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JILT 1997 (2) - Peter Clinch

Josh Blackman's

How to use the Internet for Legal Research

Find/SVP (New York), 1996 221 pages, ISBN 1-56241-390-2

Reviewed by
Peter Clinch
Information Specialist - Law
University of Wales, Cardiff


1. Introduction
2. Parts I and II
  2.1 Setting the Scene
  2.2 Definitions
  2.3 Repetition
  2.4 Ommissions
  2.5 Sequence
  2.6 Style and Purpose
3. Part III - The Directory
  3.1 Substantive source section
    3.1.1 Site information
    3.1.2 International law sites
  3.2 Other lists
4. Conclusion

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This is a Book Review published on 30 June 1997.

Citation: Clinch P, 'Josh Blackman's How to Use the Internet for Legal Research', Book Review, 1997 (2) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

1. Introduction

Although there is a wealth of information in this book, the publication as a whole is a disappointment. It is badly structured, information is poorly presented and the value of the directory of Internet sites useful for legal research is diminished by the poor indexing. Also, parts of the book suffer from being out of date, such is the speed of change on the Internet. There are other limitations especially for non-United States readers: all the textual examples are from US practice and some of the technical information on, for example, commercial online services (p27), the division of Internet addresses into domains (p38-39), and encryption software (p68-69) are unique to US circumstances. Finally, the author has defined too wide an audience for his book and failed to structure the work to meet the disparate needs of that audience. In the preface he states that it is designed to serve practitioners, academics and the lay public. In fact the book speaks almost entirely to the practitioner, and when it tries to address the needs of the lay person, as in the sections on the purpose of legal research, the structure of the US legal system and how to cite correctly a US court decision printed in a paper source (p71-72), the explanations might appear very basic and patronising to the trained lawyer. Equally, the discussion on the merits of manual research versus the use of Lexis or Westlaw or the Internet (p72-76) deals with matters beyond the experience of the lay public.

The book is in three parts: introducing the Internet, practical uses of the Net and an Internet research directory.

2. Parts I and II

The first part contains chapters on "how the Net fits with legal practice", "Internet basics" and an "introduction to Internet information access tools". Part II covers practical uses of the Internet with chapters on "communication on the Internet" and "legal research on the Internet".

2.1 Setting the scene

The first chapter is a rather overlong statement of why the Internet is now an invaluable tool for the legal researcher in a law firm office. It sets the tone for the whole book. Academics (teachers and researchers) and lay people do not feature. The "academic essay" format selected for Parts I and II runs counter to the "time is money" ethos on which law firms are run. The use of bullet points, paragraph numbering and tables containing comparative information would help to communicate information more effectively and succinctly. The first chapter includes, as do four others, an extensive, rather rambling verbatim quotation from a fellow lawyer, supporting much of the discussion which has gone before. Use of the editor's red pencil to focus on the key points would have given the remarks more punch.

2.2 Definitions

In an attempt to include definitions of technical terms at appropriate points in the text, short notes are placed in the margins. This device is not employed consistently, though, and these notes as well as the body of the text are almost totally devoid of pointers or see references to where matters are discussed more fully. For example, the World Wide Web is first mentioned on page 16 in part of the discussion entitled "what the Internet is". There is no definition for WWW here. A definition of the hypertext characters of WWW documents is given in note 5 on page 23. WWW is also mentioned in passing on pages 26 and 27, but the full discussion and explanation appears on pages 42 and 43. There is no reader guidance between these points. Also some terms are mentioned without explanation: Adobe Post Script, Adobe Portable Document Format and TIFF (all on page 85). A glossary of terms would have been a useful addition to the book.

2.3 Repetition

There is also unnecessary repetition, probably as a result of insufficient discipline in what to include in part I, the introduction, and Part II, practical uses. For example, the structure of Internet addresses is explained three times: page 29, page 39 and page 91, and in the final example the paragraph is titled Uniform Resource Locater (sic). The discussion on newsgroups on page 40 is repeated, in essence, on page 61. Similarly the discussion on natural language search software on page 73 is repeated on page 76. This gives the impression of a disjointed work, with chapters and sections standing in isolation.

2.4 Omissions

As well as repetition there are omissions: in chapter 3 the sections on mailing lists and newsgroups contain a comparison of their characteristics. This fails to consider the relative insecurity and transience of messages to newsgroups. Contributors to a mailing list are usually individually identified, the list is moderated and the messages archived. None of these points is mentioned. The use of a table or bullet points for this type of comparison would convey facts more readily than do paragraphs of text. Subscribing to an e-mail list is mentioned (p 61) but not suspending, resuming or leaving membership. Also, the section on netiquette (p57-8) omits to mention the need to: include a descriptive subject line to the message, resist the temptation to fire off immediate responses if a message has angered you, check whether your response should go to the whole list or just an individual, avoid cross-posting. The costs of using the Internet are hardly touched on, apart from chapter 1 (p21). But perhaps the most serious omission is the total lack of reference to Web crawlers: Alta-vista , Yahoo and so on, just do not exist!

2.5 Sequence

The order in which items are discussed is unexpected: for example, in the section on e-mail, discussion of attachments, netiquette and using e-mail to retrieve documents, come before discussion on e-mail addresses. In practice the e-mail address for a message is the first information a sender keyboards.

2.6 Style and purpose

It is not clear how the author intends the book to be used. For the most part the essay style leads one to believe it is an "arm chair" guide, but in a few places, for example in the section on e-mail, there is detail of the keystrokes required to read messages from the nn newsreader (there is no mention of what an nn newsreader is, and no information for users of any other system), and detail of how to retrieve White House documents with instructions on what to put in the message. So, is the book intended to give an overview of the subject or to be a desk manual?

3 Part III - The Directory

The directory is in three sections: substantive sources (listing sites containing legal information); mailing lists; publications (listing electronic journals etc.).

3.1 Substantive source section

This is structured alphabetically by country, but with the United States taken out of sequence and placed first in the list. The US list is divided into federal and state sources and then further sub-divided into Executive Branch, Legislative, Judicial and finally, Federal Laws. The lack of an index to the directory is a great hindrance. For example, to find the entry for the Library of Congress, it is necessary to browse, unless you can be sure in which Branch it is placed. Eventually one stumbles over the entry for the Library of Congress Legislative Database. It appears to be the only LC entry in the directory.

This is puzzling (to say the least!) since in Part I at pages 31 and 43-44, the author uses the Library of Congress Catalog site as an example of how to search for information online and use Gopher software. There are even illustrations of the LC Catalog site in the text. But the site is not mentioned in the directory! Compared to the seven pages of entries on the range of Library of Congress sites mentioned by Don MacLeod in his Internet Guide for the Legal Researcher (Infosources Publishing : New Jersey, 1995), the limitations of Blackman's directory are apparent.

3.1.1 Site information

The United Kingdom entry lists just seven sites: three US sites holding the text of "ancient law" - the Bill of Rights 1689, Magna Carta and Laws of William the Conqueror - the Public Records Office , the "Access to Justice" site at the University of Warwick, the Law Technology Centre site also at Warwick, and the Law Society site. Information for the directory appears to have been gathered during 1995 and early 1996. So, where is mention of the large number of other UK University sites operating at that time, the first firms of solicitors who ventured onto the Net, the early Stationery Office site holding the Data Protection Act 1984 etc.? Also, many URLs are given as Gopher rather than WWW sites, which may indicate the "historic date" of the research which was undertaken to compile the directory.

Information about each site begins with a brief (usually one sentence) description of the site followed by information under some of the following headings (the order in which they are displayed under each site varies - another example of lax editing): provider, maintainer, address, phone, e-mail, contact, fax and URL. A full set of information is provided only for a small number of the sites. The one sentence site description is sometimes uninformative: for example, the entry for the New Zealand Statutes site (p167) gives users no idea of the time period covered or the authority of the site.

3.1.2 International law sites

Arranging the lists in the directory by site and without a subject or "publication" index is really frustrating when searching for international materials. Trying to find a site with the text of a particular treaty is time-consuming, since it is necessary to browse the extensive lists included within the entries for the Wiretap, Fletcher University, CIESIN and United Nations sites.

3.2 Other lists

Web Journal of Current Legal issues is listed in the electronic journals section but the URL is out of date. Some of the entries in the mailing list section of the directory are included in the book index unlike the majority of other entries in the rest of the directory. In the Legal Technology Resources section the CITI (sic) Law Technology Centre features.

4 Conclusion

Overall not a book to recommend. A practical and succinct guide for law researchers on how to use the Internet is still required. In view of the speed with which sites are developed and decay as the technology moves on (Gopher to WWW to whatever comes next) the value of a conventionally published directory bearing out of date information is questionable. The future ideal would be to leave the guide to using the Internet in paper form but create and maintain a law Internet directory on the Internet itself.

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