lawyer is off playing with is your spouse’s attorney.”
Off playing with your spouse’s attorney? How rude!
When it comes to free legal resources there is a lot out there. Slowly, free legal resources are developing into high quality sites (and a ton of sites not worth your time too!). Nothing is comparable to Wexis, but things are heading in that direction. I just hope we get a free competitor to Wexis sooner, rather than later. I graduate in May after all…
Today, I discovered an amazing research tool that I wish I had while I was still an undergrad. It’s called zotero. The software is a tool that allows for more efficient research by making it easier to capture sources online in an iTunes style database. Think Filemaker except zotero would be the happier, better looking, sibling.
The program is a browser plug-in, that, with the click of a mouse (or trackpad or ipad…), allows you to grab bibliographic information of a site, take snap shots of blocks of text, or download entire PDF files. This data can then be organized in a searchable database that can be divided up into various folders based on subject, date, etc. Then, when it’s time to write, you can drag and drop bibliographic data into your reference section, or even plop quotes into the body of your text. Whenever you come across something interesting or useful just save it to the database and with time you may have a vast amount of data to work with (or just a lot of articles on pirates). It’s also possible to share databases online with other zotero users who may be working on the same project.
Unfortunately, at this point in the program’s development, zotero is not compatible with Westlaw and Lexis. According to their forum, however, it looks like Westlaw and Lexis support is something the developers would like to work toward making possible soon. In the mean time, this seems like a great non-Wexis research tool that can be used to replace note cards, notebooks, and anything else people use to take and compile notes with.
We’ve all been told to never use Wikipedia as a source. Since the site first started back in 2003, teachers everywhere have warned students of the mortal danger of using the site. After all, how could a site that allows anyone to post on subjects ranging from the Sumatran Orangutan to Steiner chains be accurate? The funny thing is if you’re curious about what a Steiner chain is now, you’re probably using Wikipedia to look it up. There’s a reason for that. Most of us trust Wikipedia, because it is actually reliable. Just how reliable is it? Well, according to this Wikipedia article, very reliable.
Many people just assume that allowing thousands of non-experts to create an online community-based encyclopedia is a recipe for disaster. In fact, Wikipedia has even been likened to a public restroom by former Encyclopædia Britannica editor Robert McHenry, “[H]owever closely a Wikipedia article may at some point in its life attain to reliability, it is forever open to the uninformed or semiliterate meddler… The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.” Ouch. As biting as those remarks were, I’m still not ready to quit using Wikipedia and fork over $103 per year for a premium membership to the Encyclopædia Britannica website. Why not, you might ask? Since Wikipedia was established, a number of studies have shown that the site is actually an accurate source of information.
In 2005, the journal Nature showed that, compared to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Wikipedia had very few serious errors. An article by the Guardian maintained that most experts who were a part of their study rated Wikipedia between a 5 and 8 with 8 being the highest possible and 0 being the lowest. According to a review of the site by Library Journal, “While there are still reasons to proceed with caution when using a resource that takes pride in limited professional management, many encouraging signs suggest that (at least for now) Wikipedia may be granted the librarian’s seal of approval.” There have been many other positive reviews of the site’s accuracy by academia and tech professionals, which suggests that Wikipedia may not be the public restroom of the interwebs after all.
Part of the reason Wikipedia is such an accurate source despite the lack of expertise is that administrators play a major role in cleaning up the site. As of 2009, there were about 1,600 administrators for the English Wikipedia site. These administrators monitor the site checking for vandalism, inaccuracies, or poorly written articles. They also have the power to ban users or lock articles to prevent them from being edited any further. This combination of a free and open online community coupled with a significant number of experts with editorial power has led to Wikipedia becoming a surprisingly reliable and overwhelmingly vast online encyclopedia. Did I mention it’s free too?
Although the taboo against citing Wikipedia is quickly vanishing with over 400 academic and scientific articles referencing the site in 2008 and 600 in 2009, I’m not suggesting you go cite it in your next law review note. My point is that we should probably start changing the way we think about sources and authority. Having a centralized expert/author and editor is good, but having an entire community of enthusiastic non-experts is better (and more democratic.) There are tons of books that get published every year that really aren’t great sources (is a book by David Duke really a source at all?) and there are tons of blogs out there that provide quality information. In an age where publishing a book will soon be as easy as publishing online, we should use a critical eye when using any source.