Free Law Project To Promote Access to Law, For Free

law_books

Court opinions and records are in the public domain, and therefore open to the public, of course. But not for free – just try to secure a case from PACER. UC Berkeley School of Information assistant professor Brian Carver and UC Berkeley alumnus Michael Lissner have taken the law into their own hands, so to speak, and have formed a non-profit organization called the Free Law Project with the goal of providing free and easy to access legal content for download. As can be seen from their About page, the idea is:

  • to provide free, public, and permanent access to primary legal materials on the Internet for educational, charitable, and scientific purposes to the benefit of the general public and the public interest;
  • to develop, implement, and provide public access to technologies useful for legal research;
  • to create an open ecosystem for legal research and materials;
  • to support academic research on related technologies, corpora, and legal systems; and
  • to carry on other charitable activities associated with these purposes, including, but not limited to, publications, meetings, conferences, trainings, educational seminars, and the issuance of grants and other financial support to educational institutions, foundations, and other organizations exclusively for educational, charitable, and scientific purposes as allowed by law.

The end result will look much like other research tools, in that it will offer access to current and historical state and federal court decisions via search interface, with alerts, advanced search and citator services. Another cool thing, they will use open licenses for their software –  Juriscraper and CourtListener.  Because they are open, anyone can take the software and make it do more, better, faster, more awesomer things. For instance, the ultra-interesting Ravel Law has used the Free Law Project databases to shore up its own content.

It has always rubbed me the wrong way that court documents and judicial opinions are supposed to be open, public documents but that you can’t get them without paying a gatekeeper. This runs completely counter to how the Internet does and should work, IMHO. This principle is what activist Aaron Swartz gave his life to promote. Making money off of access to the law reminds me of paying for bottled water. Why? We already pay for the systems that generate the resource.

Kudos to Carver and Lissner for doing their part to break down those walled gardens.

Lots of Legal Apps For You

UCLA-Law-Logo

Want to check out new legal apps for your mobile device? Thank the fine folks over at the UCLA School of Law / Hugh & Hazel Darling Law Library for a very nice list of interesting tools to boost your mobile, legal productivity. There are nearly 60 apps listed, some of which I have mentioned here in the Studio before, but plenty more that are new to me and maybe new to you. I won’t mention them all here – hit the jump above for the complete list. But I do have to mention a few that look particularly fun, such as the following (quoted from the site):

 

wolfram

 

The Wolfram Lawyer’s Professional Assistant is a legal reference tool that provides access to a dictionary of legal terms, statutes of limitations for each state in the U.S., a tool for calendar calculations, a variety of calculators, and crime rate and demographic data. The app is powered by the Wolfram|Alpha computational knowledge engine and is compatible for use on all iOS devices. The app sells for $4.99 and may be downloaded from the iTunes App Store.

 

 

 

mobiletranMobile Transcript is an app that provides attorneys with the ability to read deposition transcripts formatted for their devices. Transcripts are uploaded by attorneys’ court reporters to the Mobile Transcript website, which in turn downloads the transcripts to the attorneys’ devices (court reporters must hold asubscription with Mobile Transcript to be able to upload transcripts). The app allows attorneys to highlight and flag text. The app is FREE and is available for use on iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad devices, as well as Droid and Blackberry devices. For iPhone and iPod devices, the app may be downloaded from theiTunes App Store. Mobile Transcript has a separate app optimized for the iPad that may be downloaded from the iTunes App Store. The app for Blackberry smartphones may be downloaded from the Mobile Transcript website, and the Droid version may be downloaded from Google Play.

 

legalnewsapp

 

The Legal News Reader app is a simple RSS feed aggregator that retrieves important news stories from a number of legal news sites, thereby allowing the user to keep up to date on developments in the news in one convenient place. The app allows users to comment on articles, to read comments left by others, and to share stories with others. The app is $0.99 and may be downladed from the iTunes App Store.

 

 

 

pocketThe PocketJustice FULL app provides you with abstracts of the U.S. Supreme Court’s constitutional decisions and access to audio files for its public sessions. The app includes voting alignments and biographical sketches for all 110 Justices, searchable transcripts, and information and audio for more than 600 constitutional law cases heard in the U.S. Supreme Court. The full version of the app is available for $4.99 and may be downloaded from the iTunes App Storefor use on the iPhone and iPod Touch (a FREE version may also be downloaded from the iTunes App Store, but it offers fewer features). The app may also be downloaded for use on Android devices from Google Play for $4.99.

 

 

And there are lots more to check out. Load them up and head out with your law office in your pocket.

BriefMine Promising Cheap Option for Access to Legal Briefs

When I think about where to find a brief, I immediately think Westlaw. But if you aren’t so much into the high price of access, there may be another option coming your way. BriefMine is a new web tool that offers an interface with a database of briefs tapped via natural language search. Right now, the private beta service can link issues with briefs across the country. Eventually, BriefMine promises to link the briefs to the legal opinions they yield.

There is a User page and a search interface. The user page is for tracking content and possible collaboration with other BriefMine users. Store documents within the Favorites Feed on this page.

The Search page is super-simple. It uses natural language search, employing the following syntax (from the site):

BriefMine Search query syntax:
• To search for the word “foo” in a document, simply enter text: foo
• To search for the phrase “foo bar” in a document, simply enter text: “foo bar” (in quotation marks)
• To search for phrase “foo bar” AND the phrase “quick fox” in different places of the same document, simply enter text: “foo bar” “quick fox”

BriefMine’s premise is that legal research can be brief-centric and built on the research foundation built by others. Why reinvent the wheel, right? While private beta is free, it appears BriefMine will eventually be a paid service, albeit with a much lower price of admission than Westlaw.

I can’t for the life of me get a description of their database scope, so I really can’t opine on what may turn up in response to your search and how comprehensive that results list will be. Obviously, the more docs in the database, the more useful. I would imagine BriefMine will be adding content as they go along and presumably will have a meaningful collection when the service becomes paid.

Find out a bit more about them in their promotional video, below:

What Do You Want For Nothing? Credenza

Great tip on a legal product over at Bob Ambrogi’s LawSites (a fantastic legal tech blog if you are unfamiliar). Credenza offers practice management software to lawyers, charging $24.95 per month for the goods (Credenza Pro).  But Credenza has just come out with a slightly simpler version for free – Credenza Basic.

Credenza’s system is great for lawyers who love Outlook – the software works within Outlook, adding features that will help you organize your calendar, tasks, emails, documents, research, phone calls, notes, billable time by client matter, file or project. It will track time as you work. The process adds “files” to Outlook, which essentially operate as tags for your tasks. Organize those tags according to any system you wish and mark time spent accordingly. Check out the list of tagging and organizing functionality within Credenza Basic:


There are differences between Basic and Pro, as there should be for $24.95 per month. The big differences are multiple users and integrated billing software – you can take that time you tracked within Credenza and create a corresponding invoice to clients. But if it is simply little old you plugging away, then the free option makes tons of sense. Head on over to the site and check out the links on each of the functions listed above – there is a lot to digest. Thanks, Credenza!

The Advocate on Alltop

If you need to find me (oh, duh, you already did) you can now find Advocate’s Studio in the Law category on the great blog directory Alltop. I have followed Alltop feeds for years – lots of great stuff. And their directly actually lists some pretty cool blogs, so I highly recommend it as a place to find new, awesome content for your reading pleasure. Thanks Alltop!

More Online, Searchable, FREE Legal Research

The Free Law Reporter an electronic case reporter that freely publishes nearly every recent appellate and supreme court opinion, from state to federal US courts,  with emphasis on recent. Without getting into the nuts and bolts of the build, the FLR is looking to a free, unencumbered (by whom, I wonder?) law reporter fit for educational, research and practical purposes. It’s source feed pulls weekly so there is a potential lag time involved in securing results. Tapped sources include the appellate courts of the 50 states and the federal government. The service culls the slip opinions that are fed to it every week, and then organizes the opinions into “ebooks”, with each state and federal jurisdiction gathered into a volume. FLR is also working out its search function: basic keyword searching is now available and facet searching and “more like this” functionality is coming soon. Coverage starts January 1, 2011, so it is not much for archive searching. However, as it very cleverly formats the “ebooks” in the .epub format, they are viewable on virtually any desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone and e-reader device, allowing interested parties to read the most current decisions in the relevant jurisdiction easily and efficiently. Right now, the feed  include everything that comes from a given court including “unpublished” opinions, orders, and motions, which screams out for some level of filtering, which FLR promises is coming soon. And the FLP is actively soliciting law professors and other legal professionals to assist in a project to tag and add headnotes to opinions!

Limitations notwithstanding, the FLP is precisely the type of research geared to modern practice that we should be clamoring for. Once clever developers learn how to harness the massive flow of legal information generated from our court and legislatures, make that information accessible and usable, then the old models of electronic research, with their hefty paywalls, invariably will have to change. It can’t happen soon enough for me.

Hat tip to Robert Ambrogi’s LawSites.

A Little Late To The WestLawNext Party

But, better late than never, so they say. After boning up on everything WLN hot on the heels of the rumors and ultimate announcement of the revolutionary new legal database search interface earlier this year, I came away with the impression of “cool, but not worth the extra change.”

Just the other day, as I was hopping onto Westlaw for my daily visit, I noticed a little orange link at the top with admonishment that, for a limited time, I could try WLN free of charge. I am not one to turn up any chance to play with a new toy, particularly a free chance, so I decided to run my rather arcane inquiry in WLN instead of the old interface.

I am not going to do a full blown review of WLN here – there are scores of great posts and articles out there that lovingly list out every feature and improvement.

All I want to say is this: that new search algorithm West has outfitted WLN with really does improve your results. My query was on a very fine point of insurance law – I was having some difficulty even understanding the question, let alone formulating a tight search for an answer (after this many years in the biz, it takes something else entirely to make me scratch my head). So I entered my mostly unformed inquiry into the search box and, to my surprise, the very first hit was directly on point. I can only imagine what WLN would do with one of my familiar searches.

The bottom line question for me on the issue of WLN has always been: is it worth the money? Before I would have responded, unequivocally, no way, Jose, I can get what I need just fine from the old interface. Now, I must qualify with the further response that, if you have matters requiring turbo-charged research in unfamiliar waters or cases where the stakes are higher and mistakes more expensive, then WLN may be a reasonable cost of doing business.

Instant Legal Assistance? Just Fill In the Blanks

While the practice of law will always be a professional pursuit, the purchasing of legal services is becoming more of a consumer product, whether or not we lawyers welcome this shift. Take, for example, Legal River (link here), a website devoted to providing lay people with just enough legal assistance to get them going.  It is a web locale designed to faciliate “connection” between lawyers and business people. The free service has been around since 2009. What are they all about? Take a look at their own explanation, from their site:

Legal River brings legal information to the consumer. We at Legal River understand how confusing it can be to run a legitimate business and still not fully understand the law. Legal River was created to solve this problem.

Whether you are a small business owner, an attorney or an individual, there is a place for you on Legal River. As a small business owner or individual, you can find legal information that will save you countless hours later trying to figure out how to fix an issue. Also, you can ask any law question you might have. As an attorney, you can use Legal River to learn about laws in different geographical regions or areas of law. You can also submit guides and answer questions; these will help you win points, unlock badges and reach new clients.

Interesting, huh? On the surface, Legal River looks to be part information repository, part social network and part video game, complete with badges. Underneath, Legal River is a form of referral network, matching attorneys with business owners, although this is expressly disclaimed on their site. Their “referral” page promises to “let the right lawyer find you” as well as a response from five attorneys on legal questions within 24 hours. There are more than 300 law firms connected with the site and it appears their distinction (compared to Findlaw or lawyers.com) is their rapid turn-around on RFPs.  

But, if you aren’t so interested in getting hooked up with fee-based representation, there is a lot of information just laying around the site. The search box on the home page invites users to “find questions, answers, topics, or guides on legal matters.” “Insurance” gave me very general information on workers compensation, licensing agreements, sole proprietorships and C corporations. I was also offered an opportunity to “vote up” an article or comment on it. Or, I could peruse previously-answered questions on various topics, filtering them by recency, month or all-time popularity.

There are tabs for questions, guides, tags, badges (more on that in a minute), open questions, a guide submission form, and a place to ask questions. The badges are interesting, to say the least, ranging from good to super questions or guides submitted to various levels of generalist, researcher, professor, paralegal, law student, law clerk, senior associate, partner, name partner, and LSAT through Bar Exam.

Very, very interesting.

At the top of the page, I noticed two links: terms of service generator; and, privacy policy generator. Apparently, Legal River rolled out this feature within the past year. If you doubt Legal River’s handiwork with respect to terms of service, just take a look at their own very lengthy TOS on the site. To get your “document”, Legal River invites you to simply fill in the blanks – the appropriate document is returned online quickly. The user also ges an HTML code version and an emailed copy.  As can be seen on the header for the page, the tools are a combined effort of Legal River and General Counsel, P.C.

For what it is worth, Legal River is not alone in this endeavor. Other firms have offered similar “fill in the blank” document generation, likely in an effort to win customers with freebies. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, P.C. host a similar Term Sheet Generator. Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP launched their version about a year ago. Private investors are interested too – Legal River secured two infusions of seed funding within the first year.

What does it all mean? While it is hard for old school attorneys like me to stomach the implications of “one size fits all” when it comes to legal document crafting or any aspect of lawyering, the new school part of me recognizes that this is where all services are going – law is moving towards commoditization. Lawyers must develop sensitivity to cost concerns in response to the concerns of web-savvy consumers. While some of Legal River’s trappings make me smirk a bit (read, badges and points for intellectual output), the gist of what they are trying to do makes more and more sense as our economy moves on-line. If we are comfortable living and sharing in social networks and virtual worlds, why wouldn’t we feel comfortable shopping for legal information in similar venues?

I will be watching to see where this move leads us. Perhaps down the Legal River, hopefully with paddle firmly in hand.

Art Imitating Law, Comic Style

Now if this isn’t a mash-up of two of my interests, I don’t know what is! There is a new Exhibition entitled “Superheros in Court: Lawyers, Law and Comic Books” now showing at the Lillian Goldman Law Library at Yale Law School. Leave it to Mark Zaid, a lawyer, comic book collector, and the organizer of the exhibition, to know his heroes from his villains – he regularly represents employees of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. The images are all covers and depict scenes showing superhero in law-related contexts. You can check out a great showing of Mr. Zaid’s collection here on his web site, Esquire Comics.

Hat tip to ABA Journal and New York times ArtsBeat. Complete lists of items shown are here.