Link rot in the law. Causes and remedies

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Link rot in the law is a real problem.

Lawyers, law firms, law schools and other legal publishers don’t plan for link rot, nor do they appreciate the link rot they are causing – mostly by their naivety or the naiviety of the party handling their blog and web publishing.

Sourcing Wikipedia liberally, link rot happens when links on individual websites, blogs or publications point to web pages, servers or other resources that have become permanently unavailable.

Such links are typically referred to as a “broken link” or a “dead link.” Bottom line, the target of the reference no longer exists – or at least not where it originally existed — and you get a 404 error.

Research shows that the half-life of a random webpage is two years. The half-life of a legal page, as evidenced by law blogs, is longer than that.

Link rot becomes significant in the law because of the role precedent plays in the law.

I don’t follow primary law – codes, regs and cases as much as secondary law – blogs, law reviews and journals.

I’d think links to primary law would be in pretty good shape as the source, in most cases, is still there as cited. Blogs, and soon to be published just like blogs on WordPress, law reviews and journals, are not in good shape, “rot-wise.”

How bad is link rot?

A 2014 Harvard Law School study study by Jonathan Zittrain, Kendra Albert and Lawrence Lessig, determined that approximately 50% of the URLs in U.S. Supreme Court opinions no longer link to the original information. They also found that in a selection of legal journals published between 1999 and 2011, more than 70% of the links no longer functioned as intended.

Any number of things cause link rot.

  • Site taken down, invalidating the links which are pointing to it. Law firms have done this to the blogs of lawyers who have left the firm.
  • Some form of blocking such as content filters or firewalls. LexisNexis’ 360 is an example.
  • Links may be removed as a result of legal action or court order.
  • Content may be intentionally removed by the “owner.”
  • Many news sites keep articles freely accessible for only a short time period, and then move them behind a paywall. This causes a significant loss of supporting links in sites discussing news events and using media sites as references. ALM has done this in the case of contributions from legal authorities.
  • Websites can be restructured or redesigned, or the underlying technology can be changed, altering or invalidating large numbers of inbound or internal links. Happens all the time with law firms which often treat legal insight and momentary by their own legal authorities as secondary to marketing and website deign.
  • Dead links can also occur on the authoring side, when website content is assembled from Internet sources and deployed without properly verifying the link targets.
  • A website might change its domain name. Links pointing to the old name might then become invalid. This regularly happens when legal professionals move their publishing off platforms such as Medium and when law firms run their lawyer blogs inside the law firm’s website.

Link rot can be combatted in any number of ways.

  • When you change URL’s, use redirection mechanisms such as “301: Moved Permanently” to automatically refer browsers and crawlers to the new location. This won’t work when sites are moved from platforms such as Medium where there is no server side access.
  • Content management systems, such as WordPress, may offer built-in solutions to the management of links, such as updating them when content is changed or moved on a site. WordPress guards against link rot by replacing non-canonical URLs with their canonical versions.
  • Web archivists can, and are, engaged in collecting websites. The Library of Congress is doing this for some law blogs. LexBlog is looking at the question of archiving blogs on LexBlog, which will grow to be an aggregation of law blogs worldwide. Archiving, alone, may still have the issue of not displaying the original url which citations would point to.
  • Getting law firms to recognize that many law blogs, like journal and law review articles, are more than merely marketing. Scholoraly and legal work is not to put out in the public domain and pulled back at the whim of law firm policy.
  • Smarter use of the web by web developers,  legal professionals and legal publishers who lack an appreciation of the link rot they are causing.
  • Use established publishing protocol – WordPress. WordPress runs 70% of all sites with a content management solution, and it’s going to grow to 90%. Web developers using proprietary or marginally used website software can use suchj software for a website, but not for publishing, where they’ll use WordPress.

Legal librarians, knowledgement magament professionals and archivists have a better understanding of link rot and its ramifications.

As crazy as it may sound, link rot is real and so are the problems it genrerates in a precedent and citation driven field, such as the law.

Kevin O'Keefe
About the Author

Trial lawyer turned legal tech entrepreneur, I am the founder and CEO of LexBlog, a legal blog community of over 30,000 blog publishers, worldwide. LexBlog’s publishing platform is used on a subscription basis by over 18,000 legal professionals, including the largest law firm in each India, China and the United States.

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