Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Helpouts by Google--A New Resource for Legal Research?

A new Google product just showed up on my radar: Helpouts. Helpouts is a platform to give and receive help over live video. Google has combined Hangouts, Google Wallet, and Google+ to create a system where users can seek help by connecting via live video with self-proclaimed experts, often for a fee.

Google's goal is to supplement its search by connecting users with people who will answer the users' questions. I, like most people, depend on the Internet as a source of answers to all sorts of questions. If I need a recipe for French onion soup, I search for french onion soup recipe on Google. When I wanted to replace the stereo in my car on my own, I looked up a video with step by step instructions on YouTube. If I used Helpouts, I could instead ask a restaurant chef how he makes French onion soup, or have an experienced mechanic talk me through the car stereo install.

As Google describes Helpouts, "With Helpouts you can get help anytime from people with expertise across a range of topics - teachers, counselors, doctors, home repair specialists, personal trainers, hobby enthusiasts, and more. You can choose who to get help from based on qualifications, availability, ratings and reviews. Also, you can choose to get help right away or schedule a Helpout for later."

Google released Helpouts with more than a thousand companies and individuals already enrolled to provide help to users, so there is plenty of content. For instances, Home Depot offers free home improvement help through Helpouts. Rosetta Stone offers 30 minute language tutoring session for $30.00. Weight Watchers offers free menu reviews.

Helpouts may be useful for help retouching a photo, learning the guitar, or applying makeup (if you believe Google's marketing), but is it the new answer to legal research? Can you save time finding a form for a commercial ground lease by asking a real estate attorney? Or locate a case by talking to a law clerk instead of searching Westlaw or Lexis on your own?

To find out, I tried searching Helpouts for legal topics. I did not find much. I found a social studies teacher offering tutoring to high school students on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Several people offer LSAT tutoring. My favorite result is a former law professor who offers half hour sessions on which law school, if any, a prospective student should attend. But nothing I found would be of much use for legal research.

I discovered the reason for the lack of legal research help when I went to the Helpouts policies page. Google lists legal services as restricted content. The policies page states that "At this time, Helpouts does not allow the promotion of legal services." Google naturally prohibits giving legal advice as a legal service. But it also prohibits any "informational services" related to legal topics. So help conducting legal research would be a violation of Google's current Helpouts policies. Even law school tutoring is prohibited. When it comes to the practice of law, Google is not taking any chances with its new platform.

Helpouts might someday become a resource for legal research. While lawyers may not line up to help you with your research, I can imagine law librarians offering to help formulate search strategies and evaluate sources via Helpouts. So Helpouts is worth watching for the time when Google re-evaluates its content policies. Until then, maybe I can finally master making souffles.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Searching Twitter (even without an account)

While perusing a recent Law Practice Today article, I discovered that you can conduct searches on Twitter by going to!/search-home. You can search even if you don't have an account. As discussed in previous posts by Neal Smith and Elliott Hibbler, there are a number of reasons Twitter could be useful to you, such as for conducting legal research.

There are two options for searching in Twitter; you can enter a search directly into the search box or you can choose the advanced search option. As a librarian, I'm happy to see you can incorporate operators in your search query. If you remember the operators, you can enter them in the initial search bar. You can see from the operator chart that there is some date restriction capability. Note: there is no space between the colon and the date.

If you have trouble remembering the operators, you can put your terms in the advanced search template. It is easier to locate the Advanced Search option if you use the search link provided above because there's a link for it on that page.

If you are signed into your Twitter account, you can find the Advanced Search option on the left-hand side of your results screen, after you run your initial search.

Once you've formulated the perfect search, you have the option of saving it for future use by clicking "save"  on the top right-hand corner of your results page.
You can retrieve your saved searches by clicking anywhere in the search box and they will appear in the drop down menu after your recent searches.

A little off topic, but a special thanks to Sabrina Serra, one of our student employees, for sharing that you can change your account background by going to "settings and help" and choosing "Design."

Some features, such as changing your background, may not be available from mobile devices. In that case, you may want to check out one of the many third-party apps.

Have more questions about searching in Twitter or questions about Twitter in general? The Twitter Help Center may have the answer.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #12: The American Lawyer Digital Edition

The American Lawyer Digital Edition is an iOS version of ALM's American Lawyer magazine. The digital edition app is not the official American Lawyer app. The official American Lawyer app is Am Law, which I may discuss at a later date. The American Lawyer Digital Edition does not provide as much content or as many features as Am Law, but it offers a superior reading experience.

The American Lawyer Digital Edition ("ALDigital") replicates the print journal in an app. It delivers content in the form of issues, and each issue is a page-for-page copy of the print issue, including the advertisements.

I do not think this approach would work well on the iPhone, but on the iPad the content is both beautiful and easy to read. A single page of the magazine fits perfectly on an iPad in portrait mode. 

In landscape mode, the app displays two pages at once, allowing to you take in cross-page graphics while still reading the text, which is noticeable smaller but still quite legible.

The app also delivers crisp, clear images, which add to the overall reading experience. The pages of the magazine looked clean and beautiful, with every bit of information where it is supposed to be. You know you are seeing the magazine as the publishers intended, every word, graphic, and ad.

ALDigital is more than just a faux print journal. The app takes advantage of the digital format to provide several useful features. You can bookmark individual pages for quick return later. You can open a table of contents from anywhere in an issue. The table of contents shows a copy of the print table of contents with each article hyperlinked for easy access.

Or you can switch to a thumbnail view of every page of the issue. Tapping on a thumbnail opens that page of the issue.

The app allows keyword searching both in and across issues. If you tap the search icon while viewing an issue, the app will search only that issue. If you tap the search icon while in the main library page, the app searches across all available issues.

When you find an article you want to read, you can view it as it appeared in print (my recommendation), or you can change to text view using the Show Text button. Text view formats the article as a webpage, allowing you change the article's font size and to select and copy text from the article.

ALDigital also lets you email articles from within the app, or post articles to Facebook or Twitter if you so desire.

ALDigital currently provides access to issues of American Lawyer from Dec. 2010 to the present. Each issue must be downloaded separately. Downloading can take a long time because of the size and quality of the issues, but once you download an issue, it is stored on your device, so you don't have to download it again. If you are concerned about memory space, you can delete downloaded issues under settings.

In addition to the print content of American Lawyer, ALDigital contains an RSS feed of articles published on the American Lawyer website. Selecting a headline from the RSS feed takes you to the American Lawyer website. The articles in the feed may not be accessible without a subscription.

ALDigital is a simple app with a simple purpose: deliver the American Lawyer to the iPad without losing anything in translation. And it succeeds with flying colors.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

An Interesting Resource for Free Criminal Justice Material

I just learned about a resource that could prove very useful to researchers in the area of criminal justice. To back up, the Executive Director of the the Prison Policy Initiative (“PPI”), Peter Wagner, spoke at the Law School on February 10th. The mission of PPI is to “document the impact of mass incarceration on individuals, communities, and the national welfare in order to empower the public to improve criminal justice policy.” 
In addition to their attacks on various inequities of the prison system, PPI also works to make tools available to help bring about change in the areas of criminal justice on which it focuses. These tools include the PPI Research Clearinghouse and visual data aids.
The Research Clearinghouse contains links to 1,700+ empirical criminal justice reports and publications. The reports and publication are classified in 31 topics such as Prison and the Economy, Prison Gerrymandering, International Incarceration Comparisons, to name just three. There is also an option to do a keyword search or simple Boolean searches.
Another interesting resource on the site are graphs created by the PPI staff illustrating various issues of interest in the criminal justice arena. For example, there are charts illustrating differences in rates of application of New York’s stop and frisk policy, the effect of prison gerrymandering, and race, ethnicity, age, gender and the prison population, among other topics.

Finally, PPI has a strong list of legal resources for incarcerated people on their site (under “legal resource database”) that they keep updated.
In the interest of full disclosure (and pride), Peter Wagner is a 2003 graduate of the Law School, and the seed for PPI was planted during a research project he became involved with while here at the Law School.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #11: OpenRegs

OpenRegs is an app created by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University for viewing proposed and final federal regulatory rules. The app is a mobile version of the regulatory portal website. The app is a good concept, but poor implementation prevents it from being useful.

OpenRegs provides a snapshot of the current rulemaking activities of federal agencies. You can view lists of proposed rules whose comment periods have recently opened or are closing soon, recently published final regulations, and significant regulations. OpenRegs pulls the regulations from the last several days' editions of the Federal Register.

OpenRegs also lets you view rules by agency. You can browse a list of federal agencies and view recent proposed and final rules. You can also bookmark an agency or a rule for quick access in the app, or email the information about a rule for review outside of the app.

The idea of quick access to recent rulemaking activities is good, but OpenRegs fail to deliver anything beyond a brief overview. The app does not include the text of the rules or clickable links to more information. When you access a rule, OpenRegs gives the name of the rule, the publishing agency, the date comments close (for proposed rules), and a summary of the rule. If you want to see the rule itself or learn anything more about it, you have to look up the rule somewhere else.

OpenRegs seems to have the capability to provide links to more about the rules. It is able to link to external information; each agency page contains a statement about the agency and a link to Wikipedia for more information. And OpenRegs has web addresses to pages with information on the rules. The message generate by the email rule function includes the web address of the rule's page on, where you can view detailed information about the rule and link to the rule's full text.

Unfortunately, the web address included in the auto-generated email message is not hyperlinked, so the email function is not a viable shortcut to the complete information on the rule (unless you send the email and open it in a mail application, but then you are no longer using OpenRegs).

I am disappointed that the makers of OpenRegs chose not to provide links to complete rule information. I like the app otherwise. It has a simple layout that allowed me to quickly find recent rulemaking information. I found a list of recent rules published by the Institute of Museum and Library services in less than two minutes. The same information took my half an hour to locate on (the federal governments official site for accessing rulemaking information).

If more information where available, I would consider OpenRegs a great way to keep up-to-date on federal agencies. As it stands, the app will tell you that the federal government has been doing something, but it won't really tell you what. The OpenRegs app fails to deliver on its promised value.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #10: AllLaw

AllLaw (iOS) is the second of the "free" code library apps that I have investigated. Like LawBox, it offers collections of federal and state laws for purchase from within a free app.

The Good
AllLaw offers a large amount of content. Its library includes statutes for 47 states (including Massachusetts); federal statutes, regulations, and court rules; U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Tax Court opinions; and a legal dictionary. The state statutes are available for $5.99 each, the federal regulations and Supreme Court cases for $9.99 each. Or you can purchase the entire AllLaw library for $99.99.

While much of the content requires a purchase, the federal rules, federal statutes, tax court opinions, and legal dictionary are all free. This is an extensive collection of free material, making the app stand out against the competition such as LawBox.

AllLaw's content is broken up into five collections: state laws, federal law, federal rules, court cases, and the legal dictionary. Select a collection, and you bring up a table of contents and a search button. The table of contents is a hierachy: selecting a heading opens up a new table of contents of subheadings, until you reach the text itself. For example, I selected Federal Laws and was given the option of the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, or the Federal Register. I chose the U.S. Code, which opened a list of code titles. Selecting a title opened a list of the chapters in the title, then subchapters, until I reached a list of code sections. When I selected a code section, the text of the section appeared.

At any level of the table of contents, AllLaw allows you to run a search. The search is limited to the content covered by the current table of contents (e.g., searching the list of code titles search the contents of every title, but searching the table of contents for Title 17 searches only Title 17). When you are viewing the text of a section, the search locates and highlights terms within that section.

 From within a section of text, you can email the text or create a bookmark for easy return at a later date. And of course you can scroll through the section to read it.

The Bad
AllLaw delivers content, but it does not provide much information about the content. It does not indicate how current the statutes are, and the source of the legal dictionary is a mystery. The omission of currency notes hurts AllLaw's viability as a reference source--any information must be double-checked against a copy of the current code.

AllLaw also provides few features to go with its content. The app offers no highlighting or annotating functionality. You cannot even copy the text and paste it into another app. And you cannot page between sections of the codes. To move from a given section to the preceding or following section, you must go back to the table of contents and select the new section from there.

The search function, while a good idea, is not developed enough. The search results list only the name and number of the section for each hit. So if you search the entire united states code, you cannot tell which titles particular search hits are located in.

The text of the sections doesn't include any way-finding information either, so if you don't navigate to a section using the table of contents, there is no way to know where you are within the particular code or book.

Another weaknesss of AllLaw is that it does not download the actual content to your device. Everything is located on the cloud. As a general matter, cloud storage is a good approach, but AllLaw does not allow even selective downloading of content. Users cannot access any content while offline.

The Bottom Line
AllLaw doesn't make the cut to remain on my device. It has some good content, but the features are too meager to justify using AllLaw to access that content. All of the free content, and much of the paid content, is freely available Online. Since AllLaw requires that I be connected to the Internet, I can use my mobile browser to access the content anywhere I can use the app. Websites such as Cornell's Legal Information Institute deliver large code libraries complete with currency information and robust searching. AllLaw simply isn't competitive.