Thursday, February 14, 2008

Public Library of Law

File this one under websites you hope your client never finds.

Public Library of Law (PLOL) is a relatively new website (still in beta) out there that, as it's name would indicate, appears to be a one-stop source for legal information. A cursory look at it however reveals that it's little more than lipstick on a commercial pig and a creative, if not deceitful, use of frames. And as I alluded to above, this is one of those websites that you would rather your client not find; not necessarily because we want to hold all the knowledge, but because an untrained client could find just enough law to be dangerous, or worse for him, just enough to think he doesn't really need a lawyer.

PLOL has a search function for finding case law based on keywords, with no other method of searching (although the date range can be modified). The jurisdictions include SCOTUS cases as well as searches for each state individually. Given the "holiday" today I decided to get into the spirit and see what cases I could find which related to "Valentine's Day" and see how PLOL stood up to the two major paid services. It should be noted here that PLOL claims to only have results from 1997 - present. "Valentine's Day" on PLOL turned up 2 results, one in 2005, one in 1997. There is however a banner above the search results indicating that I can unlock 2 additional Federal Court results available to subscribers for the low-low price of $95/month. I have no intention of paying that and so I'll take their claim of two additional results at face and give PLOL the benefit of the doubt for a total of 4 results. On to the blue team; Westlaw returned 13 documents on the "sd-cs-all " database (6 since 1997) and 5 documents on the "sd-cs" database (3 since 1997), the two results from PLOL were, predictably, present in the Westlaw results. As for the red team; Lexis mirrored Westlaw's results exactly. So we're already uncovering an incomplete picture if one were to rely solely on PLOL. With that being said I'm not prepared to dismiss PLOL as completely useless to legal professionals. Imagine a situation where you are using a sketchy public computer and don't want to enter your Westlaw/Lexis password; or where you simply needed to find a quick citation on a particular case you were already familiar with, and weren't relying on it for what it actually said about and meant to the law. But the danger comes when the clients get their hands on a case from 1998 that has been overruled but can't understand why their limited search term didn't find, or PLOL didn't have, the key result.

As for some of the other "features" of PLOL... well, they sure can link and frame with the best of them. A quick word about what a "frame" is in web design will help people to understand what's really going on on the site. Frame's were all the rage in the mid-late '90s (several lifetimes ago for web design), and you still see some frames used as the building block of sites. To describe frames in the simplest terms would be say it's a way to view other web pages from within a single site, without ever (necessarily) indicating so to the viewer. Imagine a Picture in Picture television, that's kind of what frames are doing on a website, two completely different sources on one screen. If the material on the "framed" page is copyrighted frames can raise some fun IP issues, but that's a whole other matter, not an issue with PLOL. The point of this whole diatribe is this, PLOL claims to offer State statutes, State Regulations, and State Court Rules in addition to it's case law. "framing" the state sponsored pages, which is fine, but lazy. I think they'd be better off just linking to the sites themselves and risk the user not making their way back to the PLOL site (which is of course what they're worried about), than framing the sites under their own logo.

Finally there's the link on the far right... the legal forms. Oh, the forms! I can't imagine a better invention for lawyers than do-it-yourself online legal forms marketed to the clients. I mean, it will take us twice as many billable hours to clean up after these things than it would have taken if the client would have just come to us in the first place. This "service" by PLOL is much like those above, a frame to another site. I'm not sure if the source of these forms,, is a sister corp of PLOL, but if for what it's worth the entry site URL is Anyhoo, these forms are a joke. Here's a free .pdf preview of a defendant's affidavit in support of divorce decree (link). That has to be the most professional header I've ever seen (<-- sarcasm). And this can all be yours for the low low price of $12.95. So what's the verdict on PLOL? Well I'll say this. While I could imagine a scenario where it be may be slightly more helpful than harmful, I can easily say that I don't ever expect my web browser to be pointed in its direction again.
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  1. I need to respond to Bill's intro. An education in coding has only varied legal application and even less value when trying to pass on knowledge to a general audience. My knowledge of the COM (component object model) or the OSI model (Open Systems Interconnection) doesn't help me discover practically useful technologies faster, it just helps me understand and utilize them. From what I've seen, Bill isn't lagging in his ability to find useful technologies that will help him utilize technology in a competitive and profitable practice.

    BTW thanks for the good review Bill. I'd actually be interested in having a list of alternatives to Lexis and Westlaw and a comparison of how they stack up. I've used LoisLaw before, I'm sure there are more.

  2. I've just stumbled on another interesting solution for the small practitioner. A group called Public.Resource.Org has claimed to have released all Supreme Court Cases and Appeals court cases since 1950.

    It looks like the Supremes actually go back to the beginning. They are here:
    Feds are here:
    and here:
    Tar Balls are here:
    Fed DCTs are here:
    A defunct law reporter (?) is here:
    Some interesting books here:

  3. I took my intro out of the main post since we've brought on some other contributors and I'll repost it here.

    Since this is my first post I'll say a little about myself first. My esteemed colleague "Shube" is a trained technology professional, he put in his cubicle time, and he's got actual real world training in this stuff. I, on the other hand, went to UHK, University of Hard Knocks, essentially teaching myself, or otherwise figuring this stuff out on my own. The extent of my "training" essentially boils down to (1) no other kids living in the neighborhood before I got my drivers license coupled with someone thinking it would be a good idea to put the family computer in my bedroom throughout my adolescence; and (2) countless hours scrounging about help forums and "reverse engineering" other peoples work. Shube is Yo-Yo Ma and I'm the Naked Cowboy. Because of this Shube's posts are likely going to be a whole lot better at explaining the background behind the technology he's talking about, and likely cover a broader range of "stuff," whereas I imagine mine will more often fit in the "hey, this is a cool way to do something" or "here's a way to save yourself 5 minutes/5 bucks" category. Hopefully we'll both be helpful in our own way. Finally I want to apologize in advance for a few of my vices when writing... As may already be gleaned from reading this paragraph I tend to use quotations "too much" as well as using the ... to represent a comma/period when I'm not really sure what should apply... (<-- case in point). As my legal writing grade would indicate, I'm not a pro at punctuation, "sue me". And with that out of the way, lets break this beast in with my first post shall we.