GPSolo Magazine - June 2005
A Decade of Law on the Internet
From dial-up computer net- works capable of transmit-ting court cases within days to wireless satellite connectivity, the Internet has grown into an indispensable and easily accessible tool for attorneys.
Origins of the Internet
Today’s Internet got its start with funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The first two computers on the network, one at Stanford Research Institute and the other at UCLA, connected remotely in 1969 and became known as ARPANET. In 1971 additional sites were added at Harvard and MIT.
What is now called the Internet is the World Wide Web, a collection of computer files (i.e., home pages) developed in 1990 to allow physicists at different universities and institutions to communicate. Each file is accessed by an address called a uniform resource locator (URL).
Ten years ago, the Internet was much more diverse and far more cumbersome for attorneys to use. At that time, attorneys would dial into a system to view typed pages listing available resources. To access these resources, they would type in commands that allowed them to move from one page to the next. For example, typing in the word “gopher” would connect a computer with the University of Minnesota’s computer and provide a list of resources. The menu-based Gopher system developed by the University of Minnesota and named after the school’s mascot had search tools called Veronica and Jughead that enabled users to find Gopher’s server resources. Gopher wasn’t alone. Another front-runner was the WAIS-searchable databases. WAIS (Wide Area Information Servers) databases had no bells and whistles and very little depth in terms of case law when compared with the commercial Lexis and Westlaw services.
In stark contrast to ten years ago, today’s Internet is filled with hypertext links and graphic interfaces that enable attorneys to jump from one site to the next by pointing and clicking their mouse. The pages are easier to read, and the number of links per website can be staggering. And most attorneys are no longer connecting using dial-up systems. Many have converted to DSL (digital service lines), cable connections, or T-lines—all faster than connections via telephone modems.
As Internet connectivity has grown, so, too, has attorneys’ connectivity to each other, clients, and the vast supply of free or nearly free information available on the web, both legal and non-legal. Access to continuing legal education and opportunities to practice remotely without leaving one’s office abound.
E-Mail and Listserves
E-mail often has replaced faxes, quick letters, or phone calls. Lawyers are using the Internet to give clients status reports and regular information about cases. In the early stages, e-mail was primitive. Complicated addresses had to be keyed manually, and then attorneys would dial into a system to send their mail. Files were difficult and time consuming to download or upload. To make this easier, many accessed the Internet and e-mail through an online gateway service such as Prodigy or CompuServe. E-mail addresses remained cumbersome, however—an early CompuServe address was 76333,27110.
Today, individuals use a variety of methods for sending e-mail and files quickly and easily. Some use online services such as America Online ( www.corp.aol.com), CompuServe ( www.compuserve.com), or Prodigy ( http://myhome.prodigy.net), while others use Internet service providers such as the cable company Comcast ( www.comcast.com).
The development of e-mail also led to the growth of Internet discussion groups or listserves, which are subscription mailing lists. Responses to messages are e-mailed to subscribers. The American Bar Association has a variety of listserves open to lawyers and non-lawyers (to learn more, go to http://mail.abanet.org/archives).
One of the early listserves for attorneys was known as Lexis Counsel Connect. It spawned several in-person gatherings and many lasting friendships. CompuServe and America Online also started early legal forums—places were messages could be posted or real-time discussions could occur. They continue to exist but don’t draw the same support as many ABA-sponsored groups.
The ABA’s discussion groups have taken off, especially the Solosez band ( http://www.abanet.org/soloseznet/), started in the early months of 1996. The group, which now boasts roughly 1,300 members, regularly discusses births, deaths, and jokes along with loads of legal information, referrals, and legal and ethic dilemmas.
This list and others have given new meaning to the idea of a memo or document bank. Documents are freely traded and many are posted on www.mydocsonline.com.
Another handy web feature is e-mail news magazines, or “webzines,” some of which are free. One useful example is www.LLRX.com, which includes articles and information about websites and other technology issues that affect lawyers. The ABA Journal has an e-mail news magazine called the E-Report ( www.abanet.org/journal/ereportinfo.html) available to subscribers, and the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division offers several free e-publications to its members ( www.abanet.org/genpractice/newsletter/index.html), including The Buzz, GP|Solo Law Trends & News, GP|Solo New Lawyer, and GPSolo Technology eReport.
Chat Rooms and Newsgroups
Instant messaging or real-time chat, a phenomenon that in large part became pervasive because of America Online, has grown so that other providers, such as CompuServe, MSN ( www.msn.com), and Yahoo ( www.yahoo.com), offer it free. Chats can be with individuals or with groups in chat rooms without any need for scheduling.
If you are looking to combine different instant messaging systems into one system, try Trillian ( www.trillian.cc). It allows you to combine AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo Messenger, and IRC messengers so you need to open only one software application. With it you can have chats, audio chats, group chats, chat rooms, buddy icons, and file transfers. Unlike AIM or other instant messengers, it comes with a price tag ($25).
The web also includes newsgroups, which are web-based message boards of topically organized messages about many varied subjects ranging from legal issues to health information. Groups of related messages are called threads. You can follow a thread, making it easier to follow a particular discussion if a group is especially active. One of the drawbacks to these boards is that you must check the site for responses to postings because they are not e-mailed.
In contrast to listserves or newsgroups, chat groups discuss issues in real time . Various chat groups meet regularly. Others meet sporadically and will notify members of their meetings. Many are available at various times throughout the day and night. One of the advantages to participating in these chats is that you often get an immediate answer to a troubling question.
Websites and Blogs
Websites are also a key communication mechanism for attorneys to reach clients and prospective clients. North Carolina attorney Lee Rosen uses his website ( www.rosen.com) to give prospective clients legal information such as cases and statutes as well as articles about his practice. Rosen even provides an online calculator ( www.rosen.com/calculators/feecalculator.asp) so that prospective clients can calculate fees and existing or prospective clients can calculate child support.
Attorneys are also using the web’s newest form of communication—blogs. These quickly and easily updated web journals, often containing practice-relevant legal information geared for lay readers, can be posted at attorney websites. Some attorneys say that hosting a blog has increased their client base.
Extranets and Intranets
Website-based extranet systems also are helping attorneys serve and communicate with clients without a lot of time and effort. Clients sign onto a law firm’s site to find cases, statutes, articles, legal search engines, or case updates.
Intranets are changing the way attorneys and paralegals collaborate with each other and the way attorneys work. These private, often Internet-based networks are designed to be accessed only by personnel within a law firm—sometimes in distant offices. Intranets allow many attorneys to work from home or on the road by connecting them to their office’s network of computers to retrieve e-mail or documents and to send in billing forms.
Intranets may offer sample briefs, motions, letters, or interrogatories. Many store memos and deposition transcripts, while others have message boards that enable law firm colleagues to solicit information or assistance. Instant messaging or online chats also may be offered.
Research on the Web
The single largest growth area for attorneys on the Internet is the vast number of free and inexpensive legal resources. Once believed to be unreliable, Internet-based research tools now include some of the best primary legal sources and people finders.
With services such as Accurint ( www.accurint.com), now a Lexis product, you can find witnesses or experts or undertake business due diligence, often for as little as a quarter.
Searching for a case can be as easy and as cheap as accessing a court website. Court opinions, statutes, government documents, and other primary authorities are available 24 hours a day. One drawback to these websites is that the materials may come directly from the courts without having been proofread. However, often these sites are reliable and good places to start.
Some sites allow you to download opinions for free, while others have minimal charges. For example, federal cases can be accessed through PACER after you set up an account ( http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov). A small fee is charged for cases.
Some courts offer cases in ASCII format that omits all of the court opinion’s formatting, while others provide documents in word processing or graphic text formats.
To search for cases, many court sites permit keyword searches of the full text of court documents, while others require the docket number or party names.
Some courts also provide free docketing services. For example, the Illinois Supreme Court has a free service that e-mails subscribers about new or updated court docket information on the court website.
Westlaw ( http://west.thomson.com) and Lexis ( www.lexis.com) still offer premium services such as headnotes that ease a legal researcher’s quest for relevant primary and secondary authorities, but today these services are web-based. Other research contenders are Loislaw ( www.loislaw.com) and Versuslaw ( www.versuslaw.com), but these sites don’t have the same enhancements as West or Lexis web-based products.
Searching the web for legal information outside such premium services still can be challenging, however. The web is not a well-organized network, and there is no 24-hour help desk to assist lawyers in completing research. Search engines often do not retrieve the most useful sites. It’s best to use multiple search engines; they often work differently and yield varied results.
Rules, statutes, and other primary sources also are readily available on the web, as are court and other government forms. For example, the Internal Revenue Service now provides forms needed for filing taxes and instructions on its website ( www.irs.gov) as PDF (portable document format) files that can be read with the free Adobe Reader software. These PDF forms can be filled in on the computer.
For those who need the Code of Federal Regulations, skip the hard copy pamphlets that are updated in sections four times a year. Instead, check out www.gpoaccess.gov/cfr/index.html, where code sections are available in plain text or PDF files.
Attorneys can track federal bills as well as some pending state legislation on the web. Newly introduced bills, text of enacted laws, and often information about the progress of the bill are located on the Internet. For example, a California site provides the full text of bills for several years in addition to the status, history, and voting record of current legislation. It can be searched by keyword or by author. A site called “Thomas” (named for Thomas Jefferson) from the Library of Congress (http://thomas.loc.gov) assists users in tracking federal legislation.
Trademark and patent information in full text format is available through the Internet at the government patent office site ( www.uspto.gov). C Corporate information such as U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings is available on the Internet. These filings are available usually within 24 hours of filing in an electronic database called EDGAR (Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval System). It is accessible through the Securities and Exchange Commission’s home page ( www.sec.gov). Researchers can search this database by name, form type, or date. The SEC home page also offers access to commission reports, investor guides, and other securities-related information.
Live Courtroom E-Casts
If you are looking to keep track of live courtroom proceedings, some courts are now broadcasting proceedings in real time over the Internet. Tune in to Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit ( www.ninja9.org) or the Mississippi Supreme Court ( www.mssc.state.ms.us/DocketCalendar/default.asp). Live streaming in the early days was slightly delayed and often the video was poor. Today’s quality is improving.
One of the newest booms for lawyers and courts is e-filing. It allows courts to cut processing time and expenses and reduce paper document tracking and storage. For attorneys, it saves the time and trouble of racing to court to meet filing deadlines. Many courts offer 24-hour filing seven days a week via the web—another advantage for attorneys. Notification of filing status often is immediate.
E-filing has evolved from its early days when attorneys were permitted to fax documents to courts. Later some courts allowed attorneys to submit documents via e-mail. For many courts, e-mail presented problems in integrating the filed documents into court records.
To address this problem, many have approved outside companies that act as electronic post offices to ease that process.
Hundreds of courts nationwide not only permit e-filing, but many now require it. By the end of 2005, all federal courts will be able to accept e-filings.
As of November 2004,. a federal court spokesman reported to the National Center for State Courts that 187 federal courts were implementing e-filing. Another 137 courts already accept e-filings, and they manage 16 million cases, accepting 150,000 new cases each month along with 4 million docket entries each month. At that time, 250,000 lawyers were registered and 130,000 lawyers were actively e-filing.
In the future, courts are expecting to establish e-calendaring as well, to allow attorneys to set their cases online.
Web-Conferencing and Depositions
Depositions can now be handled over the web, allowing attorneys who have high-speed Internet connections to stay at their office while witnesses or other deposition participants remain thousands of miles away. Web-based depositions also allow other attorneys to watch the deposition and review transcripts in real time so that they can feed questions to an attorney in a remote location. This can save a firm time and money. Several companies, such as Chicago- based I-Dep ( www.i-dep.com), help set up web-based depositions for law firms.
Video conferencing and deal rooms also are providing attorneys with new ways to practice using the web, rather than traveling to distant locales.
Continuing legal education on the web continues to improve, and the number of vendors grows daily. Attorneys can attend seminars from the comfort of their homes or offices any time of day, saving time and money. Often they can download the materials. The ABA ( www.abanet.org/cle/home.html) and West ( http://westlegaledcenter.com/home/homepage.jsf) offer continuing legal education online, as do several other providers. Some programs are broadcast live with question-and-answer sessions.
Attorneys’ use of the Internet as a practice tool will continue to grow exponentially in the coming decade. Attorneys’ communication with current and potential clients via the web also will expand as more lawyers develop websites and write blogs. Access to an ever-increasing number of legal and factual resources, both governmental and private, will enhance attorneys’ research capabilities. With easy Internet access to court cases, dockets, rules and motions, e-filing, and soon e-calendaring, attorneys rarely need to leave the office. They can attend depositions, settlement conferences, and continuing legal education programs all via the web. Who knows, maybe someday court appearances will be as simple as turning on a computer with an attached web cam and speaking into the microphone—all while sitting in the comfort of one’s own office.
Hope Viner Samborn is a freelance writer and lawyer living in the Chicago area. She can be reached at email@example.com.