Category Archives: Soapbox

The Implications of Bestlaw

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On September 24th, Joe Mornin, a Berkely Law School student, released Bestlaw to the public-at-large (see the The Lawyerist‘s and The Recorder‘s admirable coverage of this story). In a nutshell, Bestlaw is a browser extension that improves upon the Westlaw Next interface. Remarkably, Joe Mornin designed the browser extension himself, and makes this piece of software freely available to download on his website (http://www.bestlaw.io/). Bestlaw’s website states the software accomplishes the following:

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THE CURRENT VENDOR SYSTEM

Legal research procedures are driven by vendors. At a basic level, getting to be a good researcher involves memorizing two bodies of knowledge: what legal information resources exist out there, and which vendors create those resources. Dovetailing into all of this, access of resources is controlled by the vendors as well; each vendor has their own, unique, separate interface. This environment makes practical sense because legal research is a commercial enterprise. Accordingly, vendors resemble information silos: their information is their capital. Would legal research be more efficient and effective if there was an incorporation of federated searching, which would enable searching across all of the vendor interfaces simultaneously? Of course! But, the current legal research business model necessitates individual, isolated research interfaces, with individual content collections accessible only via one point of access.

This current legal research business model introduces various problems for the user. Two of the more salient problems are: what information is actually unique inside a vendor interface, and how do vendors charge the user for non-unique content. Westlaw and Lexis, for example, charge transactionally, meaning every pull of information comes with a price tag. This is acceptable when a user pulls information that is absolutely unique to these specific vendors. However, users do not always pull unique information; commonly, they incur extra transactional fees by pulling information they could get for free from somewhere else. The issue, really, is the convenience of the interface: users are already inside a vendor’s specific pay environment, and it becomes really easy and convenient to pull resources inside the pay environment, rather than jump out and search for a free (and trusted) copy of the same resource.

PULLING INFORMATION FOR FREE

Bestlaw, remarkably, incorporates the ability to jump out of the Westlaw Next environment in order to get free copies of resources. As stated above, while inside the Westlaw Next interface, a user can pull free documents from free services like CourtListener, Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, Casetext, and Google Scholar. The convenience factor of being in Westlaw Next’s environment becomes partially moot. Just to step back: Bestlaw adds a toolbar to the Westlaw Next interface, when a user is viewing a document. The toolbar enables the user to pull the exact same document they are currently viewing from one of the above mentioned free resources (so, in my understanding, a user would have already induced a find and view charge, but could circumvent the print charge).

IMPLICATIONS OF BESTLAW

Again, federated searching is the concept of inputting a single search into a single interface, and having that search performed across a multitude of databases. Think of inputting a case law terms and connectors search into an interface, and having that particular search run across Westlaw Next, Lexis Advance, Fastcase, and Bloomberg Law simultaneously. The results could be sortable by some combination of relevancy and cost, meaning the user would get highly relevant results at a lower cost. Rather than be information silos that require users to log into their specific, isolated interfaces, vendors would have to compete in a new technological environment, one where open competition would require the highest relevancy at the lowest cost. The user experience would be improved.

Bestlaw’s ability to jump out and pull from free resources while the user is in the Westlaw Next environment is a step in the direction towards federated searching; Bestlaw is forcing a mash-up of Westlaw Next and a handful of free legal information sources. The user, despite being in the Westlaw Next environment, is no longer restricted to pulling just Westlaw Next content, thus enabling the user the ability to circumvent “print” fees they would typically incur. This is a very intriguing development, and all credit has to go to Joe Mornin for getting the ball rolling.

Perla Makes a Point on PACER

filestackFew things have raised such hue and cry in our industry this year as the announcement that PACER was going to be without certain courts’ materials.  The concern expressed by law librarians and legal researchers clogged newsfeeds for weeks and made its way – all the way – into the halls of politics.  Yet while many saw an immediate challenge to the way we work, others saw an opportunity to turn an old model on its head.  Bloomberg BNA president, David Perla, in a recent article for Law Technology News, was among those not only seeing the glass as half-full but also thinking of newer, better ways to make it overflow. Continue reading

Will PACER’s records removal motivate use of software alternatives?

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Earlier this month, PACER announced court documents for closed cases from the last decade in the U.S. Courts of Appeals of the Second, Seventh, Eleventh, and Federal circuits, as well as documents from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California will no longer be electronically available. More details, including the specific date ranges of what cases have been removed, are available here. Will users react to this event by increasing their use of free PACER alternatives currently available on the internet? The immediate reactions to this news have been justifiably critical of PACER’s actions: Continue reading

Thursday’s Musing: Troubleshooting Software and Troubleshooting Attorneys

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(photo (c) 2009 Kordite, available here)

 

In the last few years, have you found yourself answering more software troubleshooting-oriented questions? “How do I restrict my search results in this interface?” “Why does this program make my system crash?” “Why doesn’t this software do this?” “Where can I find this specific information using this software?” “What software should I use?” Clearly, due to technological innovations and big law’s ever-shifting strategic plans, the law firm librarian profession has recently been in a very volatile state. One of the changes I’ve observed, now that the sands have shifted this particular way, is a strong prevalence of people sending me reference questions that entail troubleshooting library information sources—getting various library interfaces and software to play nice or perform some discrete action. Continue reading

Thursday’s Musing: The Value of Perception, the Librarian and the Library Space

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(photo (c) 2009 Dorli Photography, available here)

 

As collections are becoming more electronic, the value of the library space is becoming increasingly questioned. A trend among articles written by non-librarians is to link the edifice with the profession: the librarian works in a library, technology is making libraries obsolete, therefore librarians will also become obsolete (librarians are a dead end job according to this article from Yahoo Education, and librarians are a dying breed according to this article from Digital Book World). Even articles that attempt to exclaim the value of librarianship focus heavily on the library spaces, rather than the professionals in those spaces. For example, this recent CNN article kindly relates how libraries are thriving, but focuses almost completely on the edifices themselves: the architecture of the Seattle Public Library, 27 fascinating buildings, the library as a community space, and a photographer’s book of photos of public libraries are all given substantial ink (pixels?). Again, the perception is the edifice and profession are one and the same, so what actually occurs when the physical space is downsized/eliminated? Continue reading

Academic, County, and Law Firm Librarians: Three Sides of the Same Coin

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Early on in Graduate School, I remember my Professional Adviser taking the time to sit me down and talk about the various career paths law librarians could embark on. Honestly, I was really only familiar with the law school’s library, using its vast, comfortable reading room as my command station to hammer out papers about information sources and using technologies to meet patron needs. Admittedly, I was confused and befuddled when my Adviser stated, beyond academic law librarians, there are also private law librarians and government law librarians. Prior to this, I had no idea law firms employed librarians—little did I know this was where the future me would thankfully find gainful employment. So, even as a future law firm librarian, I was certainly oblivious to the fact the law librarian profession is comprised of three large classes of professionals: academic, government, and private. Continue reading

The Perils of PACER

Anyone involved in legal research is more than familiar with PACER (the name, an acronym, stands for: Public Access to Court Electronic Records). Before we delve into the glaring weaknesses and errors of PACER, let’s just step back and give thanks that there is a way for users to access docket and documents filed in all federal district, bankruptcy, and appellate courts—it could always be worse (and judging by some state court docket site designs, it can be much, much worse). Clearly, this is a massive undertaking, and the volume of information being tracked and made electronically available is absolutely stunning. But, PACER does have its flaws, here are a few of the more conspicuous:

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Majority of AmLaw 200 Firms Do Not Have Mobile Sites

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Jeff Richardson at iPhone J.D. comments on Law Firm Mobile’s recent study showing only 42.5% of AmLaw 200 firms have mobile sites–this, after the ABA’s 2013 Legal Tech survey stated 90% of attorneys use smartphones. Global 100 firms fare even worse: only 39 Global 100 firms have mobile sites. This is perplexing data–the legal industry is characterized by its competitiveness, why are so many firms choosing to willfully disadvantage themselves by not having a mobile site?

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How Are Public Libraries Changing?

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Appearing March 7th in The New York Times, Katharine Q. Seelye’s article “Breaking Out of the Library Mold, in Boston and Beyond” (available here) examines how renovations of large, public libraries exemplify how the roles of public libraries and public librarians have drastically changed. Public libraries are moving far away from being dusty book repositories, and toward being airy, open social centers designed with the omnipresence of electronic devices in mind. And, as this role-shifting and repurposing has occurred, public library usage is spiking upward across the county; Boston’s central library alone saw an increase of nearly 500,000 physical visits in 2013.

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The Science of Social Media

The world is addicted to social media. It’s safe to assume that if you’re reading this, you probably use Facebook orTwitter—you might be obsessed with social media and post pictures of your to-be-devoured food and your workout schedule on a daily basis or maybe you dabble in it to keep tabs on your loved ones. No matter the level of your involvement, you are familiar with how the services work, but are you doing everything you can do to make your tweets and posts as impactful as possible? Continue reading