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.)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Inauguration 1. A formal ceremony inducting someone into office ... 3. The formal commencement of a period of time or course of action. Black's Law Dictionary, 10th ed.



Inauguration 2017 has been fraught with so many side issues (Women’s Marches, No Legal Sea Food Chowder, Girl Scouts Marching, Rockettes Kicking or Not) – it dawned on me that I know nothing about the underpinnings of this event … so I thought I would do some research!

Before I describe some inauguration research sources, however, here are some basic inauguration facts. First of all, it turns out that the only Constitutional requirement for the inauguration is that the president-elect take an oath or affirmation before that person can enter on the Execution of the office of the presidency. The wording of that oath is specified in Article II, Section One, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution:  "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

The Constitution does not specify who shall administer the oath to the president, but by and large that role has been performed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Interestingly, George Washington was sworn in by Robert Livingston, an eminent New York lawyer, a member of the Committee of Five who drafted the Declaration of Independence, and considered a Founding Father of the United States, but not a member of the Court.

As for the day of the inauguration, that day was not established as January 20 until 1933 with the passage of the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted on January 23 of that year. The previous inauguration date was March 4th and was set by the Congress of the Confederation in September 1788 after the necessary nine states had ratified the Constitution.

And now for the research component of this post:  The Library of Congress has a comprehensive digital collection (Washington to Obama) of inauguration material including diaries and letters written by presidents and those who witnessed the inaugurations, handwritten drafts of inaugural addresses, broadsides, inaugural tickets and programs, prints, photographs, and sheet music. Unbelievable that we can see George Washington’s handwritten inaugural speech. Check out the link for President Obama, including his 2009 official portrait painted when he still had dark hair.
One can also view video of inauguration addresses from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to President Barrack Obama at this C-SPAN link. Recent events have made me nostalgic – it was interesting to look back at previous January 20ths. 

Since 1901, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inauguration Ceremonies has plied the laboring oar in putting together the day’s events. That Committee has put together this website that chronicles inaugurations going back to 1901 and the site collects a fascinating assortment of memorabilia including prayers said, hymns sung, the day’s weather and first facts – for example, Truman’s inauguration in 1949 was the first inauguration televised.   

For an in-depth look at past inaugurations, consult Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President, 1789-2013 by Jim Bendat, author of the most recent Washington Post’s Five Myths column available here.

Enjoy the day!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Blockchain

What is blockchain?

Blockchain provides a way for multiple individuals who may not trust each other to work on the same ledger or document without a trusted intermediary (such as a bank in the case of crypto-currency). In more technical terms, a blockchain is a way to maintain the integrity of information on a distributed decentralized network. Blockchains work by utilizing software which generates a “cryptographic hash”* from the information stored in a network. Each time the information is changed anywhere on the network the blockchain software generates a new block from the new information, a timestamp, and the previous block’s hash. These new blocks are then added to the previous blocks to create a chain, thus a blockchain. The updated blockchain is then sent to all the computers on the network. Since the majority of the computers on the network have to agree on the values contained in the blockchain** unauthorized changes to the information become more difficult with each block added to the chain.  For example, Bitcoin, an entirely online form of crypto-currency, was created using the first blockchain and has never been hacked.*** The Bitcoin blockchain has been running since January 2009.

How does blockchain relate to law?

Some have labeled blockchain as next year’s disruptive technology in the field of law. For instance, Ethereum, another crypto-currency created by a former Bitcoin programmer, includes a programing language designed to create “smart contracts.” Smart contracts are computer programs which act as agreements. Since the negotiation and execution of such contracts can be entirely electronic and without intermediaries, the transactional cost of such contracts can be much lower than traditional contracts.
Smart contracts can also be self-executing. For instance, farmers could buy crop insurance using such a system to cover them in the event of crop failure. The insurance would pay if the temperature fell below freezing between a particular range of dates. The smart contract program would monitor the temperature via the internet and pay automatically if the conditions were met according to the terms of the policy—without further intervention from either the insured or the insurer.

Other legal aspects

Blockchain technology development has been mostly done using open source practices. However, this may change since big businesses are realizing the potential of this technology. Since 2013 about 1.4 billion dollars have been invested and over 2,500 patents filed for blockchain technologies. It remains to be seen how open blockchain technology will remain.

Conclusion

This blog post only outlines a few plausible uses of blockchain technology. Other uses being developed include real estate registry, medical records, financial services, and countless others. One thing is certain though, this technology will have widespread impact on business transactions and thus on the practice of law.
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* A cryptographic hash is a string of text with a set number of characters produced by feeding information to a computer program.  If the exact same information is fed into the same hash producing program in different locations the resulting hash strings should be identical.
** The longest blockchain will be chosen in the event of inconsistent information.
*** While this is true of Bitcoin’s blockchain itself, some Bitcoin related businesses have been hacked see e.g. http://money.cnn.com/2016/08/03/technology/bitcoin-exchange-bitfinex-hacked/