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As Technology Changes, LII’s Mission Stays the Same


We wanted to give you a “state of the LII” update to correspond with the State of the Union address; but, as usual, we didn’t want to wait for the government:

First, a big THANK YOU to everyone who made a gift to LII during our campaign. Because Cornell processes different forms of donations very differently, we don’t have final totals just yet. But even as those last reports trickle in, we already know that we remain on pace to not only meet our financial obligations to our staff, our students, our vendors, etc. but also to pursue the travel, training, and collaboration opportunities that are so important to helping us find the best uses for our expertise in this shifting landscape.  

You may have noticed that each of our six fundraising emails from late in 2023 made at least a passing reference to the impacts of generative AI on what we do. (The fifth even used the phrase “existential crises abound” while the sixth called artificial intelligence technologies “an existential game-changer.”) The rise of generative AI in 2023 represents arguably the single biggest disruption to the way the public accesses legal information online since the advent of the worldwide web itself three decades ago.  

AI is certain to change the way people look for, find, and use information online – to say nothing of how it’s produced! That, in turn, is already causing us to analyze everything about how 2024 and beyond will be different from everything that has come before: everything from how we might best use student labor to how we’ll get the money we need to run our operation to how our collections might (or might not) be used not only by AI tools but by folks who need to verify the accuracy of their outputs. And the list goes on and on.

In reviewing 2023, we were struck not only by the pace of change, but also by just how much time and effort we spent preparing for what’s to come while not having clarity about what that future looks like. As tools emerge that promise to improve the efficiency of all of our work, we are able to abandon a certain amount of patience for inefficiencies of the past. In the process, we’ve been able to streamline our operations and save (donor) money by migrating to systems covered by large University-negotiated enterprise contracts; retire outdated tools; and take advantage of emerging services to flatten the learning curve for all of the students who show up to work with us for a summer, a semester, or a year.         

These improvements enabled us to focus on seeking out new ways to understand how the LII website is used–whether by people or by machines. Again this year, we worked with undergraduates, graduate engineering students, law students, and recent graduates (more than 80 in all) to extend, update, and enhance our original content offerings. The result totals more than 700 created and revised Wex entries, such updates to the overviews on taking of hostages, and artificial intelligence. The Women & Justice collection added a bilingual summary of the Guatemala Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women, and numerous provisions of the Trafficking in Persons Act of Trinidad and Tobago. And the LII Supreme Court Bulletin published previews for all of the cases argued before the Court, including heavily-read previews this fall for Alexander v. South Carolina NAACP, Lindke v. Freed, and United States v. Rahimi

We also had our hands full keeping current the many collections of primary content for which the public has come to rely on us. This year, we weathered a number of changes in government data sources, using the improvements to refine our focus on the features we are uniquely well-situated to create and publish in a way that will be discoverable and usable. We updated our processing for U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the U.S. Constitution Annotated and have another round of updating ahead of us. The latest version of the U.S. Constitution Annotated includes discussions of Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, Moore v. Harper, and 303 Creative v. Elenis among many more. And the next round of updates should make it vastly easier to maintain print citations, setting the stage for better interoperability among all of our resources on constitutional law. 

In addition to publishing, we pushed ahead on applied research-driven features. A recent Cornell JD made use of new retrieval-augmented generation (AI) techniques to prototype data preparation for extracting 50-state survey information about blue sky laws. Our software is now extracting close to a million definitions from state regulations, surfacing variations among states on many topics, including floodplains. (If you’re curious how that came up, as it happens, FEMA is redrawing the Ithaca, NY flood map for the first time in more than 40 years, and “100-year flood” topped our alphabetical defined terms list – curiosity got the better of us). Finally, an M.Eng. project produced a mapping of a popular topical ontology designed for legal practice to the state regulations. So in addition to keeping current on publishing our content, we hope that as the millions of readers show up to the website, we will have more tools than ever to help them learn the law, do their jobs, and generally live their lives. 

Despite the work and the chaos and all that goes with the havoc that AI threatens to wreak in our field and so many others, we will continue to develop, test, refine, implement, and share innovative techniques for making legal information more findable and comprehensible for the public. We hope you’ll come along for the ride.  

Technology as a Force Multiplier

A year ago at this time, ChatGPT had just launched. As the timing worked out, this was not long after we’d cleaned up the crumbs from our 30th birthday cake, and at that point we couldn’t help but think that if we’d needed any reminder to keep focusing on the future, it would have been hard to find a better one. In the year since, we’ve put a dizzying array of new technologies through their paces and been reminded of both the learning curve for new tools and the magic of gaining leverage on a problem by finding the right fit between a new tool and our central task: helping people find and understand the law.  

As we’ve been talking about in several recent posts, this year has brought us an occasion to look anew at how people from all walks of life use the LII website – including (as we noted in our previous post) whether or not they ever experience our website directly at all.  In part because we have that luxury, we choose to see consumption of our website for purposes of re-use as a force multiplier – quantitatively an existential game-changer, but not all that different qualitatively from what happens when individuals use content from our website to develop training manuals for public servants, or include it in source packets for law school classes, or screenshot it for social media. 

And so far we’re finding that this particular juncture in the history of artificial intelligence increases the need for stable, reliable information whose provenance is clear. We have seen already that the combination of text generation at negligible cost and hallucination by large language models has created a misinformation force multiplier. Although qualitatively a familiar problem (most starkly for those of us who remember that one time when a false citation to a non-existent provision of LII’s U.S. Code played a role in a national news story), the asymmetry of effort required to verify information makes the proliferation of unreliable text an existential problem not just for us but for the web itself.  

Our aim is to keep the legal information we publish free, accessible, stable, and reliable – available to everyone, fact checkers included, from a reputable source at the click of a button. As we navigate this rapidly evolving information environment and find the niches where we can make unique contributions for the benefit of the public, we hope to seize opportunities to evolve while continuing to offer services the public has come to rely on.

What does the Winter Solstice have to do with Free Legal Information?

Today is the winter solstice.  We know that because we asked Google. 

As you can see, Google didn’t return a list of web pages from which we could extract an answer, but the actual answer itself: December 21, 2023. It was then and there that I knew what I wanted to say in this blog post.

We’re all accustomed to these Featured Snippets (as Google now calls them), but when they started almost a decade ago, they were a really big deal. On one hand, it was neat to see Google use our website to, for example, answer a holiday-themed legal question:

Google screen shot of US code: An employee who is required to perform any work on a designated holiday is entitled to pay for at least 2 hours of holiday work.

On the other hand, getting the answer straight from Google wasn’t obviously a good thing for projects like ours. If searchers didn’t click through on that link, then we wouldn’t have an ever-growing amount of traffic to demonstrate our usefulness. We also couldn’t expect the same level of advertising revenues and user donations that made our work possible if folks stopped needing to visit our website to find the answer they were looking for. It was, quite literally, an existential crisis in the making. Despite these concerns, our traffic continued to grow steadily over the last decade to a point where continuing to use it as a leading indicator of our impacts now seems futile (a topic we touched on in another recent post).  

We’ve also written recently about the fascinating rift that’s developing in the global online Free Law world all these years later between those who welcome the bots/scrapers/crawlers that harvest content like ours to power AI systems and other future technologies and those who are fighting to keep their websites, in essence, read only. In short, what’s coming down the road makes Google’s Featured Snippets seem utterly quaint, and existential crises abound for all sorts of knowledge workers.

Both that Featured Snippets example and this recital of the issues they implicate are admittedly facile; but, we  wanted to reiterate LII’s commitment that we will continue to develop, test, refine, implement, and share innovative techniques for making legal information more findable and comprehensible for the public–whether you ultimately end up on our website or not. 

Free (as in Law)

We’d like to share a bit about how we approach the heavy traffic that’s been keeping us on our toes. We’ve been talking a lot recently about the ways in which changes to Google’s traffic reports have been an occasion for us to revisit our thinking about who uses the site and how they do so. Here we’re relying not just on the data from people whose use of the website shows up in Google Analytics, but also from the ever-growing assemblage of automated user agents ranging from long-standing search engine crawlers to newer corporate large language model crawlers to custom crawlers that seem to represent some very curious researchers on home internet connections. 

A little over a month ago, LII’s leadership attended the Law Via the Internet Conference, meeting with other members of the worldwide Free Access to Law Movement. As you might guess, everyone was talking about the use and refinement of artificial intelligence tools, particularly large language models. The atmosphere encompassed a mix of excitement, caution, curiosity, and realism. But one element of the discussion stood out as a point of strong divergence: what are the limits of the “free” and “access” in “free access to law”? Does free mean “free as in beer” or “free as in speech”?

It turns out that we have a different intuition from some of our sibling LIIs who run services designed to be used primarily by members of the legal profession. Although (like us) they would never stand in the way of others gaining free access to information published by their respective governments, (also like us) they have invested significant amounts of resources over many years to standardize and enrich the documents they work with. But because (unlike us) many of them focus primarily on publishing case law, privacy concerns alone have given them plenty of reasons not to allow crawlers access to their websites. A policy not to now open their data for free AI-related consumption is not far from their long-standing practice.  Use of their services is free as in beer. 

We take a very different approach. Our content is findable primarily because it has always been crawlable, and (almost all) reusable. That policy enabled our site to reach the top of search rankings for vast numbers of search terms. By extension, it enabled our data to become part of the pool of documents used to train most of the large language models.  In turn, that openness – and the openness of other U.S.-based free access to law operations – means that even if they’re still having some trouble getting their facts straight today, the large language models we interact with have access to the data they need to get it right tomorrow. Even if we don’t ever see the readers who benefit from that data, it means that our work can serve the public in ways we can’t begin to imagine. As best we can, we offer services that are free as in speech.

But it gets tricky. These crawlers all receive free access to the LII website and in turn make LII’s work usable by millions more people than we would ever reach on our own. But their traffic is not free for us to field.  (If you’re wondering why we don’t consider changing our approach, the reality is that we are a very small group, and even if we wished to change our policy to include a paid service for corporate reusers, it would come at the expense of using our technical and administrative resources for direct support of our core mission.) For both principled and practical reasons, everyone – human or crawler alike – receives a standard of access that supports all of our users.

Learning the Law with LII

We recently wrote about how changes in the way Google reports traffic to websites like have given us the opportunity to revisit how we think about, and talk about, traffic. When we sat down last week to sift through the 7.4 million website sessions Google Analytics recorded for us in November, one of the first things we did was go to the “heaviest” of traffic days last month–November 29–to look for interesting use cases. What emerged amused us, and we thought you might enjoy hearing about it.  

There weren’t any particularly compelling news headlines like a high-profile indictment, an important Supreme Court decision, or a political event of the type that often drive extra folks to our website. There was also no evidence that all the folks who use our site as part of their work in legal services, or any of the myriad regulated industries, or all levels of government, etc. were particularly active on a random Wednesday six days after Thanksgiving.  

So, what was it? All signs point to law students flocking to the website to study for their final examinations. All that week, but especially that day, traffic in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure was busier than usual, and parts of Title 28 of U S Code like Sections 1332 (diversity jurisdiction), 1367 (supplemental jurisdiction), 1391 (venue), & 1446 (removal) were far busier than usual. Anyone with a law degree will recognize those topics as the fundamental concepts addressed in any good CivPro exam.  

We always get a lot of mileage, especially within our home institution of Cornell Law School, in recounting all the ways we employ law students and expose them to the intersection of law and technology. But we don’t really talk too much about students as a segment of our user population. But they’re very much present, and sometimes we hear from them and those who teach them:

Thank you for providing much needed information for us law students and for the public at large!

A law student in Georgia

I have so much appreciation for what you do! LII is the first resource I turn to when I need to look at statutory text or regulations.

A law student in Washington, DC

I teach business law and find your site to be extremely helpful!

A law professor in Georgia

Most of my students go into solo or small firm practice. Having this resource is a life-saver for many of them because they cannot afford the various paid research services. But they still have clients who deserve justice.

A law professor in Texas

This website has been essential for my law school education!

A law student in Massachusetts

This was an invaluable resource when I was teaching, and I still consult it in retirement.

A retired law professor in Washington

I honestly do not know how I would be able to complete my weekly discussion posts and assignments without [LII].

An undergraduate legal studies major in Oregon

This website saved my [keester] more times than I care to admit in Law School and is an extraordinary research tool in the real world.

A lawyer in New York, NY (of course) 

With any luck, we’ll keep saving the [keesters] of students, lawyers, and millions of others for many years to come.  

User Testimonials from Our Annual Fundraising Campaign

We are deeply grateful to report that we continue to serve the public sustainably — providing free, accessible, unbiased legal information to all comers. Whether it’s assessing and filling gaps in our original content — or learning where to apply (and where not to rely on) emerging technologies to help make the law more understandable — we are heartened to see readers continue to point to our work for reference — and for reality-checking — in real time.

At this time of year, we especially appreciate everyone behind all of the work that comes together in the fall. Whether celebrating Constitution Day with a fully updated U.S. Constitution Annotated; or kicking off the new term of the U.S. Supreme Court with previews from the LII Supreme Court Bulletin on topics ranging from federal sentencing to payday lending to disability accommodation; or using Halloween as an occasion to shine a spotlight on mortuary law; or supporting the publication of the latest issue of the Journal of Open Access to Law; or preparing our engineering students to present the discoveries they’ve made about how to harness the latest tools and data to make features for our ever-evolving collections – we could not do any of this without your help.

I just discovered you, but providing legal information to citizens, without pricing them out, is essential. A non-partisan, legal information-resource, available to all, is a huge step to having an informed, and empowered citizenry.

Most importantly, we are thankful to hear from people from all walks of life — and all corners of the globe — who are empowered by the work you help make possible.

This was an invaluable resource when I was teaching, and I still consult it in retirement. Thank you!

The Legal Information Institute is an incredibly valuable, free source. I use it frequently in my work as a reporter and editor. I have included links to the Institute’s explanations in my articles far more times than I ever could count.

This is an enormously helpful free resource to those of us in grassroots community legal matters. Thank you.

I can’t say it often enough: we could not do any of this without the support you offer us. Thank you for your help. 

Playing in (web) traffic

This year, big changes in how Google records and reports traffic in its analytics platform caused us to reconsider how we think about, and talk about, traffic to our website. Remember when a certain fast food chain switched from counting the billions it had served to just saying “billions and billions” served? We’re basically doing the same thing. If you saw our Fiscal Year 2023 Annual Report from this summer, for example, we simply noted that once again “more than 45 million people visited” the website. We expect to take the same approach at the end of the calendar year, then again next summer when our current fiscal year ends, etc.

It’s not that we’ve stopped cherishing each and every visitor, or that we’re assuming our ubiquity in your search results and browser bookmarks will never change. Far from it. Instead, we want to put more focus on how people use our resources, and less on how many. After all, we’re long past the point where it’s just an incomprehensibly large number that trends ever larger over time. And it’s not like any of the challenges we face in publishing law online for free will change all that much when we hit 50 million annual visitors, or 60 million, or 100 million.

So, we’re paying more attention to what kind of events spark heavy traffic days and just how much traffic those events tend to yield over a “typical” day, and then we’re using those insights to think about what we can do differently and do better to bring as much legal information to the public as possible in the simplest and most connected way we can.  

Shout Out to Suffolk

From time to time, we feature others working in free law whom we admire.  This time, we want to shine the spotlight on the wonderful work being done by our friends Quinten Steenhuis, David Colarusso, and their team at the Legal Innovation & Technology Lab at Suffolk Law School.  (You might remember that we recently wrote about a conference they hosted.)

In addition to being a unique way to teach law students from all academic backgrounds to embrace (and improve) the technology they’ll encounter in law practice, the “LIT Lab” creates impactful legal tech in its own right, such as this software for assembling court forms in Massachusetts and this software, which is an experiment in extracting legal issues from a plain-language description of a problem. 

Quinten and David are well-known to the LII team.  In fact, we’ve known Quinten, the Lab’s Practitioner in Residence, since he was a student at Cornell Law School in the Aughts.  Since then, he’s accumulated many accolades for his work at the intersection of public interest law and legal technology, including being named a finalist in the “A2J [access to justice]: Individual” Category for the 2023 American Legal Technology Awards and earning a place on the 2023 Fastcase 50.  He blogs at

We haven’t known David Colarusso, who directs the LIT Lab, quite as long as we’ve known Quentin, but his contributions to the future or legal tech are no less impressive.  A long time “legal hacker” in the best sense, David’s name appears on pretty much every list of important legal tech movers and shakers, including the Fastcase 50 (2016), and the ABA Journal’s “Legal Rebels” and “Best Law Tweeters.”  David was also a finalist for this year’s 2023 American Legal Technology Awards, earning a nomination in the “Education” category.  His website,, features his work not only as an educator and a coder, but also as an attorney, an scientist, a writer, and even a maker of furniture!  

We’re proud to know Quinten, David, and the entire LIT Lab team.  We hope you’ll join us in admiring their work and cheering them on as they produce not only their own software but, perhaps more importantly, the next generation of lawyers who are educated and empowered to leverage technology to improve access to justice.

Conference gleanings: experimenting with emerging technologies

As technologies evolve ever more rapidly, conferences have accordingly become an ever more important way for us to interact with other groups who are working on the same kinds of problems.  We’re a small group trying to make the law more understandable for the public, and comparing experiences lets us gain tremendous leverage on the efforts of our small team. This summer, LII software engineer and former research attorney Matt Carey represented LII at the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Law. Among the presentations, one,  presented by Daphne Odekerken of Utrecht University (coauthored with Floris Bex and Henry Prakken) intrigued him enough to take the software for a test drive. With the usual caveats about this being experimental, he’s shared his experience in a post entitled “A Python Package for Legal Case Based Reasoning” at his blog Python for Law

Tempus Fugit, Memento Mori

Time flies.

Since 2020, 81 Cornell Law students have contributed to the creation and revision of nearly 5,000 entries for Wex, our free legal dictionary and encyclopedia. While you can find the full list of contributors on our Wex Definitions Team page, we would like to spotlight a few who have made significant contributions to our collections over these last few years. 

Wex Student portraits
Korica Simon ‘21 Blaine Fix ‘22 Riley Morrow ‘23

Korica Simon is a 2021 Cornell Law School J.D. graduate. While in law school, she was an acquisitions editor for the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy. She was also a Pro Bono Scholar and completed her externship at The Legal Aid Society, Digital Forensics Unit. During the summer of 2021, Korica worked for the Legal Information Institute, where she defined legal terms and provided summaries for landmark court cases. She updated nearly 100 entries, including conservatorship, and wrote new entries for freedom of speech, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., and People v. William Freeman (1847), among many others. Korica also worked hard to create a list of existing laws, notable cases, terms, and concepts that would eventually become the mortuary law collection, which is just beginning to roll out on our website now. Korica is currently working as a Court Attorney for the New York State Unified Court System.

Blaine Fix ‘22

During his time at Cornell, Blaine Fix served as the President of the Business Law Society and externed with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Wisconsin. Blaine started working on Wex in the fall of 2021. He created over 100 new entries, primarily in finance and for our securities collection including; debt, initial public offering (IPO), Section 5, and gun jumping before graduating in the spring of 2022. Blaine currently works as a corporate finance attorney at Foley & Lardner, LLP representing borrowers in private equity deals, refinancing and renewable energy financings.

Riley Morrow ‘23

Riley received his undergraduate degree at Samford University studying political science and international relations, and he received his J.D. with a specialization in International Affairs from Cornell Law School in 2023. Riley has worked on the Wex definitions team since May 2021. He has written and updated hundreds of Wex entries, helped bolster our trusts, inheritances and estates collection, and started our brand-new mortuary law collection. Riley will be starting as a corporate associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP later this Fall.

The LII would like to thank Korica, Blaine, Riley, and the entire Wex Definitions Team for all of their hard work updating and creating collections. 

Remember death. 

That’s right, we are in the process of publishing a collection that we were missing – mortuary law. No matter how fortunate we all may be, there is one event that is guaranteed to happen to every single one of us, and that’s death (Happy Halloween). Funerals and death may not be a topic everyone is comfortable talking about, but the mortuary collection will be here for you to peruse as needed, or for the morbidly curious (As Taylor Swift would say: “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me”). Some of the foundation of our new Wex entries come from 16 CFR Part 453 – Funeral Industry Practices and case law. While this collection is in its infancy, some notable entries are the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Funeral Rule, right of disposition, and quasi property rights of a human body