Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Evaluating Online Legal Information

As legal researchers, we know we need to validate our research to make sure we are relying upon good law. We update and validate authorities online using Shepard’s Citations or Westlaw’s KeyCite. But how do we know other legal information we find online is reliable and current? Is it fabricated or fake news?

Before even thinking about citing or relying upon legal information found online, ask yourself what you know about the website. Do you always evaluate the website before relying on the information you found?

Librarians at the University of Maryland created a comprehensive, easy to use checklist for evaluating websites. By taking just a few minutes to complete the checklist, you will have considered important factors in determining: the quality and accuracy of a site, authorship, qualifications of the author or group that created the site, the purpose and content, bias or objectivity, and information currency.

Think that your information is accurate or current because you found it on a .gov or .org site? That’s not always correct. Take a moment to see when the information was updated and look for a disclaimer that the information on the site is not official.

The American Association of Law Libraries created a Guide to Evaluating Legal Information Online that gives a great overview of how to evaluate legal information online. The Guide covers the three main factors to consider when evaluating legal information found in online sources: content coverage, currency, and reliability. Take a look at the Guide and bookmark it so you review it often.

Get in the habit of evaluating your sources, and it will be something you automatically do before repeating something, even casually, only to find out it was fake news or invalid legal information..

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Hi-Tech Research Tools for Facts

When I was in law school I generally didn’t think of facts beyond whatever was included in the fact pattern for an exam. This isn’t the way things work in the real world. Litigants and their attorneys often employ investigators, interns, and newer associates look for facts in the real world. When I was an intern for attorneys, my tasks often included looking for as much information as I could find about witnesses using social media. I recently attended the ABA Techshow and found several companies offering hi-tech tools that can gather information from social media sites.

Tomoko

Tomoko is an app which includes a client, enhanced searching for Facebook, and other eDiscovery tools. I viewed a demonstration of the app given by its creator Karhrman Ziegenbein and it was quite impressive. First, he showed me a search of a person’s Facebook profile using the regular Facebook search tools that anyone can access (the same sort of search I was able to perform as an intern); this yielded three groups the person is known to be a member of. Then, using Tomoko, we performed the same search which yielded dozens of results. The app also allows the user to save a copy of a website, create a video of whatever is being presented on the screen, and create authentication data sufficient to satisfy evidence standards. In addition to many other real world uses this tool has been used to prosecute human traffickers conducting online auctions via the darknet.

Vijilent

Vijilent is an app that can be used to create a profile of an individual’s web presence. Vijilent has a demo version which anyone can use to create a snapshot of an individual and includes as much information as can be gleaned publicly from social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also searches public records. This data is presented in a report that includes photos, social media links, personality analysis, and analysis of sentiment towards the individual. The paid version includes ongoing social media tracking, authentication tools, and cloud storage of this data.

TrialDrone

TrialDrone is another social media analysis product. TrialDrone does many of the same functions as the other products discussed here but also uses social media to help digitally reconstruct an event. This can help litigators to find potential witnesses and evidence before it disappears. TrialDrone can also be used to track individuals—for instance tracking the social media output of an individual. Among other uses, this tool has been used to recreate the events related to the Boston Marathon Bombing.

All of these products can help a litigator to discover facts about individuals and events that before the widespread use of social media would have been impossible.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

CourtListener






CourtListener is a powerful free legal research website containing millions of legal opinions from federal and state courts. Users can search these opinions by case name, topic, or citation for over 402 jurisdictions. Lawyers, academics, and the public can research an important case, stay up to date with new opinions as they are filed, or do deep analysis using CourtListener’s raw data. There are even oral arguments from many jurisdictions, judge profiles, and documents from the federal PACER system.

This site is sponsored by the Non-Profit Free Law Project /, which seeks to provide free access to primary legal materials, develop legal research tools, and support academic legal research. The Project works with volunteers to expand efforts at building an open source, open access, legal research system.

What makes CourtListener stand out for me is that is has a citator that shows you which subsequent opinions have cited to the opinion you are viewing, an important tool in researching whether a given precedent is still good law. Many free sites lack such a tool. Also, the search filters, advanced search options, and relevancy search enhancements produce refined search results. Especially useful is the free access to PACER documents provided through the RECAP Archive. 

Give CourtListener a try!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Social Law Library: Unique Resources for Massachusetts Law


The Social Law Library (SLL), located in Boston, was founded in 1803 which makes it the second oldest law library in the United States.* The SLL was founded before the ABA started pressing for the shift in legal education from reading the law to compulsory law school education for bar admittance; in fact, the SLL predates both the ABA and legal education as we know it. While the SLL is a private institution, it has a significant partnership with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and provides free access to all attorneys employed by Massachusetts state agencies or courts.

Members of the Western New England University School of Law Community have access to the SLL through the Law Library’s databases page.** The SLL has also been actively seeking new members here at the Law School by offering students who attend a presentation a free membership upon graduation that expires at the end of September the following year.
In addition to being one of the oldest law libraries in the country the SLL has embraced the modern paradigm shift to digital materials. To this end they provide members access to many online services including: eBooks through OverDrive, CLE Materials, Links to Federal and State Materials, their Researcher’s Toolkit, Reference by Email, Substantive Law Databases, and many others.

Of particular interest is their unique collection of Massachusetts Administrative Databases. While much of what is accessible through SLL is available elsewhere, the SLL’s Administrative Databases tend to be the best and most comprehensive place to get the information for the covered state agencies. In some instances, Westlaw or Lexis may have some coverage; however, for the most sweeping, one stop place to do research in these areas SLL has the most comprehensive collection of Massachusetts Administrative Law. In fact, some of materials therein may not be available anywhere else in the world.

Let’s look at how to use one of these Administrative Law Databases. From the Law Library’s Databases page, select S-U then select the SLL’s Administrative Law Databases. This link brings us to the SLL’s Research Databases page. For our example, let’s select the Board of Bar Overseers, an independent administrative body responsible for adjudicating complaints against attorneys.



One can search the different parts (Case Number, BBO File Number, etc) within the Board’s decisions using the boxes shown. While the Board of Bar Overseers has only a few different parts to their decisions, other Administrative databases may have additional options.

Entering multiple search terms in the text box will return only decisions in which all the words appear. You can make the search return decisions in which any of the search terms appear by including the word or between them. You can also search for a phrase by searching within quotes. For example: searching recovered alcoholic returns 5 decisions, searching recovered or alcoholic  returns 89 decisions, and searching ”recovered alcoholic” returns 2 decisions.

Adjusting the “Words Around Hits” will increase or decrease the number of words the search results will display for each instance of your search terms within a decision. This context can help you determine if the decision is relevant to your issue before reading the whole case. The image below compares the same search using 20 “Words Around Hits” and 5.



Once you decide to look at a decision, like the one pictured below, you can either print the document or download a pdf from the black bar above the document. You can also use the red bar to navigate to other documents from the same search results, modify the search, or save the document to your SLL account.***



In conclusion, obtaining SLL membership is a no-brainer for our soon-to-graduate law students since it has so much to offer. It is also very reasonably priced for other Massachusetts attorneys considering that it is the only resource available for some materials.
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* The Jenkins Law Library in Philadelphia was founded in 1802.
** From the Databases Page select “S-U” then select “Social Law Library’s Administrative Law Databases.”
*** Once you obtain your own account.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Lexis Practice Advisor and Practical Law

Lexis Practice Advisor (LPA) and Practical Law (PL) are two products sold by LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters. Members of the Western New England University School of Law community have access to both of these products. The advertising literature for both of these products suggest they are intended to be practice oriented. Both companies employ attorneys who maintain these materials constantly. Both products offer forms with integrated practice notes and checklists. The products seem to have quite a bit in common so I am going to look at one form covering the same subject from each and discuss differences.

Since, each service mostly has the same coverage in terms of practice areas,* I will look at a form from a practice area common to both products—real estate.  In particular, I will be looking at a ground lease under each system.

In LPA, I was able to drill down to ground leases. From the LPA front page I selected Real Estate, then scrolled down and selected Ground Lease. The top item displayed is an expert form titled “Ground Lease (Tenant Constructed Improvements)” and this is the one I am using. In PL, I drilled down as follows: from PL’s main page I selected Real Estate and then selected Commercial Leasing. From there I searched for “Ground Lease.” The top document returned is a Ground Lease classified as a Standard Document.

Both offer a usable form with comparable download options. Most striking about LPA’s form is it includes information about the form’s authors by name and links to bios of each author. LPA also includes section specific drafting notes throughout the form. You can view the drafting notes by hovering over the icon. LPA’s form also has optional clauses that can be inserted in the form and editable fields,** both of which are included when the form is downloaded.

LPA's icons

The first thing I noticed about PL’s form is a box at the top of the form labeled “Note: Read This Before Using Document.” Clicking on it revealed an outline of important considerations for drafting a ground lease. Other notes embedded throughout the document are related to the sections in which they are found. Another great feature of PL’s form is that it has a Table of Contents on the left hand side of the window. Clicking on a topic within the Table of Contents will bring the user to that place within the form.

PL's note icon

In comparing the two, I felt both products could be improved by implementing the best features of the other. LPA was easier to navigate from the front page to the form.  I also liked LPA’s ability to download a customized document. Most of all, I really like the explicit statement about who is creating the content. The document itself on PL is a bit easier to navigate. I also liked the overview of the law embedded at the top of PL’s form.
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* PL has a few more categories listed as practice areas than LPA.

** Unfortunately, the editable fields are not linked (i.e. filling in the first landlord field does not insert the landlords name into subsequent fields.)