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The Full Value of Our Donors

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Jun 072016

moreOK, I’ll come right out and say it:  I’m an amateurish and awkward spokesman for the LII, and I often look around to see how other organizations talk about themselves and their donors.   

Yesterday, I ran a Google search with that in mind. The first page of 10 search results contained 8 mentions of money and two of blood (before you worry about what that means, exactly, recall that the Red Cross is a big presence on the Web).  It was a little frightening, in the age of Wikipedia, crowdsourcing, and contributed content,  to see how many organizations see the communities that share their mission and beliefs exclusively as a source of financial support.

It’s true: your support often comes to us as money. We’re very grateful for that. But it means much, much more.  In ways both large and small, you help us to bring law to millions of people for free.  And you remind us that there are people out there, like you,  who care about the same things we do.  That’s a very, very good thing for us — we meet so few of the people we serve, and there are things that analytics and usage data just don’t give us.

Thank you for every bit of that.

The LII is, more than anything else, a creative space — somewhere where it’s possible to try new things.  24 years ago, we started out as a couple of guys who were thinking differently about how legal information could be communicated, and even more differently about who needs legal information and why.   You help us protect and maintain that space, in more ways than one.

You’re one of the few ways we have of finding out what our impact really is.  We can look at logfiles and statistics all day, and while we do learn something from that, it mostly takes the form of dry if impressive statistics — 30 million people used the site last year, but why?  To find out more, we ask you to complete surveys, or answer questions, and a surprising number of you do.   A good few of you have sent us stories over the years that describe in detail what you use the LII for and what sort of impact it has on your life, or on the lives of those that you help in turn.  We’ve talked to a few others (too few) in person, and every time we do we learn something interesting about the effect that open access to law has on real people with real problems. We’d like to hear more about that.

(of course, those stories are also a reminder that your donations are changing things for hundreds or thousands of people)

Others help us out with expertise — and that expertise comes in every size and shape that you can possibly imagine.  Some of our users pay very careful attention to changes in the statutes and regulations — and tip us off when we need to correct something. Others have suggested features; three of our users more or less simultaneously suggested that we link the IRS written determinations to the sections of the tax code that they interpret (one of them was the tax expert for our parent University). Margaret Felts, a long-time LII donor, donated her expertise in environmental law to a fracking-law visualization project we did a couple of years ago.  Frank Wagner, a long-time LII supporter who just happens to have been the longest-serving Reporter of Decisions for the Supreme Court, mentors the students who write the LII Supreme Court Bulletin.  And many of you have written materials for WEX. As Craig writes elsewhere in this newsletter, we just received 10,000 hours of audio recordings of Supreme Court oral arguments (and the website that publishes them) as a charitable gift — that’s really big.  But every single one of you who sends us even the smallest correction or question or suggestion improves the site for everyone.

2017 will mark our 25th year of operation — that’s at least a sesquicentennial in Internet time. We’re thinking about what it means to have been around for so long, and where we want to go next.  You have been a big part of shaping that history and you’ll be a big part of shaping our future.  We’d like to know more about what you value about us, what you can imagine us doing, where you would like us to go.  Let us know by writing me.  I promise you it’s going to be interesting.

And once again, thank you for all you’ve done for the cause of open access to law, and for the 30 million people who benefit from the LII’s services every year.

Cornell Saves the Oyez Project

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Jun 072016

logoThat was the headline of a recent post at Southern California Appellate News reacting to an article earlier that day by Tony Mauro in the online National Law Journal detailing an arrangement between the LII and Justia Inc. to assume operations of Oyez, the online home of Supreme Court oral argument transcripts and audio files.

Since we’ve never been very good at talking about ourselves, we thought we’d let the others do it for us this time.  When he broke the story in a May 25th article titled “‘Oyez Project’ New Home Will Keep Supreme Court Audio Free to Public,” Mr. Mauro aptly noted that the United States Supreme Court “has taped oral arguments for the last 60 years and deposited them with the National Archives. Oyez makes the audio available on its website with additional information, including searchable transcripts that are synchronized to the audio.”

Several other bloggers picked up the National Law Journal story, such as Friend of the LII Paul Caron in his popular TaxProf Blog, and Jamie Baker blogging as The Ginger (Law) Librarian.  James R. Jacobs at Free Government Info ( called the NLJ story “great news.”  Mr. Jacobs wrote he was “afraid that some for-profit publisher like Westlaw or LexisNexis was going to scoop it up.”  He concluded, “Public domain crisis averted!”

In addition to the NLJ story, LII Director Tom Bruce along with Justia CEO Tim Stanley and Oyez founder Jerry Goldman also sat for an interview with Legal Tech blogger and LII friend Bob Ambrogi.  Bob’s story succinctly describes the new arrangement as such: “Oyez will move to the LII as its new home, with infrastructure and technical support from Justia, which had already been quietly supporting the Oyez site for several years.”

        Bob’s story goes on to quote both of LII’s partners in this project:

“I couldn’t be more pleased to know that Tom and his folks at LII will be the stewards and curators of Oyez,” Goldman told me yesterday during a phone call that also included LII Director Thomas R. Bruce and Justia cofounder Tim Stanley. Both Goldman and Bruce gave Stanley credit for his role in orchestrating the move.

“I think this will be good for Oyez,” said Stanley. “The LII has lots of good tech and editorial people. I also personally like that it’s going over to an academic nonprofit group. I think that to keep it open and available is really important.”

But, as usual, the last word belongs to LII Director Tom Bruce.  As he told Bob Ambrogi, “Are there a million things that we can do? Yes. Are there ways that we can use it to up our game in terms of our own Supreme Court resources? Absolutely.”

We look forward to “upping our game” with Oyez; and, when we do, you’ll read about it here.

New Supreme Court Bulletin Student Leadership

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May 062016

Jenna & Nicole

We recently selected new leadership for our Supreme Court Bulletin Previews.  Jenna Howarth is the new Editor in Chief, and the new Executive Editor is Nicole Greenstein.   

Jenna graduated magna cum laude from Boston College in 2014 with a degree in English and a minor in Economics.  While an undergraduate, she interned at a Boston courthouse, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts’ Justice Initiative, and a Boston law firm.  After her first year at Cornell Law School, she spent the summer working in the Child Protection Unit of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office.  Add to that the time she spent at a publishing company, and it’s easy to see the intellect, experience, and passion she brings to the Supreme Court Bulletin.  

Jenna is excited to lead the Bulletin during the Court’s 2016-17 term.  She says, “I have really enjoyed the work I have done for the Bulletin this past year, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to be able to contribute even more in this new role going forward. We have already begun implementing some of our new ideas for the Bulletin and have selected a very strong Editorial Board and associate class to create more great previews next year.”

Nicole is a self-professed “grammar geek” who graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 with degrees in English and Political Science.  With minors in both Journalism and Consumer Psychology, she spent two summers working at TIME Magazine.  During those stints, she saw her reporting featured as the #1 “Most Popular” story on TIME Politics and #3 on  Reporting on politically charged issues such as the 2012 elections, US foreign relations, and revelations about the National Security Agency, Nicole decided that law school was the next step for her.  

Nicole balances her interest in politics with the Bulletin’s decidedly apolitical editorial policies.  She says, “I have always admired LII’s mission to inform the public about important legal issues in an accessible manner. It is an honor to be a part of such a wonderful organization, and I look forward to another great year for the Bulletin.”

Traditionally, the EIC is responsible for setting and enforcing standards and deadlines, as well as training and overseeing the work of the Managing Editors who work directly with the Bulletin’s Associates to create each Preview.  The EE manages the Bulletin’s relationship with the Federal Lawyer magazine and works with LII volunteer Frank Wagner to ensure the pieces we send to the Federal Bar Association for their publication have an additional layer of polish.

LII Donor Profile: S. Blair Kauffman, Law Librarian and Professor at Yale Law School

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May 062016

kauffman_blairBlair Kauffman is a law librarian’s law librarian. He first became director of an academic law library in 1981.  Since 1994, he has headed the law library at Yale, consistently ranked by US News and World Report as the top law school in the United States.  He is a longtime friend and contributor to the LII.  Tom Bruce caught up with him recently during a professional visit to Cornell, and asked him a few questions.

TB:  I understand that your first act as a law librarian was shelving the stone tablets Moses brought down off the mountain…

BK:  The problem was that they were really heavy.  It actually took more than just me to do it — I really can’t claim all the credit.  And, you know, things have gotten steadily better.

TB:  Seriously, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen during your time in law librarianship? It’s easy to point at digitization, but if you look a little deeper, what do you see?

BK:  I think that the quality of people who have entered librarianship has steadily improved.  We attract better and better students and as a result we have had more and more competent library professionals.  That’s a big part of it.

And it’s not just the digitization of legal information, it’s also the automation of library processes. All the back-room functions that used to be paper-based are heavily automated.  There’s a lot less work at the low end and much more at the high end.  That’s made a lot more time for specialty work.

TB:  We typically talk about digitization of content, particularly for preservation of print materials, but of course there’s also digitization of metadata, Linked Data techniques, and so on.  Is that included in the specialty work?

BK:  Our leadership in technical services here has transformed dramatically.  We have much more integration of technical and public services than ever before.  We have tech services people who are brilliant, who really understand the technology from a very high level. They’re thinking very much about ideas that are outside traditional law library approaches to cataloging and organizing materials. We’ve added a lot of other talents to the mix, particularly Web services for information access and digitization.  And they’re all involved in teaching, too. These guys are all deeply integrated with all our front-line stuff.  It’s been really healthy for the institution.

TB:  How do you see what the LII and other open-access providers complementing what you do in academic law libraries?

BK:  I think they fit together brilliantly.  We don’t duplicate, we intersect at certain points — providing low-cost access to critical legal information that you can trust, from a trusted source. It’s essential for students who are going into budget-conscious practice settings where they won’t be able to afford the commercial services. The LII is an ever-expanding source of up-to-date, easy-to-find legal information they can get access to. It’s important in a library setting to know about that, especially if you’re serving people who don’t have access to the for-pay services.  In the international setting it’s especially important — not just the LII, but all the other LIIs that you’ve helped spawn internationally, in Australia, Canada… it seems like it’s an ever-expanding organism.  I’ve worked in Indonesia, Afghanistan, and other out of the way places, and it’s important to point them to your resources, because they can’t afford to get access to American law in any other way.

TB:  You mentioned reliability.  Where do you think that perception comes from?

BK:  I’ve known you guys from Day One, and you really care about reliability.  I’m sure you guys are more conscious of the warts because you really do care about it. If I see “Legal Information Institute”, I think, well, the source has been vetted, and these guys aren’t going to put it up unless it’s the real deal.

TB:  Why did you send us a donation?

BK:  I’ve been an admirer of the LII from the time you started it up. I just thought, “This is such an altruistic enterprise”.  It’s been an incredible, wonderful thing for so many people.  If you care about access to legal information, and I think that as a law librarian, well, obviously, you do, then the LII is more than worthy of support.

TB:  You got a lot of attention, some of it pretty snarky, for introducing “therapy dogs” as an innovative library service for students stressed out by exams. How many things can I check out of the Yale Law Library that aren’t books?

BK:  If our user community wants it, and you can bar-code it, you can check it out. No giraffes.  But you can check out games, umbrellas, bicycles, snow shovels, and and air mattresses.  I suppose that because it’s so different it’s seen as not quite serious, but we meant it to respond to mental health concerns that the legal profession has.  The law is a very stressful profession and students need to learn healthful ways to deal with that.  And because we have a non-hierarchical relationship with the students, we are uniquely positioned to provide that kind of service.

[You can read more about Blair here, and about Monty, the therapy dog, here.]

A Note From our Director: Thank You

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May 062016

bonobo-berlin-dustin-main-15Thanks to all of you, and most of all to those who:

  • …gave a little so others could have access to the law;
  • …used the LII as part of an innovative model for your own legal practice;
  • …took our materials and gave them to your students;
  • …found us to be a reliable bargain;
  • …let us help with your legal education, formal or informal;
  • …think we’re just a good thing for everyone to have around.

You were exceptionally generous during our last campaign.  We raised over $138,000 during the year-end campaign, nearly half again as much during any December campaign in the LII’s history.  Best of all, our community of support grew by an astounding 2,200 new supporters, further confirmation that we help to meet an ever-growing demand for access to legal information.

I’m especially grateful to those who took the time to fill out our donor survey —  you were generous with your time and thoughts as well as with your money.  What you tell us about yourselves and what you value about our efforts helps us better understand the details of our mission.  Like us, you believe that helping people find and understand the law is important, and we need you to help us understand how that happens and how to make it happen better.

Together, you make it possible for more than 30 million people to get free access to American statutes and regulations each year. We multiply your impact by sharing our technical and business expertise with more than 30 namesakes worldwide, and with colleagues engaged in everything from helping American veterans claim their benefits, to opening access to law in Liberia, to building new constitutions in Chile, Morocco, and elsewhere around the globe.  Most of all, your donations are a vote of confidence that energizes us.  

On behalf of the eight of us here, thanks again. Do let me know if you have thoughts or suggestions for us — just write to me at

Tom Bruce

Artificial Intelligence and Predicting Tax Evasion

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Nov 062015
L-R: MIT researchers Jacob Rosen and Erik Hemberg at the Law School for a 2015 Legal Information Institute (LII) lecture: Artificial Intelligence and Predicting Tax Evasion., Co-sponsored by Information Science (INFOSCI).

MIT researcher Jacob Rosen visited Cornell Law School in September 2015.

In September, we welcomed Jacob Rosen to Ithaca, NY to present his award-winning research paper, Non-Compliance Detection Using Co-Evolution of Tax Evasion Risk and Audit Likelihood. The LII enjoyed a day of workshops and lively discussion with Rosen and the paper’s lead author, Erik Hemberg, regarding their work, its implications on tax policy, and how it relates to what we’re doing in the legal tech world. The day culminated in Rosen’s public presentation to over 100 attendees (physical and virtual) from disciplines ranging from law and economics to applied mathematics and computer and information science.

*For those who missed our showcase of their research, since covered by the New York Times and TaxProf Blog, the video of Rosen’s presentation is still available for viewing on our website.*

As the U.S. tax code becomes increasingly complex, particularly in the realm of partnership taxation, various laws are often implemented without considering their effects on the overall tax system. Such laws not only create confusion among well-meaning taxpayers, but can be exploited by highly paid tax professionals in order to create perverse results not anticipated by policy-makers. To get an idea of an impact scale, Rosen and Hemberg’s team cites a May 2014 Government Accountability Office report, which claims that taxpayers underreported more than $91 billion of income annually between 2006 and 2009 through the use of partnerships and other “flow-through entities.” It’s an upward trend that shows little sign of stopping.

By representing partnership taxation in a computational model, Rosen and Hemberg’s research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), teamed with The MITRE Corporation, sought to identify the parts of partnership taxation that likely cause the most confusion and potentially abusive activity. In his presentation, Rosen was careful to delineate the difference between tax evasion and tax non-compliance; while much of this activity seems abusive, because it complies with current tax code–which hasn’t caught up to commercial non-compliance tactics–it technically is legal in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service.

Their paper received the Peter Jackson Award for Best Innovative Application Paper at the 15th International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Law (ICAIL) in June 2015, and has gained traction in the press after visiting Cornell this fall. Rather than go further in-depth here, we recommend either reading the paper, visiting The STEALTH (Simulating Tax Evasion And Law Through Heuristics) Project website or watching Rosen’s presentation, as he is far more capable of communicating their complex research methodology.

Jacob Rosen, S.M. is a Modeling and Simulation Engineer in the MITRE Corporation’s Interdisciplinary Modeling Division, where he develops computational techniques to detect and characterize financial fraud. He earned his Master of Science in the Technology and Policy program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where his research within the Anyscale Learning For All (ALFA) group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) focused on the abstract representation of financial transactions and artificial intelligence techniques. He earned a Bachelor of Science, concentrating in Mathematics and Economics, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Dr. Erik Hemberg, Ph.D is a Translational Fellow in the Innovation Initiative at the MIT, where he also did postdoctoral research in the ALFA group in CSAIL. He performs research regarding scalable machine learning. He is currently involved in research regarding tax evasion and physiological time series prediction. Dr. Hemberg received his Ph.D in Computer Science from University College Dublin, Ireland.

This event was made possible by the Legal Information Institute (LII), the department of  Information Science (IS) Colloquium, the Law School Alumni Association and The MITRE Corporation.

A day in the life: Traffic spike

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Nov 062015

trafficspikeYou were expecting only a couple of people.  And you have a couple bags of chips, some beer and a few soft drinks; that should be plenty.  Somewhere in the back there’s probably some pretzels and seltzer if things get low.  But then the door opens and people keep pouring in.  The living room fills, the kitchen, even the bedroom.  You squeeze through and look out the window, and the entire street is mobbed with people coming over.  No doubt about it: your supplies have crashed.

We know how you feel.

As our regular readers know, we’ve been working on building up the eCFR, so our systems mastermind, Nic, has been keeping a close eye on our load numbers.  But because we’re building things — hammers everywhere, and piles of plywood, and mind the cord please — when our numbers started to spike one evening a few weeks ago, Nic figured that it was some extra overhead from the feature deployment that was running.  Whatever it was, it was heavy: Nic said it was the only time he’d seen Nginx, the web server, run out of available worker processes.

But it wasn’t our deployment.  Nic looked more closely at the server logs, and it was just an enormous spike in traffic.  Not enough to actually crash the site, but enough that not everyone was able to get the information they were looking for.  Nic kept digging.  It was puzzling: the huge wave of hits came at a very specific time — between 9:20 and 9:40 at night.  They were all from different locations, so it wasn’t a crawler run amok.  What was everyone looking for?  Did someone think we had early Star Wars tickets or something?

Well, the clue was in the specific information people were looking for.  Everyone, it seemed, was suddenly interested in the 14th amendment. Cross checking that against a news twitter stream, and there was the answer.  As it turns out the Republican Presidential debate was that night.  At some point shortly after 9:20, someone mentioned the 14th amendment.  And the next thing you know, we’re out of chips and pretzels.

But of course we at the LII, being hospitable folk, don’t like to run out of munchies.  So we’ve got a plan to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Nic is gearing up to implement demand-driven autoscaling. This will set up an automated monitor which keeps track of our load numbers, and then, if it detects a spike, adds a new machine and balances the workload between them.  Once the traffic slows down, the extra machine can quietly switch back off.

So next time the house fills up, we hope to have an extra tent ready to pitch itself automatically, and a whole tub of munchies in the garage.  Because rest assured, we’re here to welcome you, and no one likes a party without something to snack on.

Introducing LawLibe, a legal reference iOS application powered by the LII

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Nov 062015

LawLibe: “It’s like having a law library in your pocket.” – Fitz Collings, founder of The Law Pod

Get ready: Accessing U.S. law just got a little bit easier.

This November, we’re proud to announce our collaboration in the newest release of LawLibe, a legal reference iOS application first developed by The Law Pod back in 2010. In its newest incarnation, LawLibe harnesses the power of the LII, putting Federal and State collections into the palm of your hand for quick and easy offline access.

Started as an alternative to lugging paper versions of the Federal Rules to his law classes, Fitz Collings, founder of The Law Pod and a graduate of Cornell University’s College of Arts & Sciences, began developing legal reference web apps back in 2008. Seven years and 130 apps later, his work–combined with our legal collections–will condense into one affordable, mobile reference: LawLibe. Available for free download via the iTunes App Store, users can easily access the preloaded U.S. Constitution without an internet connection. Other legal reference materials like the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations and State Statutes can each be added for less than a dollar. Special features of the app include full-text search, in-text highlighting, visual preferences for ease of use, one-touch section navigation and Advisory Committee Notes.

Fitz came to us with this idea for collaboration this summer. His desire to make the law more accessible, coupled with his appreciation for the work we do to further that cause, sparked an effort which we hope will put the law into more hands. We recently sat down with him to discuss the app development process, his pathway through tech and law, and his perspective on the Legal Information Institute:

(Fitz Collings earned his BA in Biology from Cornell University in 2005, an ALM in Biotechnology from Harvard University in 2008 and a JD from The College of William and Mary Marshall Wythe Law School in 2011. Since 2012, he has practiced intellectual property law and related fields as an associate at Sidley Austin LLP in Washington, DC.)

How and when did you first hear about the Legal Information Institute [LII]? How would you describe what it is?

I first discovered LII during my first year in law school in 2008.  I was taking civil procedure and, in addition to a hefty case book, I also had to use a fairly sizeable copy of the federal rules.  After a couple days of carrying those back and forth to class, I thought there had to be a better way.  So I googled “Federal Rules of Civil Procedure” and the first link that came up was to LII.

I would describe the LII the same way now as that day I first came across it: the most efficient way to find out what the law is.  Because of LII, I never had to bring my federal rules of civil procedure book to class again.  And the experience of being able to quickly pull up and search through the rules on my computer was what got me interested in developing Law Pod.

What is Law Pod, how does it work, and how did it come about?

Law Pod is a collection of legal reference apps for iOS devices.  

It began in the fall of 2008 as a handful of web apps dedicated to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Criminal Procedure, Appellate Procedure, Bankruptcy Procedure, and Evidence.  The goal was to provide a replacement for the paper copies I had to lug to class, so I tried to design the web apps to display and search the content in each of these references at least as quickly as if I were using a book, and ideally much more so.  But a 2008-era iPhone just didn’t run web apps well enough (or at all, if I didn’t have an internet connection) to make it a truly viable replacement.  Fortunately, the iTunes App Store had just opened a few months earlier, so I set out to design a native version for the iPhone that wouldn’t require an internet connection.  

The native versions of the Federal Rules apps launched in the App Store in 2009, and were a huge improvement over the web apps.  Apps for each of the titles of the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations followed, and later apps for New York and Texas state statutes, the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure, and historical legal references.  All told, there are now about 130 such stand-alone Law Pod applications in the App Store.

Our newest app condenses all of that content (and even more state law content) into a single app, called LawLibe. With LawLibe, you can download any or all of the legal references in the Law Pod library directly into the app.  And you can access those references anytime, anywhere.  It’s like having a law library in your pocket, and it will be the focus of our collaboration with LII.

What motivated you to approach us with this idea for collaboration? What do you hope to achieve?

While LII sparked the idea that would become Law Pod, Cornell University has always been very near and dear to my heart. For many years, I’ve been looking for a way to give back to Cornell as a way of saying thank you for everything that it’s given me.  And when I thought back to the spark that LII provided to me at the beginning of my legal career, I saw an opportunity to engage with Cornell again in a meaningful and lasting way.  My hope is that this collaboration with LII will allow me to stay involved with the University that has given me so much and help LII fulfill its mission to make the laws that govern us readily and widely accessible to all.

As a consumer of our materials during your days as a student, and now as a practicing attorney, in what ways do you find the LII useful?

LII offers exactly the amount of information I need as a practicing attorney in a fast and efficient layout, and it’s always up to date.  As a student, or an attorney, or anyone who needs quick, reliable access to the current law, there really isn’t anything more useful.

For what purposes and how often do you primarily use the LII?

I use LII at least once a week, if not once a day.  I generally use it as a starting point for legal research or to confirm the current language of the federal rules.

In your eyes, how does the LII measure up against other legal resources in the market, and in what ways might we better serve our existing and future users?

I think LII provides the most frictionless research experience of any legal resource on the web.  I don’t have to log in or select a source.  I just google “F R Civ P 26,” and LII is there to provide the answer I’m looking for.  I would love to see LII extend that experience to state laws.

You’ve studied biology, biotechnology and law. How did your interest in each subject begin and evolve, and in what ways do you apply your varied education today?

I was interested in both biology and the law in high school, and I had two excellent teachers, Christine Breuker in biology and Jim Bunting in constitutional law, who cultivated that interest.  At the time, though, I thought I would ultimately have to choose between the two.  And I found that decision very difficult to make.  I spent my first two years at Cornell with a focus on government and economics, and then spent the next two years majoring in and ultimately graduating with a degree in biology.  As I later worked to earn my graduate degree, I wrestled with whether to pursue a career in science or to return to the law.  

It wasn’t until I began talking to friends in the legal profession that I learned that patent litigation might allow me to make a career out of the two subjects that I love.  So I followed [my now wife] Nicole to law school to give it a try.  I joined the law firm Sidley Austin in 2012, and I have used both my science and legal education every day since.

Do you identify yourself as primarily a tech guy or as someone working in the field of law?

Fitz Collings, The Law Pod founder and practicing associate at Sidley Austin LLP, first released LawLibe, a legal reference iOS application, in 2010.

Fitz Collings, The Law Pod founder and practicing associate at Sidley Austin LLP, first released LawLibe, a legal reference iOS application, in 2010.

I’m a practicing attorney first and foremost.  What I realized early in my career, though, is that the legal profession can be slow to adopt new tech and, when it eventually does, it doesn’t always improve productivity or efficiency because there can be a gap in understanding between the companies providing the tech and the people consuming it.  I try to use the insights I’ve gained from my own practice to develop applications that are truly useful to people both inside and outside the legal profession.

Are you working on any other technical projects right now?

My entire focus is on LawLibe at the moment.  As we collaborate with LII to pull additional federal content into the app, we will look to expand the library further with more state law references and secondary legal content.  In addition, we will be steadily adding features to the app to make it as useful as possible to the broadest possible audience.

How has the landscape of the legal profession changed since you considered attending law school? Where do you think it is headed, and how well is the industry incorporating innovative technology?

Since 2008, the legal profession seems to have become more streamlined, particularly with regard to use of technology.  Discovery tools like predictive coding and analytics, for example, have vastly improved the process of combing through documents.  And in highly technical fields like patent litigation, in particular, where whole cases can hinge on understanding complex technologies, I tend to see to the most early adopters.  Not all recent technological advances dovetail well with the security and confidentiality demands of the profession, however, so I think it’s generally a good thing that the profession progresses methodically at a safe distance from the bleeding edge of innovation.

How has entrepreneurship played a role in your career, and to whom or which organization(s) would you credit for your development.

I think the hallmark of entrepreneurship is an innovative approach to problem solving.  In my career, I’m often faced with projects that have immoveable deadlines and impossible scale.  A one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work in those situations.  The ability to separate what matters from what doesn’t, formulate a plan, and execute it with complete ownership of the outcome is a skill worth developing in any profession, and the law is no different in that regard.  

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where that developed for me, but I would certainly credit my family.  Nicole has supported my endeavors from the very beginning and has been an indispensible sounding board for new ideas.  My parents always encouraged me to think on my feet and gave me the tools to exercise independent judgment.  And I have long looked to my grandparents, Charles and Marilyn, as role models.  As fruit growers, they are perhaps the quintessential form of entrepreneur.  Anyone who has worked on a farm knows that no day is ever the same—success in that environment depends on a combination of careful planning and the ability to adapt quickly to circumstances beyond control.  Over the seasons I spent working with them at our family orchard in Ohio, they didn’t just teach me how to operate a business, they trusted me to solve problems I’d never encountered before.  Their example and the lessons I learned alongside them have always served me well.

Until our recent connection, how involved have you been with the LII? Why do you think it’s a cause worth supporting?

Although I’ve stayed connected to Cornell since I graduated, this is my first involvement with LII.  The worth of its cause—open access to the law—is so self-evident that it’s easy to overlook.  As an undergraduate, I took a class simply named “Prisons” that was taught by Professor Mary Katzenstein and covered issues that are only now at the forefront of the news, such as mass incarceration and access to representation.  One overarching point that the course taught me was that most people don’t know what the law is, or where to find it, or what to do with it once they’ve found it.  LII does more than just about anyone to make the law instantly available, accessible, and understandable to anyone, and that is a public service whose value cannot be overestimated.

Alfred Mahlangu Visits the LII

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May 282015

alfred1On a chilly day in March this year, Alfred Mahlangu arrived at the LII, having travelled from AfricanLII in Cape Town, South Africa. He came to Ithaca to work on creating the “LII in a Box.”

“The LII is the sister, brother, parent, and uncle to AfricanLII,” Mahlangu explained. “I’m here to get ideas.”

AfricanLII’s main goal is to promote free access to law in Africa. They identify potential new Legal Information Institutes on the continent, and support existing ones. To meet these goals, AfricanLII wants to provide a platform that will enable individual countries in Africa to create and maintain an LII on the Web without needing extensive technical knowledge. The “LII in a Box” is the solution to that problem.

“The LII in a Box provides a database system, to handle the laws, and a website system, to publish them,” said Mahlangu. “What lives in the database is up to each LII.”

Each country in Africa has a different set of problems to solve when developing a new LII. Founders must define the scope of law they can cover, then negotiate access to that law with a number of parties. Creating a system of hardware and software, and hiring a tech to run it, can turn a difficult job into an impossible one.

“This is not just an African problem,” explained Tom Bruce, Director of the LII. “In every public legal publishing operation we know of, whether inside government or in an independent non-profit, or in a university, software techs are spread thin and mobility is high.  The overall effect is that even the most imposing institutions are, personnel-wise, pyramids resting on a pinpoint.”

During his month in Ithaca, Mahlangu worked with the whole LII team. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to interact,” he said. “If I find anomalies with a web server, I work with Nic; if I have issues with Drupal, I work with Wayne. Sara provides the overview for each question.” For example, Mahlangu said, he found a problem that could have been anywhere in 300 pages of computer code. The LII team helped him locate and solve the problem.

“It’s a demanding environment to create software for,” said Tom Bruce. Ithaca’s environment posed challenges of its own. Of course, everyone asked Mahlangu how he coped with Ithaca’s snowy March weather. “I have experienced snow before, when I worked in KwaZulu Natal,” he said, “but it was nothing compared to this!” He added that seeing people out jogging in the cold was a surprise. He was also surprised to be carded when purchasing beer. South Africa has no underage drinking laws. “Fortunately, I had a driver’s license with me,” he said.

“I got interested in IT in grade 12, when they showed us different career paths,” Mahlangu continued. “We didn’t have computer science in school; we just used basic machines. But to the curious mind—I said to myself, I’m sure there’s more to learn here.”

He received his B.S in Information Technology from the University of Cape Town in 2005. “At the time, IT (Information Technology) was starting a boom in South Africa,” Mahlangu said. His choice of U. Cape Town was helped by the fact that Mark Shuttleworth graduated from there, and went on to develop Ubuntu, a well-known open-source operating system

In 2007, Mahlangu received his postgraduate diploma in mathematical sciences from the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences at Stellenbosch University, also in Cape Town. He chose the program because it emphasized problem solving—and it was free to those with a science degree.

Mahlangu has developed websites for the University of KwaZulu Natal,  the University of Witwatersrand, and South African National Parks. “Development of systems is one of the things I am most interested in,” he said. “As long as everything is okay with the infrastructure, you can have time to look into a lot of things.” Having gained skills in teaching, project management, and software development, Mahlangu joined AfricanLII as Information Technology Coordinator in May 2014.

The African Legal Information Institute (AfricanLII) began in 2010, supported by the Open Society Institute via its Southern African Litigation Center in Johannesburg. In 2014, AfricanLII moved to Cape Town, as a project of the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit (DGRU) at the Department of Public Law, Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town. Co-founder Mariya Badeva-Bright serves as program manager, and Oluwatoyin Badejogbin focuses on Advocacy and Policy. Alfred Mahlangu rounds out the team. He returns to South Africa with the foundations of “LII in a Box” well established.

And, as we describe elsewhere in this newsletter,  LII has already found  its own uses for LII-in-a-box as a component of a system that could advance the cause of gender equality worldwide.


We Love it When a Plan Comes Together

Newsletter Comments Off on We Love it When a Plan Comes Together
May 282015

synergy2vElsewhere in this newsletter, you’ll read about our month-long visit from Tswinyane Alfred Mahlangu, the principal technologist for our sister organization AfricanLII.  Alfred was here to work on LII-in-a-Box, a donor-funded AfricanLII project that will create a plug-and-play server that supports all forms of online legal publishing — judicial opinions, statutes, regulations, and other materials — in a way that combines ease of publication with sophisticated search and data-management capabilities.  The project has immense potential for use in jurisdictions that don’t yet have any form of open access to legal information, and for other projects as well.

About a week after Alfred left, we were invited to collaborate with the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice here at the Law School. The Avon Center was responding to a request for proposals from UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.  They are eager to establish a worldwide database of judicial opinions and commentary centering around gender-equality issues.  It appears that LII-in-a-box is exactly what’s needed to support the project — and that it will substantially reduce the cost and difficulty of establishing and maintaining a database of legal information that will be used by judges, lawyers, and gender-equality advocates worldwide to advance gender equality within the context of constitutional provisions in areas such as violence against women, citizenship and nationality, marriage, harmful practices and property rights.

That’s the sort of synergy that happens when software based on open standards is shared by like-minded communities, and it makes us very happy to contribute our expertise to it.