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.

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