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The LII Helped 38 million people find and understand the law in 2020

While it seems like much longer,  we started off 2020 just a year ago by presenting the prior year as a series of significant numbers.  Without intending to minimize what we all went through since then, here’s 2020 “by the numbers” for LII:

38,856,622 people used our website 66,399,539 times and spent a total of 1,581 years reading 164,336,608 pages of content.  Please read more about that in the Cornell Chronicle article: Institute Breaks Record in 2020, Making Laws Easy to Access

3,751,971 referrals arrived from 49,349 websites, including:

  • 139,396 from educational platforms and institutions,
  • 187,951 from federal, state, and local government,
  • 252,738 from news organizations,
  • 351,293 from Wikipedia, and
  • 1,391,868 referrals from social media.

1,351,432 pages of state regulations content made their way to the public.  With sponsorship from Public.Resource.Org and a raw data feed from Fastcase, LII developed and made available to the public a comprehensive collection of state regulations. We had long hoped to facilitate access to law below the federal level, and the raw data feed let us build a comprehensive collection from the start, so we can see how federal law plays out at the state level. 

$130,000 dollars went into the Tom Bruce Legal Information Innovation Fellowship Fund.  Once it reaches $400,000, that endowed fund will pay for a Fellow to spend the summer in Ithaca each year advancing the state of the art in legal informatics and related fields.

1,041 donors responded to a short donor survey.  Those results will not only help us focus our efforts on the website and improve our communications with you, but also provide valuable insight into how people use and perceive Free Law resources.  

964 Wex definitions were improved by Cornell Law students, including timely updates to articles such as “blanket search warrant,” “electioneering,” and “Citizens United.”

198 new entries in the Women and Justice collection, including summaries of the UK Domestic Violence, Crime, and Victims Act, the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act, the Ghanaian Human Trafficking Act, and the Tunesian Law on Eliminating Violence against Women.

7 apps in the Cornell Tech Law App Showcase for which LII language and data science specialist, Dr. Sylvia Kwakye, served on the judging panel. In addition to immigration topics (asylum, Green Cards, visas, citizenship, and immigration relief), app topics also included divorce case assessment and assistance dog rights. 

4 presentations at this year’s virtual Law Via the Internet Conference. Craig Newton spoke on Georgia v. Public.Resource. Org; Sara Frug presented on a panel on free access to scholarship and on another panel on the potential for free access to law publishers to help downbias legal data sets that support artificial intelligence applications; Neli Karabelova presented on a panel discussing how to communicate user impacts. 

122 student employees, many of whom were displaced from other summer jobs by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, 8 full-time staff members ran the LII:

  • 5 technologists
  • 1 office manager
  • 1 communications specialist
  • 1 lawyer

We know what you’re thinking. We’re thinking it too.  Heck, the entire world is thinking it: thank goodness 2020 is over!

Except it isn’t.  Almost, but not quite.  There are still {a few hours} left in 2020.  And this is important, because it means that there are still {a few hours} left for you to help us in our 2020 fundraiser. And, because a generous donor has offered to match all donations for the rest of 2020, your procrastination will be doubly rewarded.

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A lot of you have generously donated already.  We are deeply grateful for it— as we are every year, of course, but we are even more grateful this year, since we know how rough a year it has been for everyone. Even for those among our readers who didn’t have to fear for their lives working in person as teachers or police officers or small business owners, the seemingly uninterrupted stream of bad news, ill-timed technical glitches, and interruptions made for an isolating and stressful time for everyone – ourselves included.

But in rough times, people interact with the law. Which is why, despite all the craziness that 2020 has thrown our way, we have carried on doing what we do best: providing free law to those who need it. Free access to law makes it possible to meet information needs we often don’t even know about until they become urgent. During lockdowns, we helped people find the law about public health and small business development. During protests, we helped people find the law about the federal government and policing. And during a long and contentious election season, we’ve helped people understand facets of election law most of us had never before realized would become relevant – until suddenly it was.  

But we can only do all this with your support. So before we all give 2020 a hearty shove out the back door tell it to come back never, please consider giving a gift that will allow us to provide the law to people on what we dearly hope will be the happier, more optimistic topics in demand in the forthcoming year. 

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Thank you,

Sara Frug

Co-Director

Legal Information Institute

It’s almost Christmas, and many of our thoughts are turning to time off, eggnog, spruce trees, Dickens stories, and the law. 

Wait, what? 

As we do our work at LII, many of our most fruitful questions fall under the category of “what is the law of where I’m standing right now?” And at this time of year, even for those of us from other traditions, such questions are often along the lines of: “what is the law of this holiday, this ornament, this string of lights, this Christmas tree?” Now, if you’re wondering what’s the point of asking such a question, consider that although most people think of Christmas trees as a festive holiday tradition, for many small businesses, they are, more centrally, a federally regulated agricultural crop. So, if you search the Code of Federal Regulations, you can find a formal definition of a Christmas tree (“any tree of the coniferous species, that is severed or cut from its roots and marketed as a Christmas tree for holiday use”.) You can also find definitions of who counts as a producer, regulations for the establishment of a Christmas tree promotion board, and multiple other things that are far more legally complex than tinsel and tree-top angels.  

It’s not just trees; Christmas comes up in a lot of other places.  It’s a federal holiday, of course, during which the government especially encourages displays of the U.S. flag, but anglers are unwelcome in the Guam National Wildlife Refuge. (Small!) Christmas gifts are exempted from the ban on gifts between federal employees and their supervisors or subordinates. And, although Christmas light sets are not consumer commodities under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, Christmas decorations are.  

Christmas also comes up in a variety of far more serious contexts. Religious displays on public property have made their way to the Supreme Court.  Forest management regulations set forth the rules for cutting down trees on federal and state lands.  The Indian Schools Equalization Program provides funds for a round trip home.  Wage and hour laws preserve the status of full-time students over their vacations.  (Again, small) Christmas presents are used as an example of nonrecurring gifts that are exempted from income calculations in financial assistance programs.  

Especially at this time of year, it means a great deal to us that we can help people find and understand where the law meets their circumstances, however common or unusual those circumstances might be. By supporting free access to law, you help people from all walks of life fulfill information needs we can only begin to imagine – to keep their businesses open, their refrigerators stocked, their spirits up. Whether you celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, enjoy it as time away from work, use it as an opportunity to fill in for those who are celebrating, or have a professional or personal interest in it as a legal matter, we hope you will take a moment in this season to help us continue to provide free access to law to everyone who might need it.  

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On behalf of all of us at LII, happy holidays, and thank you for your support, 

Sara Frug

Co-Director

Legal Information Institute

LII is a site for law, but most visitors to the website are not lawyers.  A journalist in Missouri recently donated and said “I use this resource all the time.”  Another in Florida told us that our explanations of the law are “invaluable” for her work covering legal issues.  A Texas CPA specializing in tax compliance and consulting left us a note with her gift saying she uses the LII to answer her clients’ questions.  A forensic psychologist in Utah called our website “a superb resource” for his practice when he made his donation.   

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Beyond our users, our research also suggests that most of our supporters are not lawyers—or, if they are lawyers, they practice law without the benefit of expensive legal research databases.  So, both the government attorney who recently told us her access to paid research services is “very restricted” and the other federal worker who said she uses our US Code collection routinely and recommends our website to unrepresented parties support us  right alongside the autism researcher who uses our website when filling out grant paperwork.

And, of course, there are those who can (and do) use other legal research methods but either prefer the features in our collections or simply appreciate the availability of free resources for use by all.  Take, for example, the public health attorney in Michigan who appreciates the structure of our U.S. Code despite noting the “many good resources” available to her, or the lawyer in Virginia who relies on our free Supreme Court Bulletin Previews to stay apprised of the Supreme Court’s doings but donates because he “truly believes” in our mission of “access to the law for everyone.”  

Our supporters represent dozens of professions (or more!) and range in age from students to retirees.  We hear each year from as many self-described “ordinary citizens” as we do from members of the bar.  And we appreciate each and every one of them.

Whether you share our deep commitment to Free Law or merely appreciate that we’re the top search result when you go looking for the precise wording of FRCP 26, we hope you’ll consider showing your support for what we do.

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Thank you,

Craig

Craig Newton

Co-Director

The Legal Information Institute  

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
“From Brooklyn to the Bench: A Conversation,” part of the 2014 Ezra Cornell Circle Reception, with Arts and Sciences (CAS) Dean Gretchen Ritter and the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Cornell’s own Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an icon and a trailblazer in more ways than we can easily list here, passed away this September. There is, of course, no better way to celebrate the legacy of the late Justice than through her work on the Supreme Court. We’ve selected a few of our favorite readings from the past month:

You can find a full list of Opinions, Dissents and Concurrences by Ruth Bader Ginburg on our website if you’re looking for that deep dive. 

SCOTUSBlog featured a symposium on Justice Ginsburg’s jurisprudence.

Adam Liptak, long-time SCOTUS reporter for the New York Times, focuses on the role of dissent in her work.

Eduardo Peñalver, the Allan R. Tessler Dean of Cornell Law School, reflects on the life and career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue”.

Illinois law dean and professor Vikram David Amar considers one majority opinion and two dissents by the late Justice that he finds himself most drawn to for Verdict. 

Cornell University will pay permanent tribute to her through both a new program fund and a physical space.

Friends:
We can’t say it often enough: thank you. Your support helps millions of people find and understand the law each year, and it is a powerful vote of confidence in the LII’s mission. Over the past year, you have helped us navigate big changes and new challenges while continuing to serve the millions of people who rely on the LII to keep up the beat.

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This year you helped us pull off a high-wire act: while behind the scenes just about everything changed, for our audience, it was business as usual. More than 30 million people from 240 countries and territories — and, this year for the first time, every continent — used the LII site. Readers came to us from Canada and Mexico, from India and China, from Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa. For the first time, we had a reader from Antarctica, where the population ranges from about 1100 people in winter to a bustling 5000 in the summer, and the claim “I live for research” is not at all far-fetched. You’ve helped us disseminate legal information to people who need it across the globe, literally.

“Your previews and the summaries triggered many news articles for the 17 years I was running a daily newspaper in Costa Rica.” – J.B.

Your donations make high-quality, non-partisan legal analysis available to the public – not just now, but also for the future. When Tom Bruce, our co-founder and director of 27 years, retired from the LII to start his next career as an electronic musician,* the inevitable trips down memory lane reminded us that while some of our work from the early days became obsolete (we’re looking at you, CD-ROM), much more of that work became reliable, and some of it became indispensable. In the mid-1990s, Cornell Law students began work on LIIBULLETIN-NY, which summarized New York Court of Appeals decisions that would otherwise not be available. Once that court set up its own website, the project transitioned to previewing the US Supreme Court docket, and this year, the LII Supreme Court Bulletin Previews celebrated their 15th anniversary. These previews might seem like ephemeral content, but they live multiple lives: the law students who staff the Bulletin write for today’s audience, but previews from prior terms are just as likely to garner traffic as the most anticipated cases of the current term. This year, the preview for Madison v. Alabama (cruel and unusual punishment where a prisoner cannot remember the crime due to dementia) topped the charts for new previews, but it was eclipsed in traffic by a preview of the 2010 Second Amendment case McDonald v. Chicago. We don’t always know what will come back on the jukebox, but the jukebox is well-stocked.

“I did not study law, but I work in a highly-regulated industry and my job has been increasingly affected by changing regulations. I was introduced to LII by one of my colleagues in our legal department and I have found it to be a great resource.” – J.D.

People often come to LII to help make sense of the many ways in which the law affects their industry, their government, and their daily lives. This year, 15 USC 206 (Standard Gauge for Sheet and Plate Iron and Steel) made the transition from one-hit wonder to steady top-100. We were not entirely surprised to discover that the news had driven some new readers to 52 USC 30121 (contributions and donations by foreign nationals) and 5 CFR 2635.203 (defined terms in ethics rules for Executive Branch employees). The case of a brokenhearted husband brought readers to our Wex article on Alienation of Affections. Overall, this year you helped us serve hundreds of thousands of people in local, state, and federal government; more than a hundred thousand people visited the site from hospitals and medical research centers; and pro bono advocates wrote to thank us for helping make their legal research affordable. We could not help them without help from you.

“I am the Internet’s TaxMama and teach about 80 distinct classes a year. I also write – blogs and books. My materials are full of links to Cornell’s Legal Information Institute.” – E.R.

This past year was an occasion to focus on the future, which includes the students who will be the next generation’s entrepreneurs, civil servants, and civic leaders. Whether they come to learn about what content they may display on a banner at school sporting events, what support for their individualized education program is required, or what the Constitution has to say about free speech on college campuses, readers from 437 public schools, 274 community colleges, and 3207 universities who used the site in the past year give us inspiration and feedback – and keep us moving forward.

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None of this could happen without your help. We tend to notice big impacts and dramatic usage spikes, but behind it all the LII is a group of nine people who work every day to use their skills and strengths to provide a reliable service to the public. It’s Sylvia deciphering the language and markup of the US Code and CFR; it’s Jim juggling accessibility audits, and Ayham writing APIs, and Nic making sure everything runs quickly enough; it’s Neli keeping track of our audience, and Julie keeping track of our funders, and Val keeping track of all of us. This year, Craig and I are particularly grateful to have completed the leadership transition without any torches and pitchforks, and without any disruption to the website and services that so many members of the public have come to depend upon. Your support throughout this process has meant the world to us.

Twice a year – coinciding with the Supreme Court’s term finale and the end of the calendar year – we ask you to contribute to the LII. Your donations keep the nine of us focused on what the LII can give the public, both now and in the future, and help the millions of people who rely on the LII – as well as everyone they serve, as teachers, civil servants, pro bono advocates, and in too many other ways to count. The beat does go on – thank you for making that possible.

All the best from all of us,

Sara, Craig, Neli, Nic, Val, Jim, Julie, Ayham, and Sylvia

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*No joke – drop us a note if you want a link to his Soundcloud.

One part of this job that never gets old is seeing traffic pop up in unexpected places: a seldom-accessed section of the US Code, an obscure regulation buried deep in the CFR, or an arcane Supreme Court case that’s somehow made its way into the public consciousness. And we learn a lot about how people interact with the law when current events drive people to our website. Most importantly, these moments make us feel good that we are contributing to the public discourse by making primary source materials easily available to the public, so that debate is informed by what the law actually says and not by what some pundit or Twitter troll claims it says. We watched a textbook example unfold just last week, and we thought it might be fun and informative to share the story with you in a series of images.

It all seems to have started on Twitter:

Tweet by Dennis Merserau @wxdam: It is a violation of federal law to falsify a National Weather Service forecast and pass it off as official, as President Trump did here. 18 US Code 2074

18 USC §2074 quickly became the most viewed page on our website:

Google Analytics live view: right now: 1298 visitors

It’s always interesting to see where the traffic is coming from. Here are the top 20 sources of traffic into 18 USC §2074 last week (t.co is Twitter):

We even made Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” monologue! (3:20)

By the end of the weekend, the excitement had mostly abated and traffic to 18 USC §2074 had slowed to a mere trickle compared to its peak a few days earlier:

Which brings us back to where we started.  By freeing the law from behind commercial paywalls and ponderous government websites, we help people find the answers they need to run their businesses, solve their problems, understand the world around them, do their jobs, or sometimes just to argue on Twitter.  Thank you for your continuing interest in, and support of, that mission.

Twenty five years anniversary. Birthday cupcake with white burning candles with red border in the form of number Twenty five.

The LII’s Supreme Court Bulletin staff has begun its work researching and drafting Previews of all the cases the Court will hear in its 2019 – 2020 term. The Bulletin has changed and grown since its original founding by members of Cornell Law School’s Classes of 1996 and ‘97.  Until 2004, it focused almost exclusively on New York’s highest court–the Court of Appeals. (LIIBulletin-Patent examined patent cases before the Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court in the late ‘90s.) In 2004, the Bulletin switched its focus to the United States Supreme Court.  Since 2005, it has provided student-written analysis of every case to be argued there. These days we reach over 16,000 email subscribers and over 290,000 website visitors every year with our Supreme Court previews. We are also consistently referenced by SCOTUSBlog and featured in each issue of the Federal Bar Association’s magazine, The Federal Lawyer.

In March, we introduced you to the new student leadership of the LII Bulletin, Editor-in-Chief Kathryn Adamson, Executive Editor Angela Zhu, and Outreach Coordinator Isaac Syed.  They are now joined by a complete team of Associates (second-year law students) and Managing Editors (third-year law students who worked as Associates last year) to continue the Bulletin’s work for the twenty-fifth year.  

With the students of the LII Bulletin looking to the future, the staff of the LII is taking a moment to look back to the past.  Twenty-five years is a very, very long time in the life of the internet! The LII is grateful for all the hard work and dedication of the over-500 students who have worked for the Bulletin during that time.   

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.  

LII_team

LII spent the past year rebuilding and preparing for a big transition, but as far as our audience was concerned, we like to think we didn’t miss a beat – and maybe learned a new trick or two. 

During the past year, we replenished our core staff, added a communications specialist, and passed the leadership baton. Jim Phillips is now our new front-end developer; Ayham Boucher, our back-end developer, and Julie Pizzuti, our fundraiser. Neli Karabelova has spearheaded our outreach, spreading the word about the resources we offer, gathering impact stories that help us improve, and keeping us connected to the ever-growing Free Law community. And the biggest change, in case you missed it: in the wake of our co-founder and Director Tom Bruce’s retirement at the end of June, Craig Newton and Sara Frug, the LII’s two Associate Directors since 2013, now lead the LII as Co-Directors. 

Some highlights from the past year: 

Last fall, we celebrated Constitution Day by publishing a new version of the Congressional Research Service’s (CRS) U.S Constitution Annotated. Unlike the PDF published by CRS, our version is easily searchable, browsable, hyperlinked, and accessible to visually impaired users. The launch was picked up by RollCall, SCOTUSBlog, the American Association of Law Librarians, and others, and the collection has been used over a million times since then. 

During the past year, our law students wrote over 70 previews of U.S. Supreme Court cases, which they published on our website and in the Federal Lawyer magazine. They updated our legal reference Wex, supported our accessibility initiative and our work at oyez.org, and, under the leadership of  Editor-in-Chief Jocelyn Hackett, helped expand our Women & Justice collection. 

LII staff participated in and spoke at a variety of conferences this year, including the Law Via the Internet Conference; the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) annual conference; the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and the Law; and the New York State Civil Legal Aid Tech Conference. 

We embarked on an overhaul of the more than 600,000 pages of the LII website in order to meet modern web accessibility standards. As we go through each collection, we’ve been adding machine-readable information to help external search engines find our content and streamlining our own search results to make them easier to use. 

All of this work has helped us reach a constantly-evolving audience of people and machines. On March 7, 2019, the Legal Information Institute became a truly global source of information when our first visitor from Antarctica came to www.law.cornell.edu.  That reader joined over 30 million other people from all around the world who came to our website more than 53 million times in the last year, as well as another 7.5 million unique visitors making over 15 million visits on our other website, www.oyez.org.  The two websites have appeared in over 1.16 billion search results in the last 12 months. 

We saw traffic from 3207 universities, 274 community colleges, and 811 school districts, as well as 1669 hospitals and 2967 banks.  We had visitors from the Berklee College of Music and the Berkeley National Laboratory as well both the Environmental Protection Agency and the William Morris Agency.  Tens of thousands of user sessions originated within the internal networks of the United States Senate, House of Representatives, and Supreme Court. The Administrative Office of the US Courts alone was responsible for more than 90,000 sessions.  Within the executive branch, the VA, DOD, and DOJ were our three largest customers.   

The Washington Post was among the top sources of referral traffic to the LII site this year, along with Wikipedia and every major social media platform.  A little further down that list we find Google Classroom, GovTrack, uscourts.gov, the ABA, CNN, MSN, NPR, the Atlantic, SCOTUSBlog, Slate, Politifact, the National Review, NBC News, the Library of Congress, the New York Times, Fox News, and Forbes. 

On a more individual level, an awful lot of people sent us notes. A few of our favorites: 

“As in house counsel for a nonprofit, I appreciate the access very much.”

“I’m a state lawyer. I use Cornell’s website almost daily.”

“We work in healthcare, we could not make it through a day without you all!”

“I rely on original sources rather than someone else’s interpretation of them. LII gives me access to much of what I need to know.” or “I love this site because it’s the only one, on the first page of Google results, that doesn’t include someone’s opinion. It is the law as written, officially.”

“When citizens have access to clear information, they can make better choices and the nation benefits. Knowledge is empowering. Thanks for what you do.” 

And last, but not least: in the past year, your donations made it possible for all of this to happen while we continued to operate within our budget. Beyond that, in honor of Tom Bruce’s retirement, we were able to raise an additional $130,000 to establish the Tom Bruce Legal Innovation Fellowship Fund, which will provide an annual fellowship (usually during the summer months). The Fellow will explore new technologies and techniques of potential application within legal informatics, computer science, or legal tech, helping us continue to innovate while maintaining our ever-expanding collection of information resources. We would not have been able to do any of this without your support. Thank you! 

As Tom announces his retirement, there will be lots of looking back at a long and spectacularly successful career.   But lest you think we’re resting on our laurels, I wanted to take a minute to update you on the original content we’ll be adding in the coming months.  This summer, we’ll continue our recent program of using Cornell law students to review and improve articles in our Wex legal reference, an effort that has seen more than 250 articles revised, updated or simply verified as accurate and current.  

As we mentioned in our last newsletter, we eagerly await beginning a partnership with our African LII counterparts and the Democratic Governance & Rights Unit at the University of Cape Town.  Goals include collaboration on training programs for judges from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), remote clerking for judges throughout the SADC, and building a database of pan-African human rights caselaw.

Also in the last newsletter, we introduced you to the new leadership for our student-run LII Bulletin Previews.  Kathryn and Angela have selected their new roster of associates for the 2019 – 2020 Supreme Court term and will spend the summer reviewing and revising the group’s procedures and style guide.  Meanwhile, April arguments (and April Previews) still await.

So even as we pause briefly to admire Tom and our collective past, we never really stop here at the LII.

Craig Newton
Associate Director