The "high rent" area of commercial legal online services continues to encounter the "low rent" realities of the Web. West Group (http://www.westgroup.com) has allied with Northern Light Technology (http://northernlight.com; http://NLResearch.com) to create what they claim will become "the most comprehensive, accurate, and organized legal Web search engine in the world." Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court has opened a complete Web site, offering full-text case opinions, court rules and procedures, calendars and schedules, etc., for no charge—beyond paying one's federal taxes.
West Group, a Thomson subsidiary, already dominates the print area of legal publishing. With 13,000 databases, Westlaw's only real competition in the commercial online arena comes from LEXIS-NEXIS. The Northern Light service accesses over 220 million Web pages. The new arrangement will provide a single, integrated search that covers commercial and legal Web sites in sequence.
Northern Light will concentrate its efforts on finding quality legal sites and categorizing them into the 36 broad "high-level practice" areas developed in West's renowned Key numbering system. The basic folders encompass general categories of legal practice—family law, securities, intellectual property, etc. According to Leslie Ray, vice president of partnerships at Northern Light, the company also plans on using further taxonomic breakdowns in the West Key system ("lots of children to the 36 parents"), though it does not expect to offer anywhere near the full "granularity" in applying terms as the full Key system.
A pilot version of the service will launch in May, with the full service available to all Westlaw customers before the end of the year. We asked Ray if searchers would have the opportunity to search Web sites before Westlaw databases, since that might prove more economical to users. She explained that West users were not as price-sensitive as other Northern Light clients (or at least that's what West's people had told her), but that legal researchers these days did not consider a search complete without including the Web. Though she could not confirm it, we got the impression that the Web retrieval would occur after users had entered Westlaw searches.
West is a company with over a century of experience in legal publishing. Northern Light Technology began in 1996 and launched its search engine/full-text service in August 1997. Northern Light's full service reaches not only more than 220 million Web pages, but over 20 million articles from 6,400 full-text sources, available for pay-per-use. Professional searchers, as well as end-users, have responded favorably to Northern Light's offering, making it a standard tool in an online researcher's toolkit.
Commercial online services have received requests from professional searchers to take the Northern Light approach and offer integrated Web searching. Several years ago, a LEXIS-NEXIS representative told this reporter that the company had a Web search tool under development, but we're still waiting. Reports circulate that Westlaw users suggested the alliance with Northern Light. This seems to fit a pattern in the traditional online industry that makes it easier to introduce substantial innovation through alliances, rather than through in-house R&D.
The commercial online industry is hardly unique in this approach. Northern Light recently announced an alliance with Fidelity Investments, the largest mutual fund company in the U.S., to provide a financial Web search service to Fidelity's clientele. As Ray pointed out, Northern Light's "charter" is "a grand vision of indexing all human knowledge" on the Web. To do it well, to skim the cream and find the best on the Web, they need partners with subject expertise.
Meanwhile, Back in the Public Domain
The U.S. Supreme Court has launched its official Web site (http://www.supremecourtus.gov). The site is not completely functional yet. For example the docket section (http://www.supremecourtus.gov/docket/docket.html) carries a notice referring users to the Court's old BBS (202/554-2570). Though it promises to offer docket information on the site, it sets no date for that development.
Users can download Adobe PDF documents for the Court Schedule and Supreme Court Calendar (http://www.supremecourtus.gov/calendar/calendar.html) and two sets of Court Rules (http://www.supremecourtus.gov/ctrules/ctrules.html). The site offers a site-wide search engine that can apparently index PDF files, but it is no substitute for full-text archival searching of commercial services.
Searchers can also download PDF files of Court opinions (http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/opinions.html). For 1999 and 2000, the site offers opinions direct as PDF documents. For opinions issued during October terms from 1992 through 1999, it offers a file that identifies how to acquire the documents. Coverage of opinions includes in-chambers opinions (stay applications, etc.) and opinions relating to orders (dissents from denial, etc.). Another section covers Orders of the Court with Granted/Noted Cases List.
General material on the court includes a brief overview, background on the Court and its constitutional role, biographies of current Justices, lists of all the Justices from 1789 to present, visitor services and access, press releases, media advisories and other public information services. Attorneys anticipating work with the Court can also find bar admission forms plus instructions and case handling guides. The site also carries a short list of related Web site links.
So, should legal searchers run right out and start lining out the clauses in their Westlaw or LEXIS-NEXIS contracts that include Supreme Court coverage? Not quite yet. Print still dominates. Notices on the site clearly indicate that the Court has no full commitment to permanent archives: "The slip opinions collected here are those issued during October Term 1999, which began on October 4, 1999, and which will end on October 1, 2000. These opinions will remain posted until the conclusion of October Term 1999, or until the opinions are published in a preliminary print, whichever is later. [Italics added.] New opinions will be added here as they are issued."
In fact, it might be wise to retain contracts in place for print subscriptions as well. The bias toward print as the authoritative format becomes even more apparent: "Caution: These electronic opinions may contain computer-generated errors or other deviations from the official printed slip opinion pamphlets. Moreover, a slip opinion is replaced within a few months by a paginated version of the case in the preliminary print, and—one year after the issuance of that print—by the final version of the case in a U. S. Reports bound volume. In case of discrepancies between the print and electronic versions of a slip opinion, the print version controls." [Italics added.]
Nonetheless, the Web has arrived at the top of the legal food chain in these United States. The online revolution marches on.