Having a context for the Internet is important. Understanding how legal information is organized online and the methods for accessing and retrieving it will make research more efficient. The Internet is often characterized as a vast storehouse of information. That may be true, but free information on the Internet is often scattered and semi-organized.
Content can be available in several formats. Some files may need external viewers aside from the browser. Some documents can appear as HTML text on a screen while others may be viewed or retrieved as word processing files, presentation files, text files, PDFs, and various audio and video formats. Some screen materials may be dynamically generated at the time of view. Materials pulled from databases fall into this category. Note that some of the Internet sources for primary law are getting more comprehensive and better organized over time, though no single site could be called a “one-stop” research experience. Primary legal materials nonetheless may not be presented in a form that can be used directly in court or relied upon for legal filings without finding a citable source. Legal commentary is not represented in any substantial amount compared to the content available through Lexis and Westlaw or a library of print materials.
The Internet lacks consistency. Sites that offer comparable information are edited independently. The depth of information varies between sites. As noted, formats of information vary. The timeline of coverage varies, especially for archival materials. One assumption some researchers make is that everything is online. This is hardly true, even taking into account information held on commercial sites such as Lexis and Westlaw. Search engines help organize this information, but keyword search results may include a lot of false hits. Analyzing results can be time consuming compared to research via commercial systems. A researcher should take care to create thoughtful searches that minimize the extraneous noise in the results.
The Internet lacks permanence. Although government, university, or major legal sites are mostly stable, many others that may be useful are not. Documents may be removed from some sites on the basis of changing editorial style, space constraints, or even by accident. Methods for searching and retrieving information may change as technology changes. Web administrators regularly reorganize and redesign sites. As such, information can be moved to different locations and addresses through reorganization, even on sites considered stable. This means links and other pointers to some web information will change over time and may break, with a “page not found” message as a result. The Government Printing Office (GPO) recognized this and created an address used on its site called a PURL – a “[P]ermanent URL” – that would link to specific government documents no matter when or where they moved on government servers. As good as the Government Printing Office is at maintaining government documents online, PURLs are sometimes not updated and occasionally lead to broken links. This happens in only a small number of situations despite a context where GPO serves millions of documents to the public Other research sites do not necessarily pursue their technical organization with GPO’s attention to detail.
Compare this to the online research experience presented by Lexis and Westlaw. Documents are organized by jurisdiction and category. Complete runs (depth and timeline) of all information are extensive. Lexis and Westlaw edit their documents consistently which allows for precise searches across multiple databases. These services support Boolean connectors for consistent complex searching. They offer various display options – a quick view, full text, or citation. Full text is accompanied by multiple pinpoint citations and star paging. Natural language search using an algorithm is an option. Most importantly, courts generally accept results from Lexis and Westlaw and even cite unpublished decisions available from these database collections in their opinions. Law from the Internet, with few exceptions, does not enjoy that acceptance. Lexis and Westlaw have components which are useful to verify a citation, list the history and subsequent treatment by courts and others. Printing and downloading is available with multiple options and formats to enhance work flow. These commercial services charge significant fees for their value.
The Internet does not offer the same depth and convenience of Lexis and Westlaw. What the Internet does offer, however, is a significant volume of the most common jurisdictional documents at the cost of an Internet access subscription. As noted, the established legal research sites show improvement over time. Reputation and authority of legal information sources on the Internet vary. Consequently, accuracy of information can vary along with the ease of citing a document. There is no editorial consistency in how information is presented, though the better sites take into account how legal information appears formally in print as part of the presentation. In other words, they provide signals such as multiple citations to the common reporters and star paging. These characteristics make some sites better than others.
Some note should be made of the general file formats for materials on the web. The most basic form of information is presented as standard text appearing on a web page. Documents may be available in .doc (or .docx) format, which requires Microsoft Word to open. The most desirable form of a document is PDF as it is nearly identical to its print counterpart. Adobe Acrobat Reader is a free program that displays and prints PDF files.
Legal information is taking new forms that have no standard print counterparts. Law schools and other academic sources are placing items such as PowerPoint presentations, webcasts or podcasts of lectures, speeches, seminar materials, or other educational events online. These aren’t necessarily citable information but can retain value to a researcher by informing about aspects of a legal topic or law related social issue.