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Wikipedia for law– pipe dream or possibility?

March 3, 2011 5 comments

It seems to me, after this class of discovering all the free legal resources out there, that the one main weakness of the free sources compared to Wexis is that the free resources tend to be scattered all over the place and are relatively easy to find only if you know where to look (and what you’re looking for). Which is problematic for those lawyers– and non-lawyers– who did not happen to take this class in law school.) And even for those of us in this class, who know where to look, we still need to go through 4 or 5 (or more) different websites to find what we need, which can be both time-consuming and irritating. (I don’t know about you but I, for one, dislike having lots of tabs open on Firefox at any given time and having to switch back and forth to find what I’m looking for.) All of this brings me to wonder why there isn’t– or is there– a really comprehensive wikipedia for the law– a one-stop shop, essentially, for the law and legal analysis where lawyers and non-lawyers alike can quickly go to find out what they might need to know, at least as a starting point.

The “wikipedia model” has been talked about a lot– the idea of having users generate content and analysis that’s policed by other users to create a resource of information. But is it possible for something like the law, that requires more expertise and education to understand, than for the rather general knowledge available on wikipedia? Predictably, I suppose, right now the answer to this question ranges between “Yes, sure, why not?” and “No, what are you smoking?” (We’re lawyers-to-be so we know by now that, if you ask any given question to 4 lawyers, you’re likely to get at least 6 different “right” answers.) Whatever your answer to the question of whether a wikipedia for law is possible, it’s an intriguing idea.  I’ll quote from Professor Richard Susskind who has expressed his vision of what a wikipedia for law would look like (because he phrased it much better than I could): “a resource readily available to lawyers and lay people; a free web of inter-linked materials; packed with scholarly analysis and commentary, supplemented by useful guidance and procedure; rendered intensely practical by the addition of action points and standard documents; and underpinned by direct access to legislation and case law, made available by the Government…” that is “established and maintained collectively by the legal profession; by practitioners, judges, academics and voluntary workers.” Maybe due to the charm of his phrasing, it sounds like a brilliant idea, which begs the question of why it hasn’t already been thought of and implemented– and since it apparently hasn’t been, is it even possible?

There’s a beta, i.e. testing version of this idea for British law- Free Legal Web. Right now, it provides free access to statutes and case law (for the full text, it usually links out to the official Government site or to BAILII for the cases) along with case summaries, case comments, and articles written by a variety of contributors. The search function is rather primitive right now, but then this is a beta version, and people who use the site are encouraged to contribute to the site to add more information to it. In particular, I like the Case Comments that provide analysis of cases, along with a brief summary of the facts of the case, explaining the significance of the case in context- for example, this case comment on ZH (Tanzania) v. SSHD, a UK Supreme Court case. The site also has “guides” that provide neat introductions to procedures and other things, mainly aimed at a non-legal audience, for example the Novice guide to court hearings.

Given Free Legal Web’s existence among other things, I don’t see much of an obstacle to creating a wikipedia for US law. As Free Legal Web shows us, there’s no need to re-invent the wheel in providing free access to the full text of statutes and case law; creating a database of laws and cases with links to sites like LII shouldn’t strain our capabilities too much, I should think, although it would be a large project requiring the commitment of volunteers, but I can easily envision this as a project started by a law school and, initially at least, monitored by law students. As for providing Case Summaries and Comments, along with analysis, this would only seem to require combining and organizing the types of resources that already exist. Certainly, there’s a proliferation of blawgs that post case summaries/comments and legal analysis, on topics of interest to the blog contributors– and the blawgs aren’t (for the most part) written for profit, so it should not seem too difficult to get lawyers to contribute to the site in some way, especially as so many (apparently) already are willing to spend their free time talking about an issue of the law that interests them, through the form of blog posts. Any Free Legal Web equivalent for US law would, of course, be complicated by the existence of the 50 states and their different laws, but I don’t see this as an insurmountable obstacle. And, in the end, I’m not sure why a wikipedia for law shouldn’t be entirely feasible because after all, lawyers as a profession aren’t generally reluctant to talk/write about what they know or think, so finding people to contribute to a wikipedia for law shouldn’t be hard.

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A portal that has it all

February 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Throughout this course, I have learned of numerous websites providing information for free.  I was quite astonished to learn that there are so many of them out there.  We are truly blessed to live in a time where so much information is readily available (or too much perhaps).  But, having all this information readily available does not mean that research became correspondingly easy.  We have a new task now; sorting through flood of websites to find credible one that would stick around long enough.  I felt like I had to keep a long list of useful websites by their categories (caselaw specific websites, regulation websites, etc), track their existence (PreCYdent closed couple years ago) and evaluate new websites that seem to spring everyday and add useful ones to the list.  Of course there are websites providing comprehensive information at one spot, but most of these websites are fee based like Westlaw and Lexisnexis.  So, I was happy, yet overwhelmed of all these new websites I learned.   And there came lawyerexpress, a portal that made my research so easy.

Lawyerexpress is a website dedicated to providing legal research and news to attorneys.  This is a free web portal, but I recommend you to join as a member (also free) because you can customize the webpages and add/change contents.  Lawyerexpress really lives up to its name and understands what portal actually means; linkpage presenting information from diverse source in a unified way.  With lawyerexpress, you no longer need to keep track of all your favorites websites for research separately.  It’s all there.  Really, it is all there.  Also, If you don’t see it there, you can websites of your liking under tab you think the website belongs to, or put it under MyLinks tab.  After I browsed through this website, I actually made this website into my starting page.  The look of the website, contents, usability and some features it provides—note, planner and office tools—really got me.

Before going further, I will introduce who runs lawyerexpress.  lawyerexpress is powered by Ceoexpress, which was founded in 1998.  Ceoexpress was developed to organize the best resources on the web for busy executives and have expanded its reach on the internet with the launch of four new sites: Wired CEO, the first wireless portal for executives, as well as JournalistExpress, MDExpress and LawyerExpress.  From looking at ceoexpress website and later launched four sites, it looks credible with quite long history(considering it is webpage).

Now that we know who made this website, let’s go back to lawyerexpress.  It has 8 main tabs on top of the page and sub tabs under each of these main tabs.  These main tabs are law headlines, law blogs, legal research, news/journals, tools & travel, breaktime, practice areas, my links.  Also, essential law links and top law news are are fixated on the left side of the webpage, making research more convenient.  You should browse through all these main tabs to explore vast contents it provides in such an organized way.  For example, I found Practice areas to be really helpful in getting comprehensive news on your area of practice.  For example, if you set it as corporate law, it will give you corporate law news, M&A research, Antitrust, securities law, securities oversight, Delaware, blue sky, journals, etc all pertaining to corporate law practice.

Also, I’d like to introduce two features I thought were quite unique and distinguishes lawyerexpress from other legal websites.  Two features are Practice Support and Company Research under legal research tab.  Some of links under Practice Support includes Fact finder(background check website), National Association of Professional Server, Expert law, Technical Advisory Service for Attorneys and Jury Consultants.  For attorneys practicing in court, such information are critical for their practice, yet are not well taught at school (at least, I have not learned of these websites).  Also, I liked the Company Research, which provides links to Hoover’s, Moody’s, SEC Database, Standard & Poor’s, etc.  For corporate lawyer or other lawyers whose case is involved with corporate, it is essential that one does a background research on the company.  Company Research feature meets such needs of lawyer and provides some useful websites.  One suggestion I have for other users is to add Yahoo!Finance and Tip’d, two websites I learned to be very useful in class.

I dare say that this website is a must visit website for all attorneys.  There are just so much in this portal that I regret not being able to explain all contents it provides.  I hope other people find this portal as useful as I did and good luck to other researchers navigating through flood of information.

Caveat: Even though lawyerexpress is a free web portal, some links it provides are fee based.  So, if you want to do all your research for free, you should customize the webpage and remove all fee based websites and add more free websites you are aware of.  Also, I noticed that among MDexpress, JournalistExpress and CEOExpress, only CEOExpress is fee-based website (it does have free trial though).  CEOExpress is the first of Express portals so I am little concerned that rest of Express portals might eventually follow CEOExpress structure and change to fee-based at some point.  I am hoping that it stays as a free web portal, but if not, we will have to hope that new portal site springs up by then.  So, for now, let’s use it while it is free.

The next frontier

February 23, 2011 Leave a comment

This class has taught us all just how much free information is out there, at least if we know how and where to find it. But our last assignment got me thinking about journals, the other kind of secondary sources out there, and wondering if legal journals are available for free online too– for us to use after we have to leave the convenient confines of the Law School Library and no longer have access to HeinOnline.

I managed to find a number of lists of academic journals available online and will go through a couple of them. The first one is a blog post providing a list of100 Free Academic Journals You Can Access Online. The journals are organized by subject matter category, for example, Arts & Humanities, Business, and Social Sciences. Each journal is linked to and has a 1 sentence summary of the sort of information and articles the journal has. The Law & Politics section is rather depressingly short, in light of the number of legal journals out there. (Just how depressingly short the list is will be clear from looking at the back of the Bluebook, for starters.) But it does include some journals that may be useful, like the Harvard Human Rights Journal.

Another website is one called, very creatively, Academic Journals, that provides a list of open access academic journals. (I’m sure you’re shocked.) This list, too, is divided up into general categories, of which Legal Studies, is one (and more usefully, clicking on the category at the top allows you to skip down to where that category begins on the page.) The list will probably be of limited use to us, though, as the categories with the most open access journals are the Medical Sciences and Biological Sciences categories. The Legal Studies category consists of…
1 journal- the Journal of Law and Conflict Resolution.

Fortunately for us, though, that’s not all. More useful is the Directory of Open Access Journals that links to open access journals and has a much longer list of journals relating to Law. Some journals are international and are, therefore, only available in the native language and not in English but most are in English. This directory includes journals like the Duke Law Journal and the Federal Courts Law Review. (Incidentally, I must mention that I’m impressed by Duke’s commitment to providing open access to their law journals, as 4 of Duke’s Journals are listed on the Directory and, from what I can tell, the other 5 journals at Duke Law School are also publicly available, on their respective websites. This may also be the place to mention that not one of Cornell’s journals is listed on this Directory.)

Lastly, is Questia that is an online library and also has academic journals that can be searched or browsed. Questia might be the most useful site because it provides a search function so you can search for keywords or by Title or Author, among other things, to find articles written on a particular topic, without having to physically browse through all the possible relevant journals. As an example, a search for “check kiting” came up with more than 50 results in journals, and a search for “child abuse” as the specific term came up with more than 2000 results in journal articles that mentioned child abuse. Questia does require registration in order to actually access the full text of the materials, but if just looking at the search results for various keywords is an indication, registering with Questia seems like the thing to do, especially once we all lose access to HeinOnline.

The one thing that must be admitted is that these lists of journals, useful as they are, all appear to be limited in the types of law-related journals they provide, but that may be a result of there simply not being that many law reviews that are entirely open access. It seems as if the next step in making legal resources more accessible will be in the world of law reviews.

JurisNotes.com: Intellectual Property Newsletters, Articles & Case Database

February 3, 2011 2 comments

JurisNotes.com offers free two-month e-mail subscriptions to its newsletters concerning intellectual property: IP Notes (twice-weekly summaries of cases from both federal and state courts), IP Admin Notes (weekly administrative decision summaries), Patent Extra (weekly summaries of patent cases at the district court level), and IP News (weekly newsletter featuring the latest news in the world of IP). Plus, bonus e-mails are sent on days when IP-related cases are heard by the Supreme Court. The website also provides a searchable database of past newsletters and the full text of the cases summarized (from 2001 to the present). There are also articles on various IP issues and cases (via the “Articles” link in the left-hand margin) written by practicing attorneys and law school professors who submit their articles to JurisNotes.com.

JurisNotes.com is a great way for those interested in IP law to keep up to date on recent developments in the practice area via its electronic legal research newsletters. However, the website’s “search” capabilities and the available case law in its database are rather limited. For example, a search for the 2007 Supreme Court patent law case, “KSR International Co. v. Teleflex Inc.,” returned no results when thus entered into the search box. When I simplified my search to “KSR v. Teleflex,” “KSR,” or “Teleflex,” I obtained one result: a court of appeals case, In Re Stephen Comiskey, decided in 2007 – the same year that KSR International Co. v. Teleflex Inc. was decided – that merely mentions KSR v. Teleflex in a footnote. A similar search for Bilski v. Kappos (a 2010 Supreme Court patent law-related decision) generated no results. Further, although its “Resources” page lists the names of important statutes, regulations, treaties, and acts, it does not link the reader to any of these resources.

Thus, while JurisNotes.com is a good resource for keeping abreast of recent developments in IP law via its newsletters, researchers best rely on other resources to search for case law.

Nolo.com: legal info, forms & lawyer directory

January 28, 2011 10 comments

Nolo (www.nolo.com) is an organization dedicated to making the law accessible to everyone.  It provides information on diverse areas of the law, including articles written by lawyers on topics like accidents and injuries, bankruptcy, criminal law, family law, employment law, immigration, and wills, trusts, and estate planning.  For example, there is an article on the expungement of criminal records (http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/article-32641.html).  Such articles provide a good starting point to learn the basics on certain topics, but unfortunately, due to variations between jurisdictions, these articles are necessarily general in scope (e.g., it suggests that readers start by checking with their county’s criminal court or the law enforcement agency that handled their arrests, but does not provide more specific information or links to other relevant websites).

The website also provides relatively low-cost online legal forms and downloadable software.  In many of the articles, when you want further information, they link you to other pages to buy downloadable software, books, or online application forms.  For instance, the online form to create your own will has prices starting at $41.97 (http://www.nolo.com/products/nolos-online-will-NNWILL.html).  While such forms are a viable option for many people, even such costs may be prohibitively expensive for others.

In addition, the website includes a lawyer directory via the “Find a Lawyer” link in the top right-hand corner (and sometimes in the right-hand margin), through which you can view the profile of lawyers in particular practice areas in your geographic area who have taken “the Nolo pledge” to provide professional and respectful service (http://www.nolo.com/lawyers/our-pledge.html).  Like the legal forms described above, although retention of paid legal counsel is often desired, it is not an option for many low-income people.  For an organization dedicated to making the law accessible to everyone, it could improve its website by also providing information on free legal services so that those who qualify for free legal aid are informed about it.

Learn the Law (and other subjects) Anywhere — For Free!

January 28, 2011 Leave a comment

No, it’s not spam. In an increasingly open world, professors from a wide range of universities have opened their class doors to anyone with internet access and a desire to learn.  One particular favorite of mine is Open Culture, which offers a wide range of courses, lectures, and discussions on the law and just about any academic subject under the sun. Some gems under the law section include “Introduction to Copyright,” taught by Professor Keith Winstein and “Environmental Justice and Human Rights in the Aftermath of Katrina” by Professor Cynthia Toms Smedley.  What makes the Open Culture site particularly versatile is that it offers a variety of delivery formats for the lectures.  For example, there are downloadable lectures on your iPod, video streams, and in a few cases, actual lecture notes.  While driving about for errands, I can easily learn a bit more about aspects of environmental law.

I put Open Culture to the test with a current writing assignment I have on extraordinary rendition in the context of the war on terror. Having little to know background knowledge on the topic, I entered “extraordinary rendition” into the search function of Open Courses and as luck would have it, the first entry was a lecture given by Professor David Cole who spoke on the topic at Stanford Law School. While this single lecture was by no means enough for me to write a good brief on the subject, it offered a good overview of the topic and touched upon important policy considerations that helped guide my further research.

Although Open Culture does a decent job of aggregating law school lectures from across the nation, the bulk of the courses remain from other disciplines such as Engineering, Art History, and even Chemistry.  Moreover, these lectures span across varying skill levels with some being from the undergraduate level while others are from graduate level.  The sheer amount of audio, video, and even lecture notes that are posted online is nothing short of incredible.  What is somewhat troubling is that while other disciplines are making great strides towards a “free culture” of information, law schools have been somewhat slower in offering their lectures free for the public.  In aggregate sites like Open Culture, the law school section is significantly smaller than comparable graduate sections like the business school section.   This remains somewhat puzzling.  While there are many free sources available for access to federal cases, it is still difficult for a lay person to piece together these materials together without significant time and effort.  And, for the casually curious, this can be a daunting obstacle.  Why is it still somewhat difficult to find reliable sources that put legal topics together in an easy-to-understand manner in a lecture or purely explanatory format?  Is it better to leave tidbits of legal information to the legal reality shows?