GPSOLO December 2008
Google stinks. So does Yahoo Search. MSN search couldn’t find its way out of a paper bag. Why do I say this? Because, while these search engines are great for picking up mentions of people and places from billions of web pages in seconds, try getting them to deliver a website that presents a 50-state survey of privacy laws with key court decisions, plus information on privacy laws of more than 70 other countries and multilateral organizations. That would be the privacy library of Morrison & Foerster located at www.mofoprivacy.com. But good luck finding that from a search of “privacy laws.”
All that great data on the Morrison & Foerster website is part of what’s called the “invisible web” or “deep web,” which contains enormous amounts of valuable information but which is difficult to find. This is because search engines use web crawlers that follow hyperlinks to find information on the web, but they do not crawl what’s beneath the surface—the databases and other “deep” data.
To give you some idea of the size of the deep web, Wikipedia in their “deep web” entry ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/deep_web) estimates that the deep web consists of about 91,000 terabytes. The surface web contains only about 167 terabytes, less than 1 percent of the deep web.
Diving into the Deep
As a solo attorney, the more resources that you can have at your disposal, the better you can compete with the big guys. What follows are some of the better “invisible” websites for lawyers, plus some ways to find these sites on your own.
One of the granddaddies of deep websites is the Stanford Law School Securities Class Action Clearinghouse ( http://securities.stanford.edu/index.html). Started in 1995, it claims to maintain an index of filings of 2,828 issuers that have been named in federal class action securities fraud lawsuits since passage of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. The Clearinghouse also contains copies of more than 27,900 complaints, briefs, filings, and other litigation-related materials filed in these cases.
It’s a pretty amazing resource and one that will always occupy a soft spot in my heart because, when in 1997 two of the principal developers of the Clearinghouse testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee about the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, they cited an article of mine in which I reviewed the Clearinghouse (see footnote 2 at http://securities.stanford.edu/research/articles/19970723sen1.html).
As an illustration of how this site has grown, in their 1997 testimony the developers boasted that the Clearinghouse listed “202 companies that have been sued in federal securities class actions governed by the Reform Act, together with the full text of more than 100 complaints”; today those represent only a small fraction of the Clearinghouse’s collection.
This site has a wide assortment of materials, including a 106-page article published in 2006 in the Stanford Law Review on outside director liability and a collection of the latest court filings related to the subprime mortgage meltdown. There’s also a great database search engine that allows you to specify multiple search criteria.
At lexisONE ( www.lexisone.com) you’ll find free searches of limited federal and state court cases (basically limited to the past ten years except for the Supreme Court, which goes back to 1781) and more than 6,000 legal forms from their Matthew Bender collection.
Many of the free legal forms are presented in HotDocs format, which allows you to fill in the requested information and then be presented with the completed form without having to purchase the HotDocs software. However, do exercise care in using these forms—I tried completing a HotDocs power of attorney for New York and I received a form that I knew did not conform to the New York law and even was labeled at the end of the form as “Alabama Civil Practice Forms (2d ed. 1992).”
Perhaps that problem proves the old saying that you get what you pay for, but I did find that there were some useful free forms on the lexisONE website. There is a wide variety of forms for each of the 50 states, including a nice collection of New York county litigation forms and New York state real estate forms, some in PDF and some in HotDocs format (these forms can be obtained at other websites for free as well, but lexisONE provides a service by collecting them all in one location). There are dates listed on many of the forms, so check to see if the form you wish to use has not been superseded by a more current form.
lexisONE also tries to sell you à la carte services throughout the site, but that’s understandable and is not done in an obnoxious way. However, I always try to find you good resources at no cost, which is not unreasonable, is it?
The Mother of All Deep Websites
Then there is the mother of all deep websites, the Legal Information Institute (LII) at Cornell University Law School ( www.law.cornell.edu). Many other sites that present codes and statutes get their information here, and besides codes and statutes, the LII has federal procedural rules, a list of more than 30 uniform laws with links to the enacted statutes in each state (to quickly find Ohio’s Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act, for example), a topical listing of state statutes with links directly to the full text of the statutes where available online (get to the Kansas probate code in just a couple of clicks), and legal subjects by topic (everything from administrative law to workplace safety), each of which leads to a page summarizing the topic, and where applicable, links to relevant portions of the U.S. Constitution, federal law, state law, federal court decisions, New York Court of Appeals decisions, articles of interest, and related topics. There is also a section on legal ethics for each of the 50 states, an in-depth library on Social Security, and a guide for basic legal citations.
FindLaw ( http://lp.findlaw.com) is a site that you’ve probably come across or read about elsewhere, so I’ll just say that, although it has some good free resources such as codes, articles, and links to other resources, too often a resource with a useful-sounding name like “Intellectual Property Center” leads you to a page consisting mostly of advertising and for-pay services.
RentLaw ( www.rentlaw.com) actually has some useful information about landlord/tenant law among its advertising, and it presents information broken down by state for such issues as rights to rent deposits, eviction guidelines, and laws about keeping pets in a rental unit. There is also more generic information that is not state specific, such as an extensive list of real estate terms.
Searching for More
Okay, I haven’t told you everything. Google, Yahoo, and MSN do have directories that are created by human beings, not by web crawlers, so that it is possible that more of the invisible web will show up in these directories. But they just aren’t very good or useful for a solo attorney. Information you are looking for simply will not be found quick enough, if at all.
A good source for many more guides and sources of the invisible web is the About.com site at http://websearch.about.com/od/invisibleweb/a/invisibleweb.htm. There you will find searchable invisible web databases and sites that have incredibly “deep” resources.
A good trick to turn your favorite search engine into an invisible web search engine is to add the word “database” to your search to get directly to a site with good invisible web resources. For example, if you just search “Maine limited liability company” on Google, you’ll find a link to the Maine limited liability company statutes at the top of your search, but if you search “Maine limited liability company database,” the state of Maine corporate name search (which includes limited liability companies) will come up at the top of your search.
Now That You Know . . .
This column, I hope, has given you enough to start accessing all those hidden databases missing from a standard Internet search, and as time goes on your skills will only sharpen, giving you access to much richer sources of information. Just don’t go around telling people that you now have the power to “see the invisible web.”
David Leffler is a member of the New York City law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC, which represents clients in business matters and litigation. Prior to that he was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years. In his spare time he blogs at staringatstrangers.com. You may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.