by Carole Levitt, J.D., M.L.S.
A comparison of case law research capabilities of Lexis' new free service and FindLaw.com's free offerings.
On July 6, 2000, LexisONE debuted an ALL FREE FULL TEXT, KEY WORD case research web site. Search strategies are identical to its pay site.
FindLaw already offered free access to both a searchable U.S. Supreme Court database (back to 1893 compared to LexisONE's 1790 offering) and U.S. Court of Appeals cases (back to 1990 compared to LexisONE's 1996). And although FindLaw had been offering state case law back to 1996 for some time, they had not offered full text searching (only party name, docket and cite--which sure beat the court's offering). Then, on August 21, FindLaw, with partner AccessLaw, trumped LexisOne in the California state case law arena for date coverage by offering a free key-word full-text case law research site dating back to 1934 (covering the 2d, 3d and 4th series of California Reports and California Appellate Reports). Thus, FindLaw trumps LexisONE in the California state and the U.S. Court of Appeals case law arena for date coverage, while LexisONE trumps FindLaw in the U.S. Supreme Court case law arena.
Both sites permit key-word full-text case searching, with boolean connectors (“and”, “or” etc.), commands, and wildcards (! and *). But LexisONE'S 12 connectors and its 6 “commands” far surpass FindLaw's range of 4 connectors and its commands.
Besides running a full text search in a single state, LexisONE allows users to search “all states” simultaneously, from 1996 to date. FindLaw's full text state searching is limited to California only at this stage. LexisONE and FindLaw both allow for field searching by (1) party name; (2) judges name and (3) citation, but only LexisONE has fields for searching by counsel's name and by date.
While FindLaw only provides the official California citation of a case, LexisONE provides all citations. On the plus side for FindLaw, they provide the internal pagination of a case (resulting in ease of page citing) and, additionally, FindLaw users can even link to other California cases cited in their returned case by using the hypertext links within each case.
FindLaw highlights your search terms in the returned cases, thus a quick scan of the case for relevancy is possible, but much to my dismay LexisONE does not.
To compare the search engines and ease of navigation, I performed the same search in each site. My search focused on California Labor Code section 5410 and whether a workers compensation claim may be reopened five years after the date of the injury.
In LexisONE, my search was “labor and 5410 and reopen!”. This brought up 3 cases. Although the case citations were not displayed on the search results page, the decision date of each case was listed (which is more helpful than the citation if I had to choose between the two). Also, the cases were listed in reverse date order, just the way I like to see my results. After linking to a case, users can easily return to the search results page in order to link to any of the other cases by using the back arrow or clicking on “Return to search results” on the last page of the case. Modifying searches was also easy. Use the back arrow to return to the original search menu.
Running the same search in FindLaw's database, resulted in 100 cases. This number was significantly higher than results from LexisONE, of course, since FindLaw's database goes back 62 years further. FindLaw's search results page was not as informative as LexisONE's. First, although the case citations were listed on the results page, the decision date (the more helpful data as far as I am concerned) was not listed there. Second, by perusing the volume and series numbers, it was clear that the cases were not listed in reverse chronological order (the way I prefer to view results) or in any discernable order.
Despite FindLaw's extensive archive of cases, a 1980 case that I already knew was on point was not returned in the result list of 100 cases. When I queried the folks at FindLaw about the “missing” case, I was informed that only 100 cases are returned per search to avoid performance problems with the index server. I suggested that this information be included on the search page as a warning. If performance problems are at issue, a low-tech solution may be to add a date field, so searches could be divided up into smaller segments to avoid becoming too unwieldy for the FindLaw index server. Also, some of the case results did not contain all three of my search terms.
Clearly, FindLaw has some fine-tuning ahead of them, but the commitment to putting a searchable California state case law database free on the web, back to 1934, is laudable. While we cannot expect LexisOne to jeopardize its pay site's existence by adding earlier years to its free, searchable case law database, at least highlighting the search terms would enhance the site's usefulness (and FindLaw as well).
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