Get the Straight Feed

[originally published on Law.com, February 4, 2008.  Also published in Law Technology News as RSS Feeds Can Help Attorneys Track Their Clients and Cases, and in the Connecticut Law Tribune and New Jersey Law Journal as Stay Informed:  It’s Really Rather Simple.]

Really Simple Syndication makes it easy to bring the latest news to your computer

Lawyers have used current-events tools to monitor case law and statutory and regulatory change for years. Thomson Corp.’s Westlaw and LexisNexis provide easy ways to save the perfect search and even update it automatically. But these tools also can be used to monitor client activity. Whether you are using Thomson’s Watch or LexisNexis’ Total Alerts — or one of many free resources on the Web — there’s a way to make the process even easier, using RSS.

RSS, aka Really Simple Syndication, is pervasive on Web sites and in databases where information is updated frequently. An RSS file is a simple text file that is created by one computer so that another computer can look at it and see if it has new information.

Take a blog, for example. When an author publishes a new post, the RSS file for that site incorporates a link to, and often a description of, the new post. Researchers who have subscribed to the RSS feed will have a tool, whether an intranet page or an RSS reader, to monitor the updates. When the RSS file is updated, the researcher sees the new posting automatically.

The breadth of possible RSS sources is enormous, extending far beyond fee-based research databases. Blogs, online newspapers and magazines, and news aggregation sites all offer news feeds in the RSS format, and users can supplement the significant content in fee-based databases by using free RSS feeds. Like e-mail alerts and clipping services that are triggered as news happens, RSS updates only occur when content is added to the original source, so it’s easy to monitor client news and activities without a dramatic increase in e-mail-triggered alerts.

A potential client’s corporate Web site is a great place to start to try RSS. You may find a blog there, but many sites will create an RSS feed even without a blog. You can also search sources such as Google News or Yahoo News and save your search as an ongoing alert. These services pick up newspapers that might not be included in your fee-based service, and they include news wires.

Blogs and online news provide one level of RSS monitoring. They can be supplemented with law-specific information.

One particularly useful resource is Justia.com‘s RSS feed of newly filed cases, pulled from the Pacer federal court database. Visit Justia and run a search that focuses on the practice areas and courts you want included in your RSS feed. Once you’ve run the search, you will see a link that enables you to save that search as an RSS feed.

Similarly, some state courts are making their dockets available through RSS. The Ohio Supreme Court has a case notification service. Once a case is filed for appeal, a researcher can log in and create an RSS alert to follow it as the Office of the Clerk of the Court updates the file.

FEEDS AND FILTERS

Because the RSS feed is a computer-generated feed, even when you set search terms, it may still retrieve information in a format or on a topic that you do not want. You can tweak a search result on a service like Google News to narrow an RSS feed’s focus. Replace the old RSS feed with the new one to see the more closely tailored feed. But there are other RSS feed sources that you cannot customize in this way.

You can make your RSS feeds more powerful as research tools with an RSS filtering tool. These enable you to take greater control over the RSS feed from a site. One example is Yahoo Pipes. You plug in the Web address to the RSS feed you want to customize, and then apply the Yahoo Pipes filters. You might require that postings include a particular keyword, or you might explicitly block postings that contain irrelevant phrases or terms.

Watching a client for securities problems? Try using the filter to eliminate labor issues or new store openings.

Yahoo Pipes also goes beyond content filtering with additional controls. For example, you can control the order of the items or block posts by publication date.

Another type of service provides both filtering and feed aggregation. Examples includeFeedrinse.com and FeedDigest.com. Both sites enable you to place filters on RSS feeds and then combine multiple RSS feeds — perhaps by client or by matter — into a single global feed. This is especially useful when you have a number of RSS feeds that change infrequently.

The Feedrinse.com service allows you to add your RSS feeds one at a time or upload them in a bulk file. From within the service, you can apply filters to news feeds to focus your RSS results as much as possible. You can also aggregate related RSS feeds into a single channel.

FeedDigest.com is primarily a resource for Web sites that want to display RSS feeds but do not have the technology to do so. Like Feedrinse.com, FeedDigest.com can be used to combine multiple RSS feeds for republishing onto a Web or intranet page. It includes filtering capabilities as well. Using the site’s fee-based service, you can create more aggregate RSS feeds and have some additional control over how they appear to you or others in your firm.

NEWS ON THE GO

The benefit of RSS is that it can be reused in a number of ways. Once you have identified the RSS feeds you want to track or aggregated your RSS feeds, you can display them in a variety of ways. Newsgator.com and Mobipocket.com can display RSS feeds on Research in Motion’s BlackBerrys, Microsoft Windows Mobile PCs and phones, and Palm Operating System devices, among others. You can also leave your feeds on the Web and use a personalized page such as iGoogle or My Yahoo to display your news updates, accessible anywhere you have an Internet connection.

The beauty of RSS is that you do not need to be a tech expert to use it. Once feeds are identified, customized if necessary, you can leave them in place without having to tinker. They are flexible enough to be placed in a firm intranet or extranet portal page, on a personal page, or on your mobile device. You will want to supplement your RSS feeds with other information sources for comprehensive coverage, but RSS provides a great resource to find out what is happening in your clients’ — and potential clients’ — world.

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