Survey reveals FindLaw’s aging core – Part 1

FindLaw’s core is showing its age. Started in 1994 as an index of legal resources on the Internet, FindLaw used that index as the foundation on which to build a range of resources for legal professionals, businesses and consumers. But in recent years, FindLaw has let its index go to seed, failing to weed out dead URLs, update site descriptions or add new resources as they come along. The deterioration of FindLaw’s index is so extreme as to call into question its usefulness as a primary resource for legal professionals.

Browsing FindLaw’s index is like stepping through a time warp, finding a sepia-toned picture of legal resources on the Internet as they once were. It is as if a moment came when FindLaw stopped the upkeep of its index. Regrettably, that moment seems to coincide with FindLaw’s acquisition in January 2001 by the former West, now Thomson.

At the time of the acquisition, a West statement said: “Everything that exists on FindLaw today … will remain.” It seems that, with respect to the index, West took that promise too literally.

FindLaw has had few greater cheerleaders than me. In both the 2001 and 2004 editions of my book, The Essential Guide to the Best (and Worst) Legal Sites on the Web, I gave FindLaw my highest rating of five stars, calling it “the best starting point for finding legal information on the Web.” Between 1995 and 1999, the Internet newsletter I formerly published, legal.online, repeatedly gave FindLaw its top annual “Best of the Web for Lawyers” award.

But in recent years, I began to notice weaknesses in the index – more dead links, more out-of-date sites and few, if any, updates or additions. I started to receive notes from readers of my books, columns and blog raising the same concerns and to hear others complain about FindLaw at seminars I spoke at or attended.

I decided to subject FindLaw’s Web index to some “site-checking” – going through it and checking the integrity of its links. The results shocked me. More than a quarter of all links I checked, 28 percent, were bad – dead or defunct sites, expired URLs, pages not found and servers not found. In one practice area, more than half the links were bad. Other key practice areas had a third or more of their links bad. The best I found for a practice area was an error rate of 16 percent. I found one link to a supposed legal resource that actually led to a porn site.

Of the links that remained “good,” many were to out-of-date resources or bore descriptions that no longer reflected the site’s content. Some were redundant, others simply irrelevant.

Were this some mom-and-pop collection of legal links, I’d not be surprised to find such failings. But this is FindLaw, a subsidiary of Thomson. These are two of the biggest names in legal research. I expect the resources they provide to be timely and accurate. I expect much better from both companies.

Instead I found an index that continues to provide several links to Law Journal EXTRA!, a Web site that was discontinued at the end of 1998. It is an index that continues to provide multiple links to the Internet Law Library – without at least explaining that the once-popular ILL closed early in 1999 and is now more a historical artifact than a serious research tool.

As if trapped in time, the index contains several references to the 1997 “Nanny Murder Trial” of Louise Woodward and the 1997 Bosnia War Crimes Tribunal, but I found no references to major trials of recent years.

Amid these historical curiosities, I found little evidence that FindLaw is updating its index with more contemporary sites. Where, for that matter, are the blogs? Shouldn’t any contemporary index of key legal resources include at least some of the leading blogs? In the sections of FindLaw’s index I reviewed, I found only one link to a blog — a blog that is no longer published.

My survey looked only at FindLaw’s index of law-related Web sites. Elsewhere, FindLaw provides a great deal of valuable information, all at no cost to lawyers. Its libraries of primary law — cases and codes — are of enormous value to the legal profession. In recent years, it has also become a key source of legal news and commentary. But for legal professionals performing online research, it is important that they understand the weaknesses in FindLaw’s index, so that they do not rely on it to the detriment of their research.

In part 2 of this post tomorrow, I will publish the details of my survey and its findings.

Posted in:
Updated:
  • I’ve noticed the same things. I always assumed that it was just an attempt to bring more customers to WestLaw, and to increase searce minutes for existing customers.

    If that’s true, it’s a sad thing for otherwise tech-savvy attorneys who happen to be solos or members of very small firms.

    I always liked WestLaw better than Lexis, but I don’t know if I’d ever subscribe to WestLaw anymore, since they’re apparently willing to leave “the little guy” out in the cold in favor of market share.

  • Great piece on FindLaw.
    Download a copy of TheLaw.net on us.
    See, http://www.thelaw.net/download.htm
    The activiation code/license no is:
    UFOL-FU28-GTFU-2843
    Thx.
    Mark Whitney
    CEO – TheLaw.net Corporation

  • Thanks for throwing some light on the deterioration of the much-beloved FindLaw following its acquisition by West.

    To West’s credit, it honored its commitment to allow the powered-by-FindLaw MyTexasBar portal site to continue despite offering free online legal research, and that site alone drove something like 10% of FindLaw’s traffic in its heyday. But I share your disgust at the virtual abandonment of much of what made FindLaw great in favor of a focus on its use as a feeder site for West’s Legal Directory and for-pay listings. Yes, money talks, but, hello West, lawyers areen’t listening anymore.

    To understand what made FindLaw such a sensation and a tool of inestimable value, you have to know something about the altruistic founders, Tim Stanley and Stacey Stern, and the marvelous team behind them. Their hearts were in the project, and, at its core, it wasn’t all about money. If I could buy back FindLaw and hand it over to the originators, I’d do it in a flash. What’ll it take Thomson? A nickel on the dollar should be enough after the damage done by Debbie Monroe and company, don’t you think?

    C’mon Thomson West, there’s still time to bring FindLaw back to its innovative roots and recapture the awe and admiration that made FindLaw the most visited legal site on the planet.

  • Translaw

    FindLaw also offered – notice past tense – a free web site for law firms and lawyers. I had a simple web site using their template for several years; it predated the West takeover. In the middle of July I received a terse notice, as did others using this feature of FindLaw, that our web sites would be discontinued as of August 1, 2006. So much for the promise to maintain everything, although I believed then and still do that FindLaw was acquired so that West could raise the frustration level with using it just high enough to cause people to switch to Westlaw. I still have a simple web site which I built myself, on free space offered by Verizon in connection with its Fios service, which has performed faultlessly for me for about three months (I do not use Verizon to host my domain since the host I have used for many years has such a great performance record).

  • FindLaw has many great resources available for free on the website including Federal cases and other legal research. The Findlaw for the public section seems to have some good info for consumers. I think part of the issue with maintaining the quality of the data in the FindLaw legal directory is not updating or doing quality checks on lawyer listing data that they get from third party sources. Also apparently many attorneys ( other than FEMA director Michael Brown ) don’t know that they can update the data listed in their profile with a self service webpage after they register and choose a password.

  • Lately, I have been using OpenJurist.org to find Federal Appellate Court and Supreme Court Opinions. It is more complete than FindLaw’s database, especially on Supreme Court Cases going back to the first cases of the Supreme Court.

    http://openjurist.org

    Thought you might be interested,

    Sam