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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    June 01, 2003

    Technology

    Learn what Web portals, search engines, and sites are helpful in preparing cases, and how to evaluate the source and information accessed.

    Diane DuffeyTheodore Potter

    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 76, No. 6, June 2003

    Using the Internet for Case Preparation

    Learn what Web portals, search engines, and sites are helpful in preparing cases, and how to evaluate the source and information accessed.

    Sidebars:

    Diane   DuffeyDiane Duffey is the librarian at Habush, Habush & Rottier S.C., Milwaukee.

    Theodore A. Potter is the interim codirector at Marquette University Law Library, Milwaukee. Both are members of the Law Theodore A. PotterLibrarians Association of Wisconsin, which is sponsoring a series of articles on conducting efficient, effective research. Learn to harness the power of the Google search engine in the July Wisconsin Lawyer.

    by Diane Duffey & Theodore A. Potter

    It has been said that the Internet is like a big library with its books scattered all over the floor. People have access to all of them, but finding the right one can take a long time, with a good deal of trial and error. Once the right one is identified, in this case the right Web site, how do you know whether it is reliable and authoritative? Are there special search tools available for accessing the Web? Are there Web sites to use right now to help with preparing a case?

    This article addresses criteria for evaluating Web sites, legal or otherwise, and provides a quick overview of Web portals and search engines for obtaining legal and nonlegal information. A sidebar showing Web sites useful for case preparation, divided into several categories, accompanies the article.

    Criteria for Evaluating Web Sites

    The following are important criteria for evaluating the information provided on Internet Web sites.

    Objectivity. Many Web sites, including legal Web sites, are created for the sole purpose of advertising. Such sites often include information that may seem objective, but it is important to discern the purpose of the site providing the information. What is the sponsoring organization (a company, a think-tank, an academic institution, a government entity), and who is the author? Do these give clues as to possible biases? For example, what looks like an objective analysis of jury behavior may actually be skewed to favor a particular point of view. Knowing the sponsoring organization's identity may provide some indication of the information's objectivity, but it is no guarantee.

    Accuracy. It is important to compare the information on the site with information from independent sources. For case law, the researcher should confirm that the site has transferred the entire opinion, along with the other information connected to the case. LexisNexis and Westlaw didn't gain good reputations overnight - they had to be earned through verifying information with official or other reputable sources. Even so, each system has its limitations and errors, as do all providers of legal information. Seeing the same information in several sources is always a good check of accuracy.

    Authority/credibility. One of the most important measures of the value of information in the legal context is the authority of the provider, whether an author, editor, entity, or publisher. The extent to which someone may rely on the information provided depends on its perceived authority and credibility. For print materials, you may check common elements to gather information regarding the author and publisher (title page), copyright (verso of title page), purpose of the work (Preface and/or Introduction), and information about the author (About the Author). On a Web site, it can be quite difficult to find an author, or information about the author, and the purpose of the work (occasionally there is a Preface or Introduction). Often there is no information about the entity responsible for the work. The more credible Web sites have links to these elements, and it is important to use them, if only to ensure that the information is from a reputable source.

    Currency/timeliness. As with all legal research, determining whether information is completely up-to-date is critical. Many Web documents are like law review articles, in that they are written as of one moment in time without any intention of being updated. This doesn't diminish the relevance of the Web document, but it forces the user to find ways to update the documents on which the author bases her or his assumptions and arguments. How can users determine the currency of Web documents?

    • Look for date information when the document first comes up. Does the document have a publication date? Does it have a header with a date field?
    • Look at the bottom of the Web page to see when it was last updated/modified. This is not a guarantee that the content actually was changed, but it usually means the person responsible for the document actually looked at it in a way that would allow for changes.
    • If the document has Web links, are they current? (That is, does each link connect directly and correctly to the new source? If not, the original site is not being maintained regularly.)
    • If the document cites easily verifiable sources, are the cited sources current? (For example, if it cites a Wisconsin statute, is it the current version or an older version?) Verify the sources to help determine the site's currency.

    Portals and Search Engines

    On today's World Wide Web, it is helpful to have a series of favorite Web sites to turn to when conducting specific types of research. Two categories of sites are "portals" and "search engines."

    Portals. FindLaw.com is an example of a Web portal - a Web site that is designed to point the user to sites that seem to match the user's needs. It combines the directory Web site approach with search capabilities across the Web. A portal also may be dedicated to a specific topic. For example, ExpertLaw.com provides links to information related to expert witnesses as well as links to directories of experts and other litigation support service providers. Portals that match a practice area can be very helpful in quickly leading users to relevant Web sites.

    Search engines. Search engines can be used when no portal is available for a particular research need. They are programmed to search the Web for the occurrences of search words and phrases; however, even the top search engines do not search the entire Web. They employ technologies to determine the Web sites that link to other sites, as well as the other sites linking to one Web site. In other words, they employ a kind of shepardizing to determine the pages to search. Unfortunately, the Web's vastness creates the need to limit the pages searched by the search engines. Compare the capabilities of a search engine to LexisNexis and Westlaw - they provide full-text searching of all the documents available on their services and allow for very sophisticated retrieval techniques; theirs are finite universes, whereas the Web is an ever-expanding universe of searchable documents.

    One newer search engine, called Teoma.com, retrieves Web sites, but it also creates categories of Web sites to help refine a search. This feature provides broad categories from which to choose, creating smaller retrieved sets, and presumably more precise results. Whatever search engine you choose, it is important to be aware that the Internet is not the most efficient tool for legal research or case preparation. Nevertheless, it can be a powerful tool for finding obscure or nonstandard pieces of relevant information.

    Internet Resources - News

    The news is a good place to start gathering information, whether on a particular incident or a developing situation. Newspapers cover events, crime scenes, government hearings, business dealings, health care, and myriad other stories in a community. These stories can be used to form the factual and contextual basis for case development. For the most part, the reliable Web-based news sources use the traditional news bureaus and companies as their authorities.

    One sphere of Web-based news is the Web sites of print newspapers, which feature the same news stories that appear in their print editions. The main advantage of online news is that it can be updated more frequently than the print versions, and yet the stories from the print versions are available. However, a concern with online print papers is access: the offerings of each newspaper's Web site vary enormously in terms of availability of and access to news stories. Some questions arise: Is there an archive of articles? If so, how far back in time does the archive cover? Is there a fee to access the articles, and if so, which articles? All? Those older than two weeks? Are the news stories more accessible than the special feature articles? Most print newspaper Web sites, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Web site, will break news stories - both global (usually with Associated Press news feeds) and local - when they happen, making the sites more current than the print editions. AJR Newslink (www.newslink.org) is a portal to online newspapers that arranges the newspapers geographically.

    Another sphere of available Web-based sources are the sites not directly associated with print newspaper companies. Most of these sites get their stories from news bureaus such as Reuters and the Associated Press (AP). One news service, News Blip (www.newsblip.com), cites the sources in parentheses next to the headline. The home pages of most Internet service providers and major Web portals such as Yahoo! feature current news feeds from the AP and Reuters as well.

    It is possible to find news stories by using general search engines such as Google. A Google search will frequently bring up stories from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for example. However, it is best not to rely on a general search engine for very current news, since there is a lag time for indexing items made available on the Web; Google's general search engine reportedly has one of the shortest lag times - about three weeks. Fortunately, Google is now offering a beta version of Google News (news.google.com/), which claims to retrieve current news stories from 4,500 sources worldwide. Each story carries a time frame statement to show its currency. The retrieval process is run entirely by computer algorithms, which means that no human editor determines the subject into which each story falls. Sometimes stories may not be listed under the most appropriate heading on the Web page, but the retrieval of up-to-the-minute news is worth the few misplaced stories.

    Public Records

    Finding people involved in your case. While some news information can be found using general search engines, public records information almost always resides in a database located on a particular site. It is practically impossible to find the date of birth or place of residence of an individual unless a specific public records database is consulted. SearchSystems.net (www.searchsystems.net) is a helpful, quite comprehensive portal to many public records databases on the Web. This site, which is regularly updated, provides browsing by state, Canadian province, or foreign country. It has a brief description of each database listed and whether it is fee-based. Public records sites made available by government entities are naturally authoritative, since government is the origin of public records. A key drawback to many government public records sites is their navigability, but many are evolving toward more easily usable formats. For example, the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Program site (wcca.wicourts.gov/index.xsl) now has a revamped search interface that is limited to the essential search fields, including a separate field for business name searches.

    Many Web-based public records services provided by private businesses are fee-based. PublicData.com is a service that offers access to records for several states for a nominal fee; databases include driver's license registration, vehicle identification numbers, and some criminal records. A deficiency of this service is its lack of currency: several records for Wisconsin have not been updated since 2001 (the site offers forthright information on its database currency).

    Accurint.com (www.accurint.com) is a helpful service for finding people; the searching is relatively flexible (you can search using an estimated age, for example), the records obtained are comprehensive (they include estimated dates of when an individual may have resided at an address), and the charges are reasonable ($0.25 per search, and roughly $4 to obtain a complete record). Two caveats: This service obtains its data from credit header information (as opposed to something more authoritative such as driver's license records), which must be taken into account when considering the accuracy of the records provided. Further, the registration process for this service is more involved than simply submitting contact information via the Web.

    Finding corporate information. Public records are also a source of information on corporations. More states are making the corporate record databases from their Secretary of State available. Some of the databases, like Wisconsin's, are accessible for free, while others require a fee. These records usually indicate the principal business address of a company in that state and whether the company is active and in good standing and list the name and address of its registered agent.

    The bigger the company, the more information is available. For a public company, search its Web site (which usually can be found by entering the name in Google) and scan for the "Corporate Info" or "Investor Relations" page, which should have copies of the most recent annual reports and/or financial statements. It is important to remember, however, that the main function of company Web sites is advertising; they will accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. To find less flattering information on a company, check the D&B Express (express.dnbsearch.com/), an expensive but thorough service that provides several different reports, the most comprehensive of which includes lawsuits pending against a company, the details of a company's worth, and its lienholders. Another possibility is to return to news sources - in particular, the Business Journals database (www.bizjournals.com), which offers free access to the articles in all of its city journals back to 1996.

    Verdicts and settlements for similar case information, valuation, or expert witnesses. There is no single source, whether in print or online, that can boast a truly comprehensive collection of verdict and settlement information (although Westlaw and LexisNexis are coming closer every day). Morelaw (www.morelaw.com) is worth checking for larger settlements and especially verdicts, although it does not have comprehensive data. Morelaw gathers its data from submissions by individual attorneys, as well as from news stories. Its key selling point is that access is free. In addition to Morelaw, the National Association of Jury Verdict Publishers (www.juryverdicts.com/) hosts a directory of its member publishers, so that you can determine whom to contact to request further information for a jurisdiction.

    Expert Witnesses

    A plethora of expert witness directories can be found online. The preferable sites to consult are those of professional organizations such as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and the Wisconsin Academy of Trial Lawyers for plaintiffs' attorneys, and the Defense Research Institute and the Civil Trial Counsel of Wisconsin for defense attorneys. All of these sites allow access only to members, so that their materials are protected from the other side. Some directories only offer listings, or advertisements at best, such as Expertpages.com, the National Directory of Expert Witnesses, the Expert Witness Network, and Experts.com - just to name a few. Browsing a Web site, however, cannot show whether experts are reliable or credible.

    A common research question is, "What do we know about the other side's expert witness?" Using the person's name in a Google search (try the full name in quotation marks first, then try subtracting the middle initial, and so on) may retrieve a curriculum vitae, an authored item or two (or references to such items), some reported accomplishments or activities, and - if you are really lucky - a newspaper story on a case for which the person served as an expert. Sources for verdict and settlement information also come in handy for finding case summaries for expert witnesses.

    Trial Advocacy Sites

    In addition to the substantive law Web sites, there are many trial procedure and preparation Web sites. The caveat here is that most of these Web sites are advertisements for firms that provide services such as mock trials, witness preparation, jury selection, and evidence preparation. Some sites provide opening statement and closing argument information, trial tips, and other litigation support information; however, most of the procedure and preparation sites are of the commercial variety. Searches of Google and Teoma provide a wide variety of Web sites; try searching for the specific topic, but be prepared to wade through lots of results.

    Miscellaneous Useful Sites

    The Law Library Resource Xchange, or LLRX, is a site maintained by professional and knowledgeable law librarians. It offers two compilations of useful information for trial preparation: court rules (www.llrx.com/courtrules/) and jury instructions (www.llrx.com/columns/reference19.htm). The latter actually is a column on where to find jury instructions, both online and in print. ClaimRep, a vendor for materials aimed at the insurance industry, offers a handy menu page for looking up statutes of limitation by state (www.claimrep.com/SOL_US.asp); however, a typographical error in the Wisconsin data indicates some lack of care in the production of this site, making it wise to verify the statutes of the given states.

    Conclusion

    Even though the Internet can seem like an unorganized library, it contains a wealth of helpful information. Getting to that information can be a challenge, but portals, search engines, and librarians make it easier every day. Still, the researcher must be careful to evaluate the information retrieved.


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