Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Must Have App for Massachusetts Practitioners! - New Mass Courts App

This app provides full text of all of rules needed by most Massachusetts practitioners, local rules for all Massachusetts federal courts, PACER, and the Board of Bar Overseers website.

Disclaimer: This app was designed by KosInteractive LLC and is not affiliated with, or endorsed by, the Massachusetts Courts.

Unlike many of the apps reviewed on this blog, this app comes at a charge of $2.99.
The Massachusetts Courts App is available for Android, iPhone, and iPad.

Access all of the following:

Massachusetts Procedure:Massachusetts Rules of Appellate Procedure; Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure; Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure; and Massachusetts Rules of Supreme Judicial Conduct

Federal Procedure: Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure; Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure; Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure

Federal Rules of Evidence

Local district and bankruptcy rules

Need directions? Mass Courts App provides the names and addresses of every Massachusetts courthouse; using an interactive map and GPS allows you to generate driving directions from your current location. FYI, according to the designer, KosInteractive, due to technical limitations of Android, the courthouse location features is only available on Apple devices.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #17: Nolo's Plain English Law Dictionary

A dictionary is an important legal research tool. When you research an unfamiliar area of law, you may encounter terms that are new to you. If you do, the best course of action is to turn to a dictionary.

The gold standard for legal dictionaries is Black's Law Dictionary. It is the most definitive law dictionary published and has been cited by numerous courts, include the United States Supreme Court. The most recent edition of Black's is available as an app for iOS devices. Unfortunately, the app is not inexpensive; it's current price on iTunes is $54.99. Fifty dollars may not be a bad price for such a high quality resource, but I review free and low-cost (mostly free) apps, so I will not comment on the quality of the Black's Law Dictionary app.

With Black's beyond my price range, I went searching for an alternative. The result of my search is Nolo's Plain English Law Dictionary. Nolo's Plain English Law Dictionary is the best of a meager field of alternatives to Black's. Librarians at the UCLA School of Law Library deem Nolo's "a great--and FREE--alternative to the Black's Law Dictionary mobile application." In terms of the app itself, I find Nolo's a great dictionary to use. But when it comes to content, Nolo's  is a poor substitute for Black's.

Nolo's strives to deliver legal information in simple, straight-forward language accessible to the layman. This ethos carries through into the design of the Nolo's app. The app offers a simple interface: a search box and a browsable list of legal terms divided by subject.

Within each subject, the terms are arranged alphabetically, as they should be in a dictionary. Select a term from your search results or the browse list, and the app displays the definition.

The app is no frills--find a word, read the definition. The dictionary portion offers no other options. The app does claim to include encyclopedia entries, but selecting the encyclopedia button merely opens the subject page on the Nolo website that most closely matches the subject of the term you're viewing.

A button for Lawyer Directory at the bottom of the screen opens the Nolo website homepage, and a Nolo button beside it opens the Nolo website product page.

Neither of these options add much to the app, but they don't detract from it either. The app is a dictionary and nothing but.

The settings page lets you chose between three themes for the app: modern, which features lots of white space; classic, with a leather and parchment appearance (this is the theme in my screenshots); and orange, which The settings page also reveals a fun feature of the app: if you shake the iPad with the app open, a random word and definition pops up.

I like the utilitarian design of the app. I can easily get to the definitions, and I am not distracted by superfluous information and features. As a dictionary app, Nolo's excels. But as a dictionary, it falls short. Black's Law Dictionary contains more than 45,000 definitions. Nolo's Plain English Law Dictionary contains approximately 4,000. For the legal researcher, the difference is monumental.

The gap is more pronounced because Nolo's is a dictionary written for laymen. Its 4,000 definitions are made up of common legal terms. When I turn to a legal dictionary, I go to look up unfamiliar terms, and the terms are usually unfamiliar because they are uncommon. In those instances, Nolo's offers no help. It is not comprehensive enough to be a reasonable alternative to Black's. When it comes to legal dictionary's, Black's remains my first and last choice.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

New at the Library: Microsoft Word Tech Tip Videos

How important is technology to a lawyer's career? Three federal judges think it is vital. In the recent ABA Journal article "Catch Up with Tech or Lose Your Career, Judges Warn Lawyers," three federal judges shared their thoughts about the need for lawyers to understand technology. According to U.S. Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola of the District of Columbia, lawyers need technology skills to even get their career's started.

In the article, Judge Facciola asks, "Why hire a lawyer who doesn't even have the technological competence to complete simple, everyday tasks like converting a Microsoft Word document into a PDF? . . . The absence of technical knowledge is a distinct competitive disadvantage."

I read the article with great interest because part of my job here at Western New England School of Law is to help students use technology effectively. In response to the observations of Judge Facciola and others, such as Casey Flaherty, I created a series of tech tip videos. The videos cover advanced features and functionality in Microsoft Word, such as creating a table of contents, inserting cross-references into a contract, and even converting a Word document into a PDF.

I know law students are busy (I was recently one myself), so I tried to keep the videos shorts. They ended up 4-12 minutes each. You can watch the videos whenever it's convenient for you. All you need is a computer with an Internet connection.

The ABA Journal article concludes with an admonition from Judge Facciola: "Lawyers better get crackin'. There's an awful lot to know."

The Law Library's Microsoft tech tip videos are a good place to start.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #16: BriefCase

Briefing cases consumed a fair amount of my first semester of law school. My study group tried all sorts of approaches to briefing. We wrote margin notes. We typed up summaries. And we highlighted. We had colors for rules, facts, issues, reasoning, and more. One of my friends even created The Briefinator, an amalgamation of seven highlighters, to cope with all the highlighting we did for our briefs.

David Lutz, a student at The University of Michigan Law School must have had an experience similar to mine. By his third year, he was fed up with the cumbersome, time-consuming process of briefing, so he created an iPad app to simplify case briefs. The app, BriefCase, lets you annotate PDFS with notes and six different colors of highlighters, and then it automatically generates briefs from your annotations. This video from the BriefCase website explains the goals of the app.

BriefCase. - Automatically Brief Your Legal Cases from BriefCase. on Vimeo.

BriefCase is available for free, but access to advanced features requires a 12-month subscription for $9.99.

To use the app, you have to first load in a PDF. If you have the 12-month subscription, you can email the PDF to a special address and the app will load the PDF automatically. In the free version, you have to email the PDF to yourself, open the email on your iPad, and send the PDF to BriefCase with the export button.

After you load the PDF into BriefCase, the app asks you for the case information--case name, citation, date, whether the case is good law, and a case synopsis. BriefCase uses this information for the heading of your brief.

To start annotating the PDF, select a block of and choose either highlight or underline . Tap the highlighted/underlined text to bring up a menu that lets you change highlighter color, add a note, or delete the annotation.

Each color in BriefCase is linked to a traditional brief section: facts, procedural history, issues, holding, reasoning, and dissent. From the menu, you can access the highlighter settings and change the color linked to each section.

Once you have finished annotating the PDF, select the Brief button in the upper right to generate your brief. BriefCase will automatically create your brief by pulling in all of the highlighted text and dividing it based on colors/sections. Within each section, the app breaks the text into bullet points, with one bullet for each annotation.

If you are using the free version of the app, you can look at the brief in the app but can't do anything else. If you have the 12-month subscription, you can export the brief to Dropbox or Google Drive, email the brief, or print it.

BriefCase is a good idea, but I think it still has a ways to go. The app's usability issues make briefing a case in BriefCase more of a hassle than just sticking with The Briefinator.

The app's greatest problem is how it approaches text selection. The app uses the iPad's built-in text selection feature. This feature requires pinpoint accuracy; I often have to try five or six times to successfully select a block of text. The thought of highlighting an entire judicial opinion one or two sentences at a time using that feature is untenable. I would never try it if pen and paper were an option. The app needs a customized selection tool that makes highlighting text more natural.

Another issue with BriefCase is how it orders information within the sections of its brief. It puts the information in order based on its location on the page; information higher on the paging comes before information lower on the page. This approach makes sense until you annotate a PDF with columns. BriefCase pays no attention to columns; information from the top of column two is placed before information from the bottom of column one because the column two information is higher on the page. You can rearrange the bullet points in the finished brief, but that undermines the purpose of the app. It is supposed to build the brief for you, not make you build it yourself.

If David Lutz can fix the two major usability issues, BriefCase will be a great tool for organizing case law. Until then, BriefCase is little more than a law student novelty. It is certainly no Briefinator.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Moving Past Page Numbers in Case Citations

Case citations are an important part of legal research. Citations let you uniquely identify and quickly
locate a particular opinion, and pin cites in a citation tell you where in the case the citing author found the referenced information. I depend on case citations every day and could not research efficiently and effectively without them.

The standard system of case citation is based on the print case reporters. The first number in a standard case citation refers to the volume of the case reporter. The second number refers to the page in the reporter volume where the case starts. The text in between identifies the reporter. For example, the citation for the famous criminal procedure opinion Miranda v. Arizona is 384 U.S. 436, which means that you can find the opinion starting on page 436 of volume 384 of the United States Reports. If the opinion is cited for a specific proposition, a pin cite will generally follow the page number (e.g. 384 U.S. 436, 475); the pin cite is the specific page in the reporter that the citing author is referencing.

Until recently, I had not given the standard system of case citations much thought. Then in February I read Peter Martin's blog post on Oklahoma's digital case law. The post is about Oklahoma's decision to adopt the digital versions of Oklahoma Supreme Court and Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals opinions published on the courts' website as the official versions. But what caught my attention was Martin's description of Oklahoma's case citation system.

Since 1998, Oklahoma courts have used their own system of citation independent of the print reporters. Each opinion issued by a given Oklahoma court is assigned a unique number. The case citation for that opinion is the year of the opinion, the name of the court, and the opinion's unique number. Within the opinion, each paragraph is numbered. The paragraphs numbers are used for the pin cites in the citation. So a citation to an Oklahoma case looks like this: Carney v. DirecTV Grp., Inc., 2014 OK Civ App 4, ¶9.

Now that I've seen an alternative to the standard case citation system, I wonder why we're still using the standard system. For a researcher working primarily with electronic documents, the standard reporter-based system is more difficult to use than a neutral system like Oklahoma's. Researchers need to be able to uniquely identify an opinion, but the unique identifier doesn't need to be tied to a physical object. If case research is done in print using the reporters, a citation that translates directly to an opinion's location in the reporters makes sense. In the electronic environment, it is an unnecessary complication.

One way the reporter-based citations cause an online researcher problems is through pin cites. Opinions in online databases are not displayed in pages corresponding to the print reporters. In Westlaw and Lexis, an opinion is displayed as one continuous page. If you print out an opinion from either system, it is broken into pages based on factors such as the paper and font sizes, not the page breaks in the print reporter. In order to allow for pin citing in reporter-based citations, Westlaw and Lexis use star pagination, meaning they insert starred page numbers into the text of the opinion to mark the start of each page of the print reporter. As a result, when you are researching case law, you have to locate pin cites by scanning the text for the embedded numbers marking the start and end of the pin-cited pages. This process is much slower and more tedious than scanning the beginnings of paragraphs for a number.


This example uses citations with a pin cite to information in paragraph 15 of the Oklahoma case Carney v. DirecTV Grp., Inc.  The first citation is in the standard reporter-based format. The second is in Oklahoma's neutral format.

1. Locating the pin cite for Carney v. DirecTV Grp., Inc., 316 P.3d 234, 239 (Okla. Civ. App. 2014):  

2. Locating the pin cite for Carney v. DirecTV Grp., Inc., 2014 OK Civ App 4, ¶15:

As you can see from the example, finding the pin cite for the Oklahoma citation is much easier.

The Oklahoma neutral citations have another advantage. The pin cites are more precise because they refer to paragraphs rather than whole pages. As a result, you can more reliably find the case language referenced in a case citation, which can help you follow the citing author's legal argument.

Oklahoma's system is not unique. As of 2012, 16 states used similar neutral citation systems. Neutral citation systems do more than help researchers handle pin cites. They play an important role in increasing public access to legal information. Peter Martin's article Neutral Citation, Court Web Sites, and Access to Authoritative Case Law discusses neutral citations and their impact on public access to the law in more detail. You can access his article through the Cornell Law Library Digital Commons.