Is this conversation privileged? Good, because I have a confession: I have become a Net Surfer. I further confess to not having made an evening run to my local, law school, or the College of DuPage library in months. I do not subscribe to a dedicated legal research service, which means I do — on occasion, but not as frequently as last year — take advantage of the resources and staff at the library in the courthouse. While still a beginner, this Boomer has gone from fear-leader to cheerleader in 18 months with no formal training. So can you.
If you are a computer novice, this article will give you an idea of where and how to start, with minimal technical talk, just a little in the way of semantics. If you already know, it may point you to a few places you will find useful, interesting or just fun, concentrating on some easily accessible, free legal sites.
You don’t have to put any money out right away. Your local library, or the library at a public college or university, can probably initiate you at little or no cost. You may also be able to obtain e-mail and/or Internet privileges from your alumni association or other organizations to which you belong. You don’t have to know the technical stuff. You can learn as you go and ask other users, computer stores and toll-free support lines, which are generally quite helpful.
[Note: If you are using your own computer, I am assuming a system with Windows 95, 98 or 2000 operating software; a Pentium-class processor; sufficient memory to download additional software; a 56K/128 modem, broadband or DSL to hook up to the Internet; and a trial subscription to at least one Internet Service Provider (ISP) such as AOL. (So hold on to those promotional CD’s that keep showing up in your junk mail at home.) If you are in the market, check out the hardware and software articles in the DCBA and ISBA magazines over the last couple of years. Try to get a system that is "plug-and-play," that is, with color-coded cables for easy setup, and pre-loaded with all the software you need, anti-trust actions not withstanding.]
Just try it! Turn on your PC. Click on the logo (‘icon") for your ISP and sign in. Most ISPs divide their information into channels, or categories. If you click your mouse on an appropriate category, your search will be less cumbersome. And quicker. Like going into the right section at the library instead of just browsing shelves at random to find a specific book. I said "browsing" because you are using your automatic, magic browser software (for instance, Internet Explorer) to move from one place to another on the Net.
When you are in the right section, or perhaps to find the right section, you search for something more specific using a "search engine," companies like Yahoo, IWON, Snap.com, etc. or whichever brand your ISP invisibly provides without you having to click it on. There is even a specialized search engine called Lawcrawler. You search by typing in or clicking on to the particular words, phrases or topics you want. (AOL calls them "keywords" — hmm, wonder where they got that?)
An example: to begin this article, without even going into a channel or entering a commercial search engine, I just typed "Employment Law" and hit Search. AOL came up with more than 10,000 listings, with brief descriptions, grouped in pages of 10 each. Most were law firm web sites. But the first couple of pages had some sites that were pretty neat. Likewise, "process servers" resulted in approximately 6,700 choices. The possibilities are virtually limitless, pun intended.
And all you have to do to get to those sites is click your mouse on anything that is underlined, which indicates there is a direct "link" (hyperlink) to that web site. Clicking will take you to the "home page"— a la the cover of a magazine — for that site. Click on the pictures of the arrow keys in the corner of your screen to go back and forth between pages of a particular site, or follow the links, either underlined phrases or pictures, where you will.
Once you have visited a site, you save time next visit by going directly to it, via its address, or by "bookmarking" it as a favorite site. If you already know what web site, address or "URL" you want, type in that destination, then click "Go" instead of "Search." Internet addresses generally start out "www" (World Wide Web) and end with ".com" for a commercial site, ".org" for a not-for-profit, ".edu" for a research or educational institution, or ".gov" for a government agency.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Despite the scary vocabulary, you won’t get busted or lose your license if a "window" (a box with information in it) suddenly appears accusing you of having performed an "illegal operation." That is just some software manufacturer’s perverted way of telling you their program won’t let you go there or do that. Just click "OK". You may also be interrupted by pop-up ads and annoying messages, especially with a free ISP. Just close (click on the "X" in the upper right corner) or cancel them until you learn how to set your ISP to block them.
Of course, you will get frustrated. But the nice thing about road rage on the information highway is that at this stage you are probably too unskilled to hurt anybody else. So click up Solitaire and play until your anger subsides or you win, whichever comes first.
Remember that a web site is only as good as its links which, for legal work, are often government sites. Some sites require a "Boolean search" which means the same kind of more sophisticated phrasing and connectors you find on subscription legal services, e.g. Lexis, Loislaw, Westlaw, etc. Some require you to know the name or citation of a statute to pull it up. You won’t be able to cite-check or look at annotated statutes via most of the free legal research spots. This will never replace good-old, start-from-scratch, issue-based digest and case law books, and Shephard’s, either in person or via computer. As with any research, when you keep running across the same sources through three or four different gateways or alternative phrases, you have probably exhausted yourself as well as the ability to get much more useful data.
As you gain experience, you may find that not only do your research skills expand horizontally and vertically, but so does your ability to market your firm and manage some business aspects of your practice (and your life) on the Internet. You will also gain credibility with clients, especially when, as happens more frequently all the time, they come to you armed with legal data they have pulled from the Net. Next thing you know, you, too, will want a scanner and MORE SPEED.
This is by no means comprehensive, and these sites change, come, go and merge, as with any business. Some are corporate, some not-for-profit, and some set up by individuals. But they will provide an idea of the types of resources that are available, legal and non-legal.
I practice employment law, so that is what I will emphasize in the legal sites, but the substantive area doesn’t matter; just find parallels in your own area of expertise, such as management organizations, insurance company sites, whatever. Your alma mater or other schools may even have their libraries online; access normally is via the institution’s ".edu" site. The techniques ("protocols"), and even many of the sites, work across the board.
WWW.SNAP.COM — A search site like Yahoo or IWON. Very well organized and indexed. Provides a good gateway for retailing and consumer product reviews as well as various business, news, entertainment and other topics. A good place to learn what search engines can do and how to navigate the Web.WWW.ACLU.ORG— Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, this free site has easy-to-access information on Constitutional issues as well as things such as workplace rights, and publications available for purchase.WWW.HG.ORG— The organization that runs this legal search site is called Hieros Gamos. My favorite of the legal specialty sites. Provides good overall coverage of international and national developments. It is comprehensive and well organized, with links for both general and very specific legal issues. The research categories are subdivided with accurate descriptive headings so you get what you expect, with literally hundreds of choices including major legal research sites. There are links to law schools, commercial sites and Usernet/discussion groups. Typical of many of this type of web site, you can subscribe to a free newsletter. Also typical, you can elect to make this your "home page," that is, the screen that comes up whenever you log on to the Internet.WWW.BPWUSA.ORG— Business and Professional Women is a well established and respected women’s networking and issues organization with several local chapters in our area. The national web site is not legal per se, but does have excellent material and sources for matters of special significance to women, emphasizing equal pay and related work rights.WWW.IICLE.ORG— The Illinois Institute for Continuing Legal Education keeps improving its web presence. Naturally, the site promotes the Institute’s CLE courses and books, which are good enough in themselves. Beyond that, there are on-line learning opportunities, essential information about key areas of the law, free practice area e-mail newsletters, and in-depth articles.WWW.FINDLAW.COM— Legal resources presented in a text-heavy format not cluttered by a lot of distracting ads and graphics. It is easy to search the extensive links. It uses Lawcrawler to find statutes and court opinions. You can download federal and state forms and a range of sample contracts. There’s an online legal dictionary, international and state government links, links to law schools and legal organizations, and job data.
WWW.ISBA.ORG— You can take a look without being a member of the Illinois State Bar Association, since there is a lot of law and politically related public information. But the web site is worth dues by itself for the members only services: great research links, daily general and specialized discussion groups, daily case law and trial practice summaries from the state courts and Seventh Circuit, on-line CLE, legislative updates, several years worth of bar journals, and much more. There’s even a "toolbox" section with all kinds of forms and other goodies. Much of the research goes through the IIT-Kent College of Law online library.WWW.DCBA.ORG— Similarly, our own local bar web site is a winner. As with the ISBA, you can market yourself in a categorical directory for the public. There are excellent research links, bar and bench updates, announcements, publications, Frequently Asked Questions (the ubiquitous "FAQs" you see on so many web sites), etc. A site for us to be proud of.WWW.STATELAW.COM— Super site! Clean, clear direct links to major bar organizations, state courts, state agencies, CLE resources, counties, municipalities and libraries. Just follow the links. A long list of federal links, too, for everything from the U.S. Code to Congress and the executive agencies. If you type in "/illlinks" after the ".com," you go directly to the Illinois links. (Or you can go directly at WWW.STATE.IL.US.) The Secretary of State, by the way, has links to the Administrative Code and Regulations, pertinent sections of which you can get by e-mail free or for a small charge.WWW.MONSTER.COM— This is a widely advertised career site. In addition to employment listings and resume postings, it has some interesting bulletin boards where people post information and questions about workplace issues and office politics. Answering questions on this kind of site (with appropriate disclaimers, of course) is good marketing. Plus you see how employees are thinking, if you really want to know.WWW.USPS.GOV— This is the U.S. Post office site. Everything from buying stamps to looking up zip codes to accessing post office manuals and regulations.WWW.LAWINFO.COM— Fine site for litigation support services including process servers, consultants and expert witnesses. Also bail bonds, forms, paralegals and court reporters. Interesting FAQs for consumers concerning various legal areas.WWW.LAWSMART.COM— This is a sister site for Lawinfo.com. It is geared to law consumers and small businesses, with FAQs, forms, discussion boards, and more in a very user-friendly format. So good as a basic resource within its areas of concentration that I hope somebody engaged in UPL doesn’t run it.WWW.BULLYBUSTERS.ORG— Bullybusters is a not-for-profit organization that helps people deal with bosses and coworkers who, while not necessarily doing anything illegal, are creeps, of the nutty or power-hungry breed. The emphasis is on bad conduct that goes beyond the life-is-unfair or that-is-why-they-call-it-work variety, but does not cross the line into illegal harassment, discrimination or assault and battery.WWW.LAW.COM— This site leans towards news and commentary on legal issues, with services also directed to law students and consumers, with state-specific links. It is heavier on the graphics, therefore a little slower than the text sites. There’s a well-indexed federal research section with direct access to the U.S. Code and key statutes such as Immigration and ADA. For those who have been on the net for a while, this has merged with the old CounselQuest.WWW.LAWYERS.COM— Martindale-Hubbell Directory site aimed law consumers. Information on how we work, what we do, how to select and retain counsel. Has an Ask-A-Lawyer section. Other useful links for clients and the profession include FAQs, message boards, news, features, information from various practice areas, media, and other useful sites.WWW.LAWSOURCE.COM— Sources and links for American law, meaning the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The key word search capability is cool. And there is a sort of Poly Sci 101 primer on each country’s legal system.WWW.NELA.ORG— The National Association of Employment Lawyers, which is the plaintiff’s bar for employment and labor law.WWW.OLIVERSCASES.COM— This is not a free site after trial but is worth mentioning because it takes a new approach to updating case law. You pay an inexpensive, flat annual fee and select specific areas, then are notified when new cases are available. Very attractive, well organized and thorough, with subdivisions in each area — for instance, employment law is separated into union-related issues, discrimination, and safety. Also has excellent toll-free support.WWW.TASANET.COM— Find consultants and expert witnesses.WWW.EEOC.GOV— Like many state and federal government agencies, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission uses its site to answer Frequently Asked Questions, describe its jurisdiction and procedures, post the statutes and regulations under which it operates, issue press releases, and allow you to download forms.WWW.DUPAGEONLINE.COM— I am throwing this new service in because it is local and has great potential for both free and paid advertising, plus being handy for looking for the nearby stuff for which you always use yellow pages.
Have fun—and welcome to the late 20th century, if not the 21st.
Marti J. Sladek has a solo practice in Downers Grove and Wheaton. She received her B.S. from Kent State University (1968), her M.A. (Journalism) from The Ohio State University (1969), and her J.D. from Loyola University-Chicago (1994).