Law-Related Indices On The Internet

How they Compare to the likes of Yahoo and Lycos.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 10/1/1996; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association

What is it that makes Web sites like Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com/) and Lycos (http://www.lycos.com/) so popular? And have any law-related sites followed their lead? Both Yahoo and Lycos have large databases of — and search engines for — much of the World Wide Web. Yahoo and Lycos are excellent sites for finding general information on the Internet, but they cannot provide the depth that law-related sites do. Law-related sites do a better job of covering law-related Internet resources, but in general they lack key features present in Yahoo and Lycos.

Six features make Yahoo and Lycos stand out: 1) each has compelling content, 2) is updated daily, 3) is searchable, 4) allows submission of new items via a form, 5) editorializes the Web by producing lists of the best sites by category, and 6) has an e-mail service for announcements of new sites. Yahoo had a head-start on editorial, while Lycos acquired its editorial content by acquiring Point Communications (http://www.pointcom.com/). By making information available to Net users via e-mail, Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com/picks/) and Lycos (http://www.lycos.com/join.html) clearly understand the need to deliver content in more than one way. In 1996, just having a Web site doesn’t cut it anymore. Mature Internet companies provide key content via the Web, update services via e-mail, program files via FTP, and news releases via Usenet.

No law-related site has all of the six features present in Yahoo and Lycos. But a couple come pretty close. In 1992, when I first wrote “The Legal List” (http://www.lcp.com/The-Legal-List/), there were no other law-related indices. In fact, there was no World Wide Web! When the third edition was published, summer 1993, only Cornell’s Web site (http://www.law.cornell.edu/) was listed. When the fifth edition was published, summer 1995, 26 law-related Web sites, including three law firms (Heller, Ehrman; Pepper and Corazzini; and Venable, Baetjer, Howard & Civiletti), were listed. Today, in the seventh edition, over 500 Web sites are listed! So many, in fact, that it may not be practical to continue publishing it in paper. And while the Web site for “The Legal List” does have five out of six of the features of Yahoo and Lycos (all but editorial), it shows its paper origins, looking and feeling like and HTML-ified book (which it is).

While “The Legal List” was one of the first law-related Web sites, it is by no means the only one. So where do we find the others? Yahoo and Lycos of course! First, I started with Yahoo’s compilation of law indices (http://www.yahoo.com/Government/Law/Indices/). Then, I added Lycos’s (http://www.pointcom.com/gifs/reviews/gola.htm). From there, I focused on top-level commercial sites whose stated goal was to provide one-stop shopping for law-related Internet resources. This meant I excluded government, educational, and personal (tildes “~” need not apply) sites. One year ago, I couldn’t have done this, but in 1996, if a commercial site hasn’t gone to the trouble of registering its own domain name, then it probably isn’t serious about providing information to the Internet community.

Of the law-related Web sites, only Counsel Connect (http://www.counsel.com/) (weekly) and Law Journal Extra! (http://www.ljx.com/) (daily) indicated how frequently they are updated. The only searchable sites are The Seamless Website (http://www.seamless.com/) and FindLaw (http://www.findlaw.com/). Only four had forms for submitting new information, and three hid the form in non-obvious locations: Counsel Connect in the comment form, Hieros Gamos (http://www.hg.org/) in the guestbook, and The Seamless Website in the feedback form. FindLaw’s submission form is clearly labeled “add URL” on their home page. Finally, only LawLinks (http://www.lawlinks.com/) has e-mail notification, and only Counsel Connect (editor’s picks) and Law Journal Extra! editorialize about which sites are best.

Unfortunately, no one law-related Web site does it all. But three clearly do it better than most: FindLaw (http://www.findlaw.com/), LawSource (http://www.lawsource.com/), and Hieros Gamos (http://www.hg.org/), in that order.

FindLaw’s interface is slick, intuitive, and user-friendly. It has that Yahoo look-and-feel. No huge graphics here, and everything useful is conveniently located on the home page, including the form for searching all of FindLaw or for searching the full text of all online law review articles. The latter is FindLaw’s most useful content. The rest of the site is thin on content, but once it fills out, it will be hard to beat.

LawSource’s site, American Law Sources Online (or ALSO!), was clearly prepared by people who know the legal publishing business. For each jurisdiction (including Mexico and Canada), the official publications are listed, with links to those that appear on the Internet. Today, there are still many more publications listed than there are links to those publications, but having this information online is extremely helpful when you want to know whether or not a particular legal resource is online. This comprehensive approach differentiates LawSource from those sites that simply cast a dragnet over the Internet and harvest everything that looks law-related. On the downside, LawSource has a rather odd (unenforceable?) notice (http://www.lawsource.com/also/alsouser.htm) that says “Linking from WWW pages maintained for commercial purposes is prohibited.” Odd because LawSource includes Point’s top-5% icon on its ALSO! page. Point (now owned by Lycos, clearly a commercial site) reviews and links to (http://www.pointcom.com/gifs/reviews/2_20a026.htm) LawSource. LawSource’s use of icons is rather cryptic, and its lack of search engine is frustrating. But overall, content is king, and LawSource has lots.

Hieros Gamos is maintained by Lex Mundi, a global association of 125 independent law firms. Hieros Gamos, like LawSource, takes a comprehensive approach to listing law-related organizations, including those with and without Web sites. Need to know whether a bar association, legal vendor, or legal consultant is on the Internet? Hieros Gamos is the place to go. The most disturbing aspect of Hieros Gamos is that no mention is made that they charge a nominal fee for descriptions and linking for for-profit organizations! I certainly understand the need to offset costs, but I feel that full disclosure of this (oddly unstated) policy would be more honest. Also conspicuously absent is any description of Lex Mundi itself. The interface is a bit rough, the submission form is hidden in the guestbook, and there is no search engine, but Hieros Gamos’s content reflects a keen understanding the legal marketplace.

Two other sites deserve honorable mention. The Seamless Website’s (http://www.seamless.com/) use of discussion groups and Web chat is innovative, but its content is thin and its presentation is a little rough around the edges. LawGroup Network’s (http://www.llr.com/) Lawyers Legal Research OnLine database, by Timeline Publishing Company, despite suffering an identity crisis (kind of like Mosaic Communication’s Netscape browser, on second thought make that Netscape Communication’s Netscape browser, on third thought make that Netscape Communication’s Netscape Navigator browser), has a great deal of primary law online, but its graphics-heavy imagemap-heavy interface is clunky and poorly organized. LawGroup Network also wins points (unlike Hieros Gamos) for full disclosure of its intent to eventually charge for the service. That disclosure (http://www.llr.com/newstuff.htm) reads, in part, “There is no magic here, folks – the simple and ugly truth to it is that as much as we’d like to give everything away, we haven’t figured out a way to do that and make a living too. … At some time in the future the libraries restricted by user ID and password will require that you subscribe to our service for a modest sum requested before you are granted access. Considering the amount of money you can spend elsewhere to acquire this kind information, we’re sure you’ll find our pricing structure quite a bargain.”

That the best law-related sites (LawFind, LawSource, and Hieros Gamos) don’t have all of the features of Yahoo and Lycos should come as no surprise. Even powerhouse newcomer — and Yahoo/Lycos challenger — Alta Vista (http://www.altavista.digital.com/) lacks editorial and e-mail notification of what’s new. But I’m sure they’ll figure out soon enough that they need those things in order to compete with Yahoo and Lycos. And I’m sure that Yahoo and Lycos will keep thinking of new ways to stay on top. I’ll be sure to let you know when my list of favorite sites changes.

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