Friday, October 30, 2009

File Sharing Leads to Disclosure of House Ethics Report

There are several reports out this morning regarding the leak of a preliminary report generated by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, aka the Ethics Committee. See the report on the NPR site here, and on the NYTimes site here.

Although one representative deemed this to be "cyber-hacking" it appears, instead, to be a simple case of a staffer releasing the report via a peer-to-peer file sharing site. Cyber-hacking would mean, of course, that the security of the Committee's electronic files had been breached. The Committee statement about the leak is here.

This is nothing new. There have been government leaks before. What is new is that the speed and ease of the dissemination of the leaked material was facilitated by use of the Internet in ways that Congress could not foresee. If the fired staffer had used a large enough email list he would have had the same effect. We can look for hearings and possible legislation on this issue. The answer is not to put additional restrictions on file sharing or to beef up their network. The answer is for Congress to vet its employees more carefully.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wex - Substitute for Blacks Dictionary?

For research purposes the answer is probably no. But for 1Ls who don't want to buy Blacks the answer may be yes.

Wex is the online dictionary/encyclopedia available on the Cornell LII website. The dictionary is here; the encyclopedia is here. Most students will find the Wex "all" browse page the easiest to use because you don't need to worry about variant spellings. There is a handy search function you can use if you like.

Why would this work for 1Ls? First, it's free; and free is good. Second, it's simple and simple can be very good when you are starting out.

But for those using the dictionary or the encyclopedia for research the latter reason is exactly why it is not yet suitable for anything but the most simple research tasks. As yet, there is insufficient material to handle any significant research. And, if you did use it how would you cite to it?

Wex works and works well. It does not appear to be the intended to be the ne plus ultra of legal research. As long as you know that, it is a valuable tool to add to your research and 1L study tool belt.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Searching HeinOnline

There were two new posts late last week about more effective searching on HeinOnline. The first is from Shawn Nevers at the HWHLL Blog and a follow up from the HeinOnline Weblog.

It seems likely that the real reason why this mode of searching has become possible is because of Hein's efforts to improve the OCR (Optical Character Recognition) function thereby allowing dependable and reliable word searching.

Although Shawn and Hein are quite correct about the usefulness of the "new" search features the results display (the hit list) may still discourage many researchers. Most students (and faculty!) will continue to use the browse feature to find quality scans of law review articles and other materials that they have found using other search methods.

We are not ready to stop our subscriptions to WilsonWeb (Index to Legal Periodicals) or LegalTrac. Not yet.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Federal Agency Blogs

Readers of this blog may recall previous posts about practitioner blogs here and here. The original post about the Native American Legal Update blog is here.

The latest niche current awareness service may be the federal government blogs available from an old favorite, The new government blog page is here. Obviously, not every blog is worth following, but for researchers interested in what their favorite regulatory agency is up to, this might turn out to be a new resource.

Are these posts nothing more than press releases? Some are. But the Department of Justice seems to be taking the idea of blogging seriously. Look at the right column for an array of Web 2.0 tools. And, here is a post about the recent memorandum sent to US attorneys about prosecuting medical marijuana cases. The new memorandum containing formal guidelines for federal prosecutors in states that have enacted laws authorizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes is set out in full.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Legal Kindle?

West is now offering 29 of its legal publications on Kindle. The list includes such diverse offering as Scalia's book Making Your Case and the Nutshell on bankruptcy. Check out the press release here.

So. Where does the pocket part go?

TOH - TR Halvorson

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

CT Office of Legislative Research

Connecticut's counterpart to the United States Congressional Research Service is the Office of Legislative Research. Like the CRS, the OLR is a non-partisan research service.

The reports on the OLR website are a potential source for Connecticut legislative history. Remember, the Assembly asked the OLR to prepare these reports so it is at least possible that the Assembly read them and had them in mind when enacting legislation. The OLR deals with Reports in distinct ways:

OLR posts recent reports here. Right now, the reports for September are available. These include, inter alia, newly issued reports on Strict Liability, Boater's Liability Insurance and more. Selected past reports are here. Right now, these include reports from August. "Backgrounder" reports are here. These are reports that cover issues of long term interest.

Reports are searchable by topic and there is an archive of past reports and other documents generated by the OLR. Finally, you can search the reports by full-text here.

Next time you are trying to decide what the Connecticut Assembly had in mind when it passed a new law, see if there is an OLR report that can help you.

Law Schools Cutting Part-Time Programs

As Brian Leiter says, this was certainly predictable. As Leiter points out here, at least one law school, dismayed with its recent US News & World Report ranking, has decided to cut back its evening program by limiting admissions. The school is George Washington and their blog post is here. By admitting fewer evening students George Washington apparently hopes to regain its former #20 ranking. Since the new USN&WR rankings (which factored in part-time students separately) were unveiled, George Washington slipped to #28.

Three things to notice:

1. As a group evening students have traditionally had lower GPAs and LSATs than day students. By having higher admissions standards for part-time students it is at least theoretically possible to maintain (or regain) a higher ranking.

2. Having evening students with higher GPAs and LSATs also has the side benefit of maintaining a higher part-time program ranking. Now that USN&WR ranks the part-time programs separately I suppose there will be a race to the top in that catagory.

3. It is somewhat disingenuous for the GW administration to claim that the change in the way the rankings were compiled was "unannounced." USN&WR telegraphed that change long ago for anyone who was willing to pay attention.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Discrimination Against Laid Off Lawyers?

Possibly. Here's an interesting post from today's Above the Law. The article says that some firms that are hiring don't want to interview associates that were laid off because of the recession. In other words, if you got laid off for financial reasons, potential employers still think you were somebody else's problem...

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Keeping Up with the USSC

Today is the first Monday in October and that means it is time to become United States Supreme Court watchers. Not that we don't already do that. But, October is the time when we begin to pay even closer attention than usual.

And how to we begin to pay attention? How do we follow the Court? Staying current is always a problem for lawyers. We can read newspapers, listen to NPR, and watch the news on Fox television. But these generalized sources can be unsatisfactory. They do not give lawyers sufficient detail, analysis, or access to the primary documents to allow us to stay up to date.

If we are interested in one particular case we can, of course, set up an Westlaw or Lexis alert of some kind (and there are several kinds, all very effective). But if we want to follow the trends in the Court, see how the current Term of Court is progressing, or find about about issues that we might not have been aware of, we have to hew to some middle ground between popular media pablum and the laser-like and tunnel vision focus of RSS feeds.

Three ways of staying current with the general workings of the Court are immediately apparent.

First, there is the USSC website itself. Over the years this has been revised on several occasions. In fact, a new redesign appears to be in the works. The Court posts its own decisions its own docket calendar, short summaries of questions presented in pending cases and links to briefs and oral argument transcripts. Free.

Second, there is the BNA service, Supreme Court Today, a feature of US Law Week. BNA's product page is here. It is fair to say that Supreme Court Today is and has been the traditional current awareness service for the USSC; it continues to do a superlative job. Decisions are posted within minutes of filing and there are links to briefs and argument transcripts. There is also extensive analysis and summaries of pending cases. Law Week (into which Supreme Court Today is bundled) covers much more because it takes on the whole national legal environment.

Third, there is the relative newcomer - SCOTUS Blog with its direct links to SCOTUS Wiki. It also has analysis and summaries, full text decisions and briefs, and tracks the current docket. It also covers national law news. But it's free.

So which is better? If you are just interested in keeping track of the USSC which of these three will serve you best? Take a look and decide for yourself. This is a dark time for attorneys and the lure of free materials is strong. You may have to decide if your time is better served keeping current or in working on billable projects.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

WestCast Shows How Headnotes are Generated

Here's a somewhat revealing video posted to YouTube by West. This one describes how the headnotes for District of Columbia v. Heller (the DC gun control case) were generated and then assigned Topics and KeyNumbers.

ThomsonReuters is calling this a WestCast. This is clearly an attempt by West to utilize Web 2.0 to push their products. Despite the fact that the West employees seem like a pretty bland bunch this marketing device could be effective.

In the late 1970's, just when Westlaw was starting up, being chosen to go to Minneapolis to write and classify headnotes was a big deal.