This is probably not the time for it, but honesty compels me: very few people can turn off a car radio as fast as I can when an NPR fundraiser is in progress. I’ve sent them money, and two cars. But my local NPR outlet manages to combine self-righteous patronizing with mind-numbing repetition in a way that causes me to tune out very, very quickly. I hasten to say that they’re far, far below average in this respect. I know of no other NPR station that would call the Triple Cities the “Treble Cities”, or thank its donors on-air in a tone usually used to give positive reinforcement to a slightly retarded Labrador retriever who has just managed “roll over” for the first time. These shenanigans are a strong deterrent for somebody who has to make the case — to a broad swath of the public — that our work at the LII deserves support.
That “broad swath” is one reason. We put law — well organized and well explained — in front of a lot of people. We had close to a million and a half unique visitors last month, from over 200 countries — that’s about 20 million page views, maybe slightly more. Some of those visitors are lawyers, many are private citizens, and the majority of them are making use of law in some professional way. Those that are not lawyers are doing risk management — figuring out whether the advice of a lawyer is good, checking the implications of particular courses of action, trying to figure out what they’re expected to do. Among those who are lawyers, a large number serve the public, either as government officials or as workers for non-profits and public service organizations of all kinds. Our LIIBULLETIN subscription list is fascinatingly democratic — it includes schoolteachers, professors, insurance guys, cops, the members of the Supreme Court practice group at Akin, Gump — and many, many others.
I like to avoid platitudes when I can. In a place where the justice system has no access to the precedents on which it is supposedly built, the argument for open access to law is all too obviously an argument for a fundamental human right. But, even (or perhaps especially) in developing countries, it is also a practical argument about how difficult it is for people to discover the legal framework for starting a business, buying and selling things, hiring and firing, and so on. No matter where or who you are, finding out what you’re expected to do can be expensive and troublesome. One compelling reason for open access to law is that it should be neither of those things. People in all sorts of places, for widely different reasons, have a right to legal information and practical, powerful reasons to use it to make their situation better.
These are things we’ve said before. They’re compelling and true. But they don’t really show the LII as the uniquely valuable activity that it is. That’s a much more difficult case to make. It lacks the overtly emotional grab-points that cause people to give reflexively, and that fundraisers love. Let’s try something a little more thoughtful instead. It goes like this:
Increasing numbers of people and institutions can publish law, many people and institutions already do, and soon many more will. Some of them are late to a party they should have joined long ago — particularly those courts that are only now offering open access to their decisions. But there they are nonetheless. Their efforts at self-publication are being substantially assisted by other open-access providers like AltLaw and public.resource.org. We applaud these guys, and we help them when we can. We’re also different from them in one important respect: we’re looking ahead to what will need to emerge once everyone is publishing what they should. Within cramped resource constraints, we’re working to figure out what a seamless, highly usable, multinational legal information commons would look like and how it might be built from the isolated, individual collections that now exist. We’re constantly thinking about how to integrate caselaw, statutes, regulations, and explanatory material in ways that make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
We like synergy because we’re made of it. The LII is unique in its location: affiliated with a graduate law program, inside a research university where, among many other things, you can find many of the digital librarians who did the fundamental architectural work on the emerging global structure that supports electronic publishing, world-class researchers in language technologies, and — significantly — very smart students who don’t hesitate to jump the boundaries between these disciplines. In the fifteen years that we have reliably provided public access to legal information, we have made great use of the efforts and insights of a wide variety of people in creating pathbreaking, innovative services and techniques now used by many.
As time has gone on, we have found this harder and harder to do. Most of you know that we do this with very few people: just six of us for three quarters of a million web pages. That staff is adequate to maintain and improve what we’re doing now — but we have little time free to do what we do best, which is to conceive and develop next-generation services. That is so for two reasons. Our maintenance responsibilities grow with each new database and service. And, after 15 years of Web development, innovation has become an expensive effort demanding time and talent in increasing amounts. In 1992, my co-founder Peter Martin could spend a snowy afternoon marking up the text of Two Pesos v. Taco Cabana in a new thing called HTML and produce something the world had never seen before — the first Web-published judicial opinion. Projects with comparable impact now take teams of people working for months. We have many more such projects on our list than we can possibly do. We would like to narrow the gap between our reach and our grasp, and with your help, we will. While we’re not (yet) announcing anything as complicated or ponderous as a traditional fundraising “campaign”, we would like to be raising an amount equal to one dollar each year for every repeat visitor we had to the site last month.
If you’ve taken the trouble to read this much of this blog post — cheerfully self-serving as it is — then I’m going to assume that you’re fairly committed to us and our cause. I’d like to impose on you by asking you to do more — not an increased dollar contribution, but something much harder. Please help us persuade others to join you in supporting the LII. Many of our supporters are lone individuals among many in an organization who know and value what we do. We need volunteer “recruiters” to bring others into the fold, and you can help. Just ask somebody you know who uses the service whether they’ve thought about how it’s done, who does it, and whether they think those LII folks drive fancy cars. (I don’t, personally, and you already know what I do with the old ones).
Direct support by our users is, for us, the best kind of support. It is free of partisanship and of imposed research agendas. It is a vote for what we are, and what we might become, and not what somebody else wants us to be. We need more of those who use the service to support us — and we need those of you who already make donations to know how very much all of us here value them.
Thanks again, from all six of us. We look forward to hearing from more people like you.