skip navigation
search

admin

“It should be borne in mind that all the time we were studying bats, bats had a unique opportunity to study us.”
– old researcher’s folk saying, quoted by John Brunner in “The Skynappers”.

ComputerThe LII is a place where people — a lot of people — come to find and understand the law.  They come to us looking for information.  But what if we looked for information from them?  It would help us understand what they don’t understand, what we need to organize and present more clearly, and how they make use of what we have.  We already do that through reader surveys, e-mail followups with our donors, and of course an extensive set of web analytics provided by Google and our own monitoring.  But what if we really asked the 170,000 people who visit the site on an average weekday to tell us what they find difficult to understand?

At last September’s Law via the Internet conference, we attended the presentation of a paper by Michael Curtotti and Eric McCreath of the Australian National University.  Later published in the new Journal of Open Access to Law, the paper describes a series of methods for assessing the readability of legislation.  This is actually much harder than it looks — most readability measures are designed specifically to sort reading materials into grade-level bins for use in the teaching of reading, and don’t help much if the problem is figuring out how hard a particular statute or regulation is to understand.  Linguists have, in the past, done fairly deep research on comprehension in criminal-trial settings, particularly jury instructions. But Curtotti and McCreath are the first to do much with legislation, and the first to build an extensive online system for testing particular pieces of text.

We were fascinated.  What if we could use their methods to test readability across the really large audience that is drawn to the LII?   A rough plan was hatched (in the hotel bar, of course).  Over the next few months it was refined, and the Australians began working on software that would integrate the testing with some carefully-chosen parts of the LII site.  We are now finishing up the technical integration of the tests at our end; a particular concern is that we not slow the site down for readers who are not working on the tests.   The actual tests should roll out within a month.

The work is exciting in itself, but it is just the tip of the iceberg.  The LII assembles a huge audience that is doing something that is interesting in its own right.  The ways that experts and laypeople use to find the law, and figure out how or if it applies to them, remain a little mysterious — and we hope that this will be the first of many occasions for outside researchers to help us dispel some of the mysteries.

We look forward to reporting some results in the next newsletter. In the meantime, you might want to take a look at the paper, and experiment with Michael and Eric’s system using text of your own (municipal regulations are a particular favorite of ours).

Jan 302014

Because the United States Supreme Court sits at the pinnacle of our system of justice, each year hundreds of lawyers seek admittance to practice before it–even though most know they will never argue a case there.  But admission to the Supreme Court means privileges in its law library and a separate entrance to the gallery to observe oral arguments.  Most notably, on the day of their admission, new members enjoy the “best seats in the house” to observe that day’s arguments.

photo (1)

So, it’s no surprise that many American law schools hold an annual swearing-in ceremony to help their alumni celebrate the occasion of their admission to practice before the Supreme Court.  But Cornell’s festivities include a unique bonus.  

In what has become an annual tradition, the LII sent the Editor-in-Chief of our Supreme Court Bulletin to Washington to brief the inductees about the cases they would be watching as part of the festivities.  Chanwoo Park attended the celebratory dinner at DC’s Monocle restaurant on December 2nd and provided some very welcome analysis about the cases the inductees would be watching from the Court’s gallery on December 3rd.  

Chanwoo discussed two cases on very different areas of law that nevertheless shared a common feature. In each case, Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal were split in how to apply the law, and the Supreme Court would step in as the final arbiter to clarify the law.  One case examined the scope of preemption of state law claims under the Airline Deregulation Act.  The other involved false advertising claims brought under the Lanham Act.

Chanwoo’s trip was funded not by donor dollars but by the Law School’s Alumni Affairs Office, which is happy to make use of the Bulletin’s unique expertise to provide a much-appreciated overview of the Court proceedings accompanying the swearing-in ceremony.  Stewart Schwab, the Allan R. Tessler Dean of Cornell Law School, also attended the event and was very complimentary of both Chanwoo’s “great job” at the dinner and of the Bulletin generally.  

The Supreme Court Bulletin features student-written analysis of every case to be argued before the Supreme Court.  These profiles feature a helpful recap of the important facts, a breakdown of the legal arguments both sides present in their briefs, and also analysis of the larger issues implicated by each case.   While entirely student-run, the Bulletin staff benefits from the advice of Frank Wagner, the retired Reporter of Decisions for the Supreme Court.  Bulletin excerpts also appear monthly in The Federal Lawyer, the magazine of the Federal Bar Association (FBA).  

While lawyers certainly comprise an avid part of the Bulletin’s readership, the students strive to strip it of the sort of jargon and legalese so often prevalent in “insider” pieces written by lawyers for lawyers.  Bulletin authors also hyperlink their explanations and analysis to a wide variety of primary and secondary resources to enhance the value of each piece for readers from all backgrounds.  But neither the prose nor the analysis in the Bulletin is by any means “dumbed down.”  In fact, we frequently hear from our more than 20,000 email subscribers that the Bulletin is their preferred source for thorough and unbiased assessment of the cases argued before our nation’s highest court.  We even recently heard that from a sitting Federal Judge!  

If you aren’t already familiar with the Bulletin, please have a look here, and we invite you to sign up here to receive this free service via email. 

joalMembers of the Free Access to Law Movement recently announced the debut of a multidisciplinary journal showcasing research related to legal information that is made openly available on the Internet.   Please take a moment to check it out  at http://joal.law.cornell.edu/.

We at the LII and our colleagues around the world hope that JOAL will become a place that can stand on its own to present work about open access to law.  Having previously lacked a home of its own, research on open access to law has traditionally been communicated via the journals of other disciplines, sometimes losing its unique flavor along the way.

In addition to addressing the important policy question of why open access is important, research in this field (and hence the content featured in JOAL) frequently implicates work in other, related disciplines.  For example, the intersection of open access research and information science can provide practical publishing, organizing, and retrieval techniques.  One aim of JOAL is to help academic research about open access find an audience within the community of legal publishers who can make good use of it for practical ends.

When open access flourishes, the public encounters legal information in new ways and often responds in a manner that is both surprising and poorly understood.  In fact, JOAL hopes to provide a forum for studying and discussing such phenomena.

For more than twenty years, the LII has served as something of a beacon for open access advocates in the United States and abroad.  And your donations help ensure we have the funding needed to participate in the conferences and other functions where open access advocates and scholars meet.  In fact, The Journal of Open Access to Law was conceived over a period of years and put finally into motion by participants meeting during the last two Law Via the Internet conferences.

Much of the credit for JOAL belongs not to the LII, but to a veritable all-star team of international academics and researchers.  JOAL’s masthead reveals a truly global team who serve as section editors, reviewers–not to mention the decidedly international roster of authors.  We especially wish to acknowledge the efforts of Spain’s Pompeu Casanovas and the Italian duo of Enrico Francesconi and Ginevra Peruginelli, all of whom worked tirelessly to make JOAL a reality.

“At its most fundamental level, the problem is one of access to the sources of law on the African continent. Judges, legal professionals, civil society organizations and the general public have difficulties in accessing legal information. This is negatively impacting on the rule of law, access to justice, and economic development.” — Mariya Badeva-Bright, AfricanLII

bannerimg01AfricanLII is unusual.  Like the 22 other LII “namesakes” around the globe, it promotes open access to legal information. Unlike any of the others, it is not identified with a particular country or jurisdiction.  Instead, it supports the construction and operation of “national LIIs” in African countries.  Right now, it helps 8 African nations (Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, the Seychelles, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe) make their law freely available to the public.  Next year, it will add two more.  And it is working with partners in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, and Zambia to form networks of regional cooperation that will make each of the national organizations more resilient, more effective, and far more self-sufficient.

What’s our involvement?  The LII has worked on the problem of legal access in Africa since 1996, when we were instrumental in the founding of the Zambian LII, ZamLII. More recently, working with the Open Society Institute and the Canadian International Development Research Center and with LIIs in Africa, India, and Canada, we have identified the critical success factors that will allow others to do as we have done.  In turn, we’ve learned how to make legal information happen under conditions that we can barely imagine.  Sometimes the help has been at a more practical level  — a few months ago, Sara Frug and the LII’s engineering team helped AfricanLII move its hosting services to a more stable platform in the “cloud”, offering faster and more reliable service to African users of the service.  We can be — and often are — called into a strategy session at a moment’s notice, using Skype and collaborative document writing and editing to put us “just down the hall” from AfricanLII’s headquarters in Johannesburg.

Often, we’ve been called on to explain the practical advantages of open access to law.  In Africa, open access to law helps ensure basic human rights — and it also leads to stronger economies and better public administration.  As LII Director Tom Bruce remarks, “Public legal information does more than simply saying what the law is.  Knowing what the law is has incredible value if you are involved in a legal proceeding, of course.  But legal information also provides a showcase for official bodies, advertises opportunities for economic development, provides information about the stability and likely direction of the business climate, and encourages the formation of transnational communities of practice”.

Mariya says, “We have heard of places in Africa where lawyers base their arguments in court purely on personal conviction, rather than on the law.  Where there are LIIs, we begin to see that legal argument and the quality of justice are improving.”

We’re proud to help make that happen — and not so proud that we can’t learn from those in Africa that are making it happen every day.

Nov 062013

This August, Craig NewtonCraig Newton ‘07, (re)joined the LII as our new Associate Director for Content Development. While a student at Cornell Law School, Craig was the Editor-in-Chief of the LII Supreme Court Bulletin.

He spent the last six years at the law firm Cooley LLP litigating a broad range of commercial disputes for companies such as Adobe, Facebook, and Qualcomm before returning to Ithaca.  Having left a career as first a naval flight officer and then an intelligence analyst to attend law school, Craig calls upon all facets of his prior experience as he mentors teams of law students, manages our network of volunteers and legal professionals, monitors the website to discern usage trends and patterns, and pursues new partnership initiatives–all with an eye toward improving a range of products, including the Supreme Court Bulletin and case collection, the WEX legal encyclopedia/dictionary, the constellation of materials surrounding the US Constitution, and our ever-more capable editions of the US Code and the Code of Federal Regulations.

He and Associate Director for Technology Sara Frug are working together at the intersection of legal content and engineering to improve search and navigation features, as well as on a number of experiments intended to make our content more discoverable and more usable.

We are enthusiastic about his presence and the capabilities he adds to our team, and we look forward to your continued suggestions and feedback on our editorial content.

With the addition of Craig — and of consulting designer Manolo Bevia – the LII crew now numbers 9 1/4, delivering services to over 24 million unique visitors each year.

mohammedThe Semantic Technology and Business Conference showcases business applications from the leading semantic web companies and researchers: RPI, Stanford, MIT, and PARC, as well as Hoffmann-La Roche, Walmart, Yahoo, and Google. At the conference, the LII’s semantic web engineer, Mohammad AL-Asswad, Ph.D., presented approaches to improving access to import/export regulations in agriculture. We had observed that off the shelf, a search engine doesn’t know how to establish the context of a section of the CFR. Mohammad showed the results of his work combining a set of natural language processing techniques with a government-supplied subject vocabulary and our own metadata in order to improve search results.

In July, the International Association of Agricultural Information Specialists brought together 125 delegates from 28 countries for its World Congress, hosted this year by Cornell University’s Mann Library. Agriculture librarians presented the results of research on subjects ranging from innovation proliferation among small scale pineapple farmers in Ghana to digital librarianship in Indian agricultural libraries to open access in institutional repositories. Mohammad presented at the poster session, showing the connections between agricultural regulations and scientific literature.

Why? Regulators need to know about the science related to the regulations they are making and enforcing. Scientists need to know about regulations that affect their research; they often also want the opportunity to know about new rulemakings that affect areas in which they have expertise. Using natural language processing techniques, Mohammad was able to find topics in the regulations that map to keywords in the agricultural ontology AGRIS. You can see preliminary results of this feature using the “Find the Science” feature here.

Nov 062013

Shutdown_government_graphic_20131001182006_320_240The morning of October 2, the United States Government shut down for the first time in nearly 18 years, as a congressional stalemate froze funding and furloughed some government workers.

Aside from more overt casualties — closed federal offices, and shuttered national monuments and parks — some of the government’s websites were not updated or taken completely offline. Behind the scenes, some large data sets were made unavailable, as in the case of the the Library of Congress whose machine-readable schemas became unavailable to applciations around the world that depend on them. Our engineering team made copies of the MODS, MADS and PREMIS schemas available on LII servers to help other applications survive the shutdown.

On the front end, many affected sites posted notices on their home page or on splash screens that attributed the outages to “a lapse in federal government funding,” and those that remained open, like the National Weather Service, continued to point blame at funding while stating that they were remaining available in the “interest of public safety and security.” But who exactly decides what’s in the public interest? It seems to us that the laws of the United States are pretty important, but if the government were to suddenly take them offline completely (as they did with other public sites like the United States Census and NASA) we would still be expected to know and to follow government laws and regulations, wouldn’t we?

Of course, we see this as yet another reason why LII is so important– making the laws available without cost and protecting our right to know and understand these laws without being subjected to the whims of political in-fighting. But this shutdown also produced out some interesting traffic data, which demonstrates just how vital the LII remains to those working in the government sector.

In the two weeks of the shutdown, the LII saw a modest, overall three percent increase in traffic to our site, but when we looked at the locations people were accessing from, those statistics told a different story. Visits from several large cities were up significantly, 14% in New York, San Francisco and San Diego, for example. But traffic from cities with a high degree of federal offices fell drastically– 22% in Boston and 20% in Washington DC. Conversely, the state of Maryland, home to many Washington DC workers, demonstrated a 25% increase in traffic during the same time period.

These numbers might suggest that people who needed access to law continued to receive it at the official government websites, or that they came to the LII thinking that the government sites would be shut down. But it also suggests that a significant number of government workers on furlough from their jobs in DC and Boston visit the LII each day. And that says something even more important. It suggests that thousands of federal workers prefer the LII to the official government primary legal collections, which would confirm anecdotal evidence we hear from government employees all the time. So even though the official sites remained open, the LII is the site of choice for many who rely on accurate current legal information to perform the government’s work. And that’s a recommendation we’re proud to have.

Feb 282013

pulling hairLII Associate Director Sara Frug is having a bad day. It’s twelve in the afternoon, East Coast time, and the LII web site has slowed to a crawl. It’s taking 16 seconds to get a page of legal information that you could normally get in 6. The LII’s West Coast audience is just getting to the office. Between now and 5 o’clock both East and West Coast people will make heavy use of the site. Things are going from bad to worse, and they will get even worse than that before they get better.

How bad is bad? The typical load average on the LII’s production server is supposed to hover somewhere around 4; that’s what you see on a fully-utilized machine that isn’t straining. Dan Nagy, the LII’s systems administrator, is seeing 39. Dan is not eager to tell you how he knows, but a bad decision made in the course of a tune-up could take it to 300 in about 45 seconds. If that happens, the LII is about as useful as a wet brick. And the LII crew knows: the slow get slower. Anybody who has ever driven on the Boston freeways during the morning rush can see how that works. I-93’s running at capacity, some bozo drops a soda can out the window, and hey-presto, traffic jams solid all the way south to New Bedford.

Sara runs the LII’s crew of engineers. Right now, she is talking to Dan and to Wayne Weibel, the LII’s Drupal developer. They’re looking at the output from WebPageTest.org, a free service that gives a lot of web-performance diagnostics (see below). A couple of things are obvious. The server isn’t clearing connections fast enough. They try a couple of quick alterations to the server configuration. The first shoots the load numbers through the roof, and locks up the server. Oops. Definitely not an improvement. A second is successful. Now the server’s clearing connections fast enough to not bog down completely, so the site’s visitors are getting what they want. But it’s still slow. Time to go under the hood.

A single web page at the LII is made up of a lot of pieces. The home page has 65 separate components. Around 20 of them come from the LII, and the remainder are things like that little Facebook logo with the number of “likes” on the page, which has to be fetched from Facebook every time a visitor shows up. Each LII component can involve multiple database queries that look up text, provide additional links to related information, and so on. Every component comes with a “set-up charge” — the cost in time of setting up a connection from the user’s browser so that the component can be retrieved. There are a lot of moving parts. The LII uses a variety of strategies that reduce the need to regenerate pages, either holding preassembled pages in a cache to be served up directly, or telling the user’s browser that it’s OK to hang on to pieces that get used repetitively and not reload them. Either approach cuts down on the work the server has to do. Right now, it’s not enough.

Over the next three days, Sara, Wayne, and Dan will spend a lot of time staring at complex “waterfall” diagrams that give a timeline for the loading of each component that goes into the page. The waterfall also shows them what’s waiting for what; some components need others before they can load. They’ll identify bottlenecks and either eliminate them or find a way to make the component smaller so it takes less time to load. The server will be tweaked so that it doesn’t clog up as quickly. Components will be combined so that they can be loaded from a single file, reducing the number of data connections needed and the setup time involved. They’ll get the average page loading time from 7 seconds down to under 4, even during the afternoon rush. Three seconds doesn’t sound like much, but for users, it’s an eternity. During the rush, it’s critical. An average load time of 7 seconds quickly ramps up to 16 seconds or more, because, well, the slow get slower. An average load time of 4 seconds is stable at 4 seconds. The crew think they can get it down to 3. The Director wants 2. The LII audience wants something instantaneous, or even better, telepathy. Sara and the crew will turn this crisis into an opportunity. Suddenly, everybody’s got a lot of good ideas about how to make things even faster and they’re starting to compete with the clock. The team is drag-racing now.

There’s more to all this than speed. Because the server is now on the right side of the loading curve, it can serve around 150 more simultaneous users during rush hour, when there are typically around 1350 simultaneous visitors on the site. That’s an 11% increase. There are also implications for our donors. Throwing hardware at a problem like this can be expensive. None of the changes they’ve made involved upgrading hardware or buying more computing cycles. That’s a good thing; the next biggest server ( a “double extra large”, in cloud-computing-speak) would cost about twice what we’re paying now.

So, more people in the LII audience getting more legal information twice as fast at no increase in cost. What’s not to like about that?

 

Picture 25

 

 

Introduction to Basic Legal Citation eBook CoverOur friends at CALI / eLangdell have just released “Introduction to Basic Legal Citation,” a free eBook version of Peter W. Martin’s popular online resource.

The new version was recently revised in the fall of 2012 to take account of changes in the citation rules of a small number of U.S. jurisdictions and the format of currency information furnished for statutes by LexisNexis and Westlaw. It is indexed to the fourth edition of the ALWD Citation Manual and the nineteenth edition of The Bluebook, both published in 2010.

Professor Martin requests that you donate to the Legal Information Institute if you would like to show your support for this free work. We happen to think that’s a fine idea.

SCOTUS hears six cases this week involving trademark, securities litigation, antitrust, attorney’s fees, criminal law, directed verdict and double jeopardy (I’ll take Legal Information for 100, Alex).

Here’s the schedule with links to the LII Bulletin Previews. Subscribe to get the LII Supreme Court Bulletin delivered straight to your email.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Wednesday, November 7, 2012