Monday, January 27, 2014

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #9: LawBox

LawBox is an entry in the "free" code library app category. These apps are ereaders that provide access to a proprietary collections of state and federal statutes and rules (the electronic versions are proprietary, not the statutes and rules themselves). The apps are free to download, but most of the ebooks are only available with payment of an in-app fee.

LawBox shows up on multiple iPad apps for lawyers lists, so I decided to give it a try.

When you first open it, LawBox offers an empty digital bookcase. To get started, you click on the plus symbol in the upper left. This button opens the download library. LawBox offers the United States Code and code sets for Arizona, California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas. Individual titles from within each code are available to download for $4.99 each, or you can download an entire code set for $24.99. LawBox also offers the complete set of federal rules and the U.S. Constitution for download at no cost. In keep with my credo of using free apps, I downloaded only the Constitution and federal rules.

Once you download ebooks, they show up in the Index pane. Select an ebook to open its table of contents. From the table of contents, you can select a section of the ebook to open in the Navigator pane.

In the Navigator pane, you can move between sections of the ebook either by swiping left and right or using the select arrows in the upper right. The content within each section is presented as one page that you scroll up and down to view. The use of scrolling in an ebook seems odd. But LawBox's design maintains the distinction between sections of the ebook, which is useful when reading statutes and rules, where knowing which section you're in is important.

LawBox offers several options for interacting with ebook. A double-tap in the Navigation pane opens a toolbar that lets you add a note, email or print the section you're viewing, bookmark the section, or set the table of contents to the current section.

The note button opens a text box into which you can add annotations to go with the current section of the ebook. The source button in the note returns you to the section you were annotating.

After you add a note to a section, you can return to it by pressing the note button with that section open (you can only add one note to a section; multiple notes must all go in the same text box), or by returning to your bookshelf in the Index pane and pressing the star button. The star button opens the bookmark/notes screen. To view your bookmarks, select Statutes. I have no idea why the button is labeled Statutes. Perhaps the developers repurposed the button without relabeling it. In any event, Statutes when you want your LawBox bookmarks.

To view your notes, select the correctly labeled Notes button. LawBox displays your notes arranged by ebook along with a heading that indicates the section to which the note is attached.

The note feature is a manageable means of annotating the ebooks, but I am disappointed that LawBox does not provide the ability to add annotations that appear on top of the text when you return to a section, or the ability to highlight text. Such functionality is relatively common in general purpose ereaders. Since LawBox controls the ebooks as well as the reader, I would expect it to deliver greater functionality to interact with the content, not less.

Another useful function missing from LawBox is a search tool. A review for an earlier version of the app reported the existence of a search tool, but I could not find one in the current LawBox app. I can live without search in an ebook reader, but it would be useful to have with reference books like the federal court rules, where I might want to find every rule that mentions service of process, for instance.

The most interesting feature in LawBox is its Annotations tool. Once you open a section of an ebook, you can access "annotations" through Google Scholar. LawBox has not actually annotated any of its books. The Annotations tool opens a browser in the Navigation pane and runs a search for the title of the ebook section in Google Scholar.

The in-app browser appears to be fully functional except for the absence of an address bar.You can access any of the Google Scholar search results, run new searches, switch to other Google search products, and more. You cannot navigate to websites directly, but you can do most everything else a standard browser allows.

Overall, LawBox works well for what it is--a proprietary ereader. Its biggest drawback is its fundamental nature. As a proprietary reader, it forces you to marry the content with the functionality. You cannot purchase a code from LawBox and use it in another ereader, and you cannot bring your own content into LawBox to take advantage if its functionality and design.

Still, if you're looking for a quick way to access the federal rules of evidence formatted for the iPad, LawBox is worth the minute it takes to download from the App Store and initialize. The clean, simple interface provides an enjoyable way to browse court rules, though the lack of search means that LawBox will never replace accessing the federal rules through platforms such as Lexis or Westlaw or through website like Cornell's Legal Information Institute.

If you're looking for federal and state codes, you should comparison shop for the best prices before giving any money to LawBox. There are several apps similar to LawBox, and one of them may offer a better deal. Or better yet, you may find an ebook version that works with a general purpose ebook reader. Then you'll have the legal content you need and the freedom to choose the ereader functionality and interface design you want.

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