Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Flying in the Clouds

Many of you know that when you're searching in Wildpac, you can narrow your search by using the facets button on the left just as you can with many search engines. And some of you may even pay attention to the "cloud" on the right, which can further help reduce your set of results by clicking on the links, but did you know that on the bottom of the results screen there is another "cloud." This one using the same terms that you saw on the right. In this case you can click on any of these links and expand your search to find more records that might actually help you find the material that you are looking for.

As an example, search for the phrase "animal rights."

The term brings up 49 records in the D'Amour Library and 43 records in the Law Library at the time of this writing. Clicking on the Law link reduces the number to just the Law Library's holdings. By clicking on the larger font in the "cloud" term "animal welfare" the list is reduced to 24 titles in the Law Library.

Some of these are hard copy monographs, some are  microforms, and some are even electronic journals. But if you go down to the bottom "cloud" and click on the same "animal welfare" term you can expand your list to 150 Law Library records and 43 D'Amour Library records. The larger the font is for the term or phrase, the more hits there are on it.

Among these records will be more titles that used the subject "animal welfare," including an interesting report from the 91st Congress about "The horse protection act of 1969." The purpose of the act was designed to end the inhumane practice of deliberately making sore the feet of Tennessee walking horses in order to alter their natural gait.

Many of these records are for titles in the Proquest Congressional database with electronic links to full PDF's of Congressional reports, while some others are microforms from the CIS Microform collection which will lead you to many hearings before Congress. So if you're looking to either expand or reduce your set of results, look to the clouds in Wildpac. And if you're looking for a different term or phrase that you could use in a search, look to those same clouds in Wildpac and see where it might take you.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Hooray for the Massachusetts Trial Court Libraries' Website!

The idea of having a blog that shares research tips is premised on a generous impulse. So it is with embarrassment that I find myself reluctant to part with my posting for this week – I am here to reveal the virtues of the Massachusetts Trial Court Libraries' website. While I predict that all Law Librarians in Massachusetts know about this site, there are many law students, law professors, and lawyers out there who do not. I am therefore revealing a professional secret.

The area of the website I use most frequently is the “law about” page. I cannot remember the last time I had a public patron that I couldn’t at least get started by sitting him or her in front of this page, and finding an applicable topic. The page is rich with the issues that confront us in our typical daily lives – consumer protection, lead paint, small claims, health care proxies, adverse possession. Okay, maybe adverse possession’s not “typical.”

Next most used is the forms page. Need to change your name? Complain about a judge? File for an homestead exemption? It’s all right there.

One other aspect of the website that I really admire is that it provides the public with free online access to the Nolo Press series. All one has to do is get a Trial Court Law Libraries' free library card. Nolo Press, based in Berkeley, California, was founded in 1971 on the belief that ordinary people could participate in the legal system successfully, and thus, the two founders (lawyers) went about publishing books that help ordinary people do just that. Need to file for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy? Make a living trust? Stand up to the IRS? Nolo has you covered. But one thing you might want to keep in mind when using a Nolo resource is that while some of those topics are governed by federal law, some are governed by state law. While a Nolo publication can get you started, you will have to complete your work by researching Massachusetts law. See paragraph 2, above.

It’s only now that I get to the end of my post that I realize why I love the Massachusetts Trial Court Libraries’ website: it embodies an idea fundamental to law librarianship – relatively easy access to essential information – you really can’t beat that as a concept. Thank you Trial Court Libraries!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Massachusetts Lawyers Diary and Manual

The Massachusetts Lawyers Diary and Manual is a spectacular failure as a “diary” in the modern sense of the word. However, as the title is more than 100 years old, perhaps the book deserves the benefit of the doubt. The Massachusetts Lawyers Diary and Manual, or MLDM, is primarily a directory of people relevant to the practice of law in Massachusetts. It has contact information for all of the courts – every single one. There are also all of the phone numbers for Massachusetts - licensed attorneys in the state and different units of state and local government. The attorneys are listed both alphabetically and for lawyers outside of Boston, by city. It is also the most comprehensive print directory of Massachusetts government officials; there are many Federal government contact numbers too.

However, almost all of this information is online for free in some form. For courts, I find that Massachusetts does a good job of putting contact information for all levels of court on the Massachusetts Court System website. A search on Google or Bing can usually pull up the information too.

The MDLM does have some other useful and interesting material. On the useful side, it has a list of court filing fees. It also has a digest of Massachusetts Civil Procedure, which can serve as a refresher on a few of the rules, if one is not concerned by a lack of currency. It would be risky to rely on the MDLM’s section on probate and family law, given the recent changes in Massachusetts in the area. The MDLM has a marginally useful calendar for the current year. There is enough space to write down appointments, if you don’t have that many on a given day. However, it is tough to imagine using a heavy, 1000+ page hardbound book to keep important dates in. There are advertisements in the back for legal services like court reporting. I think advertising here makes a company seem a little more reputable than one you happen to find online.

It is a good book to keep around for historical research

As for “interesting” material, the MLDM has the most exhaustive list of unit conversions you will ever need. How many scruples are in three drams? Nine. Google will not convert that for you! Kidding aside, if you have an old contract or deed with an unusual unit of measure, this would be a handy desk reference. There is also a table that gives the last day you can do something, like file a motion, within a certain time period. (10, 15, 20, 30, 35, 45, 60 and 90 days.) Finally, the “degrees of kindred” chart could be useful when dealing with an estate matter.

The question a researcher has to ask is how important is it that this information be all in one place? The majority of the time, the information in this book could be found quickly online, for free.  I could envision a new attorney getting some use out of this book. Sometimes, when you do not know where to start with a question, the finite possibilities that are listed in a directory is a good starting point. The directory structure also gives one a better idea of the structure of the Massachusetts judiciary than the state’s website. Someone not comfortable searching online would also probably get good use out of the book. Is this book a necessity for a law firm? I would say no. With this book, you are paying for convenience.

Note: The publisher does provide a paid online version that I did not have access to test.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Tax Managment Portfolios

With April quickly approaching, my mind is focused on taxes. I’ve always wondered how CPAs, accountants, estate planners, and tax attorneys keep all those ever-changing tax rules straight. Where do they go when they have questions? There are free options, such as the advice offered through the IRS site, but navigation can be difficult and as the saying goes, “time is money.”  I know first-hand from being a treasurer that finding answers that way is difficult, especially when you do not know the form number or specific term. The majority of my searches ended with a phone call to the agency.  Most of my questions were straight forward, so I can’t imagine trying to search a complicated tax problem that way. 

Thankfully, companies are quick to seize on opportunities to improve existing resources. One such product is Bloomberg BNA’s Tax and Accounting Center, a comprehensive tax database that includes federal, state, and international tax transactions. Arguably, the best feature in this database is the Tax Management Portfolios.

Why are these portfolios such a great resource?
  • Written by leading practitioners in the field
  • Provide in-depth analysis of key issues
  • Contain practice tools, source documents, news and commentary 

You can link to the Tax and Accounting Center database from our Databases page or the catalog.

The portfolios are easy to use, once you know how to find them. The portfolio topics display in the middle of the screen. Once inside the portfolio, there is a “split screen” option, which is how I prefer to view the information. 

Bloomberg BNA does a nice job of providing user-friendly features. There are links to the relevant code sections, new law analysis, and news and commentary throughout the portfolios. Quickly scanning Estates, Gifts and Trusts Portfolios: Exempt Organizations/Private Foundations, I was able to locate the reporting requirements for fundraising activities. How easy was that, and I didn’t have to wait on the phone for 20 minutes.  

Many practitioners like the worksheets, or what I call forms. There are a few options for accessing these forms. You can link to the form right from the text or you can find them under “Working Papers” on the left side of the screen in the “split screen” view. Depending on the type of form, you may be directed to the electronic version to fill out, as I was with form 990. Note: I had to install “Interactive Forms 2011” before I could view the form I needed. I did not find this interface to be as intuitive as the rest of the database.

If you do not have access to Bloomberg BNA’s Tax and Accounting Center, you can still access the Tax Management Portfolios through Westlaw (TM-ALLPORT) and Lexis (BNA; TMPORT), but you lose many of the time-saving features that make the Tax and Accounting Center such a great resource.