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But in recent years, I began to notice weaknesses in the index – more dead links, more out-of-date sites and few, if any, updates or additions.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Of the links that remained “good,” many were to out-of-date resources or bore descriptions that no longer reflected the site’s content.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.