Consumer-Oriented Legal Web Sites

A review of three Web sites that are designed specifically for the legal consumer.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 11/1/1996; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association

Consumers are turning to the Net for all sorts of information — including legal information. From the consumer’s point of view, the problem with most law-related Web sites is that they are designed about lawyers, by lawyers, and for lawyers. Such sites focus on regulations, statutes, and case law, and they are very helpful to attorneys. But they are confusing to non-lawyers. In this column, I’ll review three Web sites that are designed specifically for the legal consumer: the CourtTV Law Center (http://www.courttv.com/), Nolo Press Self-Help Law Center (http://www.gnn.com/gnn/bus/nolo/), and The ‘Lectric Law Library (http://www.lectlaw.com/).

Court TV Law Center

The CourtTV Law Center Web site (http://www.courttv.com/) is a product of American Lawyer Media (whose other products include the American Lawyer magazine and Counsel Connect, an online service for lawyers). In addition to providing CourtTV’s program schedule and all the Menendez trial information you can eat, the CourtTV Law Center also provides legal information to consumers under “Legal Help.” Under “Legal Help,” you will find an HTML-ified version of CourtTV’s book “The CourtTV Cradle-to-Grave Legal Survival Guide.” The guide provides useful tips to consumers for a broad range of topics.

For example, if you want to know about small claims court, an article about that is available (http://www.courttv.com/legalhelp/survival/9.html). And if you don’t care to spend time looking for this material, you can find it by searching for “small claims” using the local search engine. As their motto “Legal Resources for Everyone” suggests, the CourtTV Law Center is trying to be the site for legal consumers. It is updated daily, and the graphics are professional. But as the home page suggests, the site is also trying to provide case files, games, resources for kids, and CourtTV merchandise for sale. As a result of trying to do so much, the information in “Legal Help” is thin. For example, the article about small claims court appears to be the only one on the topic. And it’s pretty short. The search engine, although helpful, is not very sophisticated, and it seems to display files that are not linked to from other pages in the Web site. Nevertheless, viewers who enjoy CourtTV programming will find this site interesting and entertaining.

Nolo Press Self-Help Law Center

Nolo Press has been in the business of providing self-help information to consumers since 1971. Nolo publishes books and software on consumer law subjects such as wills, small claims court, divorce, and debt problems. Its Web site (http://www.gnn.com/gnn/bus/nolo/), which is on the Global Network Navigator (GNN) (formerly owned by O’Reilly and Associates, now owned by America Online), was the first to provide law-related information to consumers. The Nolo site’s claim to fame is probably its extensive collection of lawyer jokes, but it also contains articles (excerpted from its newsletter) about various self-help law topics.

Using the same example as I did for the CourtTV Law Center, the Nolo Press Self-Help Law Center also has information about small claims court (http://gnn-e2a.gnn.com/gnn/bus/nolo/nn245.html). That article, entitled “Small Claims, Small Business” (by Ralph Warner) describes how small businesses can use small claims court to collect unpaid bills. At the end of the article, there are links to publications for sale by Nolo that offer more help in this area. In the spirit of providing free information on the Internet, Nolo Press allows the article to be copied, as long as the copyright notice is included. The Nolo Press Self-Help Law Center is not very well organized, and there is no search engine to help you find your way, but if you have patience, you can find what you’re looking for. And you can find good books to supplement the free information on the Web site. I’m a bit puzzled about why Nolo Press has not established its own Web site in its own domain, since it has registered “nolopress.com.” GNN, like most of the products that America Online purchased (such as WebCrawler – does anybody use that anymore?), has gone downhill since being purchased. No search engine? Come on. This is 1996! Actually, reliable sources (i.e. the InterNIC’s whois database at http://www.internic.net/) tell me that Nolo will soon have a stand-alone Web site at http://www.nolo.com/. They’ve also registered nolotech.com and legalhelpline.com, so stay tuned for more innovations from Nolo! The Nolo Press Self-Help Law Center is an Internet classic and a must-see for consumers of legal information.

The ‘Lectric Law Library

The ‘Lectric Law Library (http://www.lectlaw.com/) is the latest and greatest entry into the consumer legal market. Their Web site is slick, entertaining, and the market leader in attitude. The site used to be in the inter-law.com domain, but The ‘Lectric Law Library changed its domain name to lectlaw.com, no doubt as the result of a lawsuit. Can you imagine a consumer legal Web site getting sued? Welcome to the 1990s. The ‘Lectric Law Library dutifully notes the change on their home page: ” The ‘Lectric Law Library is not, was not, and doesn’t want to be associated with Interlaw Limited.” Got it. Score one for attitude! And then there’s their note about Web browsers: “This Site Is Netscape 7.4 Enhanced. Set telepathy mode to M7 and orgasm mode to Off. – WARNING: Any other browser may give the user the mistaken impression that the law is not always consistent, fair, logical and just.” Hey, I don’t write this stuff, I just report it. Now that we know that The ‘Lectric Law Library has a keen sense of humor, what about small claims court information?

Start at the Rotunda, then go to “The Laypeople’s Law Lounge,” and you’ll find articles about many topics, including small claims court (http://www.lectlaw.com/files/jud24). Small claims procedures are described, as they are in CourtTV’s and Nolo’s sites. But The ‘Lectric Law Library goes further, giving a sample letter from the plaintiff Ralf, the Library’s Head Librarian, to his neighbor (who has wronged him) as well as a transcript of what Ralf “said” in small claims court to the judge. Real life. Real people (well, sort of). And really helpful. Like everything else in The ‘Lectric Law Library, this piece is informative and entertaining. Who could ask for anything more from a Web site? OK, you could ask for searching, which is conspicuously missing. And you could ask for free money, but you wouldn’t get it. The ‘Lectric Law Library is the Wired Magazine of the consumer legal market. It’s a first-rate Web site that should be in the bookmark file of lawyers and non-lawyers alike.

Findability

The problem with all three of the above consumer-oriented legal Web sites is that they are not very easy to find. If consumers search one of the Internet’s most popular starting points, Lycos, for “legal help,” they will not find these three. And the same search in Yahoo turns up only the Nolo Press site. Interestingly, the former search lead to an article entitled “Innovative Programs to Help People of Modest Means Obtain Legal Help” (http://www.abanet.org/legalserv/modesthelp.html), which is available on the ABA’s Web site.

While the folks that created Yahoo and Lycos are no doubt brilliant programmers and marketers, they are not library scientists, not taxonomists (taxonomy is the science of classification). For people who are serious about organizing information into various categories, Mortimer J. Adler’s book A Guidebook to Learning is must reading (Macmillan, New York, 1986). Adler’s other books include Ten Philosophical Mistakes and Six Great Ideas, and he has served as chairman of the board of editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (http://www.eb.com/), director of the Institute of Philosophical Research, and senior associate of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies (http://www.aspeninst.org/). In A Guidebook to Learning, Adler traces the history of the organization of knowledge from Greek and Roman antiquity to modern times. Ever wonder why a Ph.D. is a doctorate of philosophy? This book is for you.

If you like any of the above Web sites, I encourage you to link to them from your home page. And if you don’t, don’t. One of the Web’s newest search engines, Alta Vista (http://altavista.digital.com/), from Digital Equipment Corporation, allows you to find out how many other Web pages link to yours. For example, running an Alta Vista advanced query of “link:http://www.abanet.org/ AND NOT url:http://www.abanet.org/” (and setting the output to count) shows that 2643 Web pages link to the ABA’s site. By the same measure, 901 link to CourtTV, 883 to The ‘Lectric Law Library (635 to the old domain name, 248 to the new), and 31 to Nolo Press. I expect Nolo’s numbers to increase when its mirror site http://www.nolo.com/ is up. Another consumer-oriented Web site worthy of honorable mention by this same measure is The Divorce Page (http://www.primenet.com/~dean/), with 448 pages linking to it. The nice thing about The Divorce Page is that it shows that you don’t have to be a multimillion dollar corporation to contribute the Internet community. Then again, it doesn’t hurt either!

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