Not since the early days of the World Wide Web have there been so many opportunities for technologists, and we’re not alone in having one on offer. We’re looking for an experienced DevOps engineer to join our small team. The posting is here and the answers to the most common questions are under “Job Profile Attributes” here.
The posting is currently open through May 31 – please spread the word!
The Legal Information Institute welcomed more than 42 million unique visitors to our website in 2021. We were surprised to see more visitors on our website in 2021 than in 2020 in light of the extraordinary confluence of current events and politics in 2020 – a presidential election, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement all come instantly to mind. But as we welcome 2022, there is no doubt that close to 3.5 million more visitors viewed over 10.5 million more pages on law.cornell.edu in 2021 than in 2022.
As we watched traffic each month in 2021 outperform what we’d ever seen before, we looked for explanations. While bringing in more traffic is not necessarily a goal in-and-of itself, more visitors usually means we are doing something right, and fewer visitors often means there is room for improvements. Also, we are always pleased to hear from readers who find our straightforward approach to presenting legal information to be a welcome change from websites driven by a particular ideological, political, or commercial agenda. We like to think that more traffic to our website means that more people are finding the information they need to do their jobs or live their lives without the biases that sometimes shade how that information is presented elsewhere online.
In the end, we see three key reasons why more people used law.cornell.edu in 2021 than ever before.
Our ability to bring the law to the public has always depended on our capacity to ingest, process, and present large collections of poorly organized and inconsistently formatted government information. The United States Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, and even our publication of Supreme Court opinions are all good examples. In 2021, we moved our focus for the first time to an even larger challenge, the regulations of all 50 states.
The background: almost as soon as we began publishing the full text of the Code of Federal Regulations ten years ago, we began to lament having to leave off at the federal level. Questions like “when is hunting season?”, “what is the scope of care in assisted living facilities?”, or “how is local government involved in liquor licensing?” all reach the state level. So when Public.Resource.Org brought us the opportunity to work on all 50 states simultaneously, we jumped at the chance. Our newest technologist, Matt Carey, has brought his extensive domain knowledge to bear on new feature development; and, this semester we worked with a group of M.Eng. students to explore the data with a focus on topical retrieval and definition extraction.
Though this project is far from complete, we’ve already welcomed more than a half million visitors who viewed more than 2 million pages on our website that simply did not exist in 2020 – ranging in subject matter from standards for prompt, fair and equitable insurance settlements in California, to religious exemptions from school immunization requirements in New Jersey, to the organization of the Alabama Athletes Regulatory Commission. Our move from beyond the federal government and into state government information in 2021 was an obvious source of additional readership in 2021.
In 2020, we began a program of hiring Cornell law students displaced from other employment by the pandemic. Our main task for many of those students was to review and improve upon thousands of definitions we had ingested into Wex almost a decade prior. We made a decent start, but we also realized that we’d need to add staff capacity and expertise if we wanted Wex to realize its full potential as a definitive collection of explanations about important legal concepts and terminology. So, in early 2021 we hired Nichole McCarthy as our first Original Content Collections Manager.
Nichole embraced the Definitions Project with verve. Her team of Cornell students has now renovated or created close to 3,000 definitions. This new content is not only longer and more complete than what it replaces, it is more comprehensively and rigorously linked to our other collections and other Free Law sources from around the internet.
And folks have noticed. Over 800,000 more people read a Wex entry in 2021 than 2020. In all, they visited close to 3.5 million additional pages of Wex articles than they had last year. Emboldened by this massive increase, we are planning big things for WEX.
Search Engine Optimization
Since we don’t advertise our content, you may be wondering how people find us – especially for the first time. The answer, almost always, is that they come to us from a search engine like Google or Bing. You’ve probably noticed that our pages rank well whenever you use a search engine to look up, for example, a statute, a regulation, or an unfamiliar legal term. That is not a coincidence. We work hard to ensure that our content bears all the hallmarks of quality that the search engines use to assess whether information on a website appears reliable and current.
We believe that the two projects we’ve detailed above helped us improve our Search Engine Optimization (SEO) beyond our routine efforts. A massive new collection like State Regulations, updated regularly and driving millions of new pageviews to content not otherwise available for free on the internet, cannot help but get the attention of the search engine algorithms. All of the updates to Wex, especially all of the new hyperlinks to other quality quality pages on our site and other reputable sites, is also doubtless a factor in boosting SEO.
Moving up in the search results even a place or two can have a big impact on traffic – especially when it means moving into the first slot. We see this as the main reason why some of “steadier” collections such as the Federal Rules and the Code of Federal Regulations each welcomed around 350,000 more users in 2021 than in 2020.
Of course, 2021 wasn’t just about record traffic to our website. We made real progress on several projects that will eventually result in new collections or new features in current collections. Whether or not they take us to new heights of website traffic, each will in its own way improve the public’s access to legal information online. We look forward to telling you all about them in future communications.
A ball dropping in Times Square. Making resolutions. Drinking champagne. Singing Auld Lang Syne. If you’re Russian, giving presents. And, of course, the LII emailing to ask for your support with a last-minute donation match.
Again this year, a generous donor has offered to match all donations for the rest of 2021. If you haven’t had a chance, we hope you’ll take a moment before the festivities to make a gift.
The New Year causes us all to look both back and forward. A year ago at this time, we were mostly looking backward on the dismal year that was 2020 — and looking forward to some peace and quiet! Although we’d expected a certain amount of post-election wrap-up traffic on 3 U.S.C. § 15 (Counting electoral votes in Congress), little did we know that within a week, we’d have a traffic spike on 18 U.S.C. § 2383 (Rebellion or insurrection) and § 2384 (Seditious conspiracy), or § 2385 (Advocating overthrow of Government) – nor, within two weeks, on the U.S. Constitution Annotated pages on impeachment. We also had no idea that two weeks before year’s end, our parent institution would make international news for a COVID shutdown.
But if you’d asked us to think about it carefully a year ago, what we would have hoped – and maybe even been so bold as to predict – was that as we moved forward on original content and technical innovation, members of the public would continue to look to us to help them find and understand the law. And looking forward, what excites us the most about the future is the impact our projects will have for the people who make use of our work.
And here’s where you can help right now. Twice as much. We couldn’t have gotten this far without the stalwart support of our readers. Please consider giving a gift that will allow us to provide the law to the public – hopefully on happier, more optimistic topics than in 2021, but regardless, on topics that continue to be relevant to people’s families, businesses, and civic lives.
I like to pass on to our team the specific things that donors say about how our work makes a difference. So, first thing in the morning (or nearly first thing) on every work day this time of year, I look at the donor comments from the previous day.
When I see donors’ comments, I also see their names. While I admit that most just pass me by, some definitely get my attention. I often recognize the names of longtime supporters and even the occasional family friend (Betsy in Portland, I know you’re out there!). I admit those are my favorite. But my brain also stops automatically on any “famous” name, though in the vast majority of cases it’s just a “regular” person who happens to have a notable moniker (the addresses provided are the best clue, as well as the fact that many of these names belong to fictional characters, deceased folks, and even an entire UK territory!).
This year I’ve been keeping track of these notable names, and we’re all getting a chuckle out of my informal “Almost Famous” list. I thought you might, too. Again, none of these people are the actual “celebrity” (term used loosely) but are instead just folks like you who appreciate free legal information online. So far this year, I’ve noticed:
Not the gunfighter Jesse James or the politician Charles “Charlie” Wilson
Not the sportswriter Peter King or the reality tv chef Michael Simon
Not the musical luminaries Richard Rogers and John Davidson
Not the island of Diego Garcia
Not box-office poison John Carter (of Mars) [didn’t see that one? Don’t worry, no one did.]
And not comedians Chris Elliot, Kevin Hart, or Steven Wright (and especially not Stephen Wright)
The point here might simply be that I unapologetically recognize the names of more comedians than anything else; but, my hope is that this list demonstrates that actual humans (like me!) look at — and very much appreciate — every single donation that LII receives to support our work.
If you rely on free and open access to law, please consider making a donation and maybe even leaving us a comment of support. If you ARE famous, we’ll never tell. If not, that’s perfectly okay too. 🙂
We often find the tale of the blind men and the elephant useful for explaining the many facets of the Legal Information Institute. In the story, each encounters a different part of the elephant – the tusk, the trunk, the legs – and comes away with a different perception of what an elephant is (it’s like a spear, like a snake, like a tree).
This old parable is a useful way of explaining how the LII is different things not just to our casual users, but even to our friends and supporters like you:
Some admire our expertise in legal informatics and how we use that knowledge to extract, organize, and present statutes and regulations in usable formats with helpful features.
Others appreciate our role as a source of unbiased explanations of legal concepts, constitutional principles, and Supreme Court cases.
Still others value our contributions as leaders and collaborators in a global movement to provide open access to legal information and keep it in the public domain.
Whatever part of the elephant you perceive when you come to our website, our goal is that you encounter a reliable source of trustworthy information that helps you find what you need to do your work, understand the news, or just live your life. Our hope is that you appreciate how your support has helped create that same experience for the more than 36 million other visitors to law.cornell.edu so far this year.
We take no money from Cornell University. Instead, we rely entirely on funds we bring in ourselves. Your support pays our small staff, covers the costs of cloud servers and software, allows us to compensate our student workers, and even lets us venture into the world to share our expertise and help others bring their open access legal initiatives to life.
And we appreciate it more than we could ever express.
LII has always strived to discover new and better ways to make the law more findable and understandable for the public, which has given us a relentlessly practical orientation toward research. Most of the time, we have our hands full keeping up with the academic literature and supervising student research projects, but from time to time we find an opportunity to become involved in more formal research projects in one capacity or another. And very occasionally a project comes along that helps us consolidate what we have learned and enhance everything we offer the public.
Last spring, LII, along with the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII) and Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab became advisors to a new Law-and-Artificial-Intelligence research project entitled “FAI: Using AI to Increase Fairness by Improving Access to Justice.” Law-and-AI luminaries Professors Kevin Ashley and Diane Litman at the University of Pittsburgh lead the project, which aims to bring the fruits of law and AI research to the public. Their project proposal struck a chord with us, particularly when they noted that “Although many AI tools are already available to law firms and legal departments, these tools do not typically reach members of the public and legal service practitioners except through expensive commercial paywalls.”
We were very fortunate this semester to be able to arrange for LII’s language and data science specialist, Dr. Sylvia Kwakye, to embed with the research team. This arrangement has given her a chance to think through the research challenges associated with very particular natural language interpretation tasks while exploring in detail the various ways in which the research data (notably the rules from Ph.D. student Huihui Xu’s research and caselaw sentences from CMU postdoc Jaromir Savelka’s research) could be used to enhance primary law resources on the LII website. We are particularly excited about the potential boon to public understanding afforded by the ability to connect definitions from state and federal regulations to explanations from the jurisprudence in the Caselaw Access Project corpus (see “Spotlight on Free“). We’ve also been heartened to see the ways in which the results of our most recent editorial enhancements to the Wex definitions (see “Anatomy of a Traffic Spike: Hard Work Pays Off“), along with the output of M.Eng. research work extracting definitions from U.S. Code, CFR, and now state regulations, might be of use.
We’re grateful for the chance to learn from the Law-and-AI research community and excited to bring our small role in this project full circle.
Join us for a panel talk hosted by LII as part of International Open Access week!
In the context of a university such as Cornell, open access is often viewed through the lens of academic scholarship. But it can be, and is, so much more. Many Cornell programs further Cornell’s land grant mission by providing open access resources to the general public. A panel of representatives from some of these programs will discuss their work, its impacts, the importance of open access to their mission, and how they strive to make their respective fields more accessible and equitable through their work with open access projects. Moderator: Craig Newton, Co-Director, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law Panelists:
Sara Frug, Co-Director, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law
Jim DelRosso, Assistant Director, Catherwood Library, ILR School
Christopher Wood, Managing Director, Center for Avian Population Studies and Director, eBird
Back in 2015, Harvard Law School announced the launch of the Caselaw Access Project (CAP), a project of its Library Innovation Lab. This is a collection of almost seven million cases covering about 360 years of American judicial opinions. Though we know that more than one librarian felt a little queasy at the sight of venerable old case reporters having their spines severed and bindings undone so that their pages could be fed through high-speed scanners, this effort to digitize and democratize all of American case law was very much a welcome announcement.
Though it’s easy enough to search the CAP database by keyword or citation, for example, the folks at the Library Innovation Lab and throughout the librarian community have other plans in mind for the 36.3 million or so pages in the collection. Their blog tracks and explains feature development in the database. For a lawyer who thinks very old legal opinions are good for nothing but ending sentences that begin with “It is well-settled that…,” each and every post in that blog will be an education. Similarly, a recent article in the online magazine of the American Association of Law Librarians describes projects in data mining, linguistics, link rot, citation analysis, natural language processing, named entity recognition, and topic modeling that are all being conducted using the CAP database.
CAP is not, and does not pretend to be, a one-stop shop for legal research. It appears, for example, that not everything that courts have done after the project went online has made its way into CAP. For instance, our current favorite Supreme Court Case, Georgia v. Public.Resource.Orgis in CAP with a note in the sidebar that the “case source” is the commercial legal research service Fastcase. However, some recently-published federal appellate decisions that cite the case, such as Freeman v. Wainwright and Craft Smith, LLC v. EC Design, LLC do not (yet) seem to be.
In the end, CAP is a potential (and potentially powerful) tool to add to the free online legal research sources you should know about. While you may well find that it doesn’t answer all of your prayers for a free case law search engine, you should be aware that researchers in several fields are using its large data set and API to do work that is likely to make its way into the tools that the next generation of lawyers will use.
October, as it always does, brought the start of a new term at the U.S. Supreme Court. And, as we always do, the LII welcomed a new team of students to our Supreme Court Bulletin Previews staff. Leading the crew this year are Rachel Skene and Stewart Rickert.
Rachel is the Editor-in-Chief. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Puget Sound in 2017 with bachelor’s degrees in both International Relations and Affairs and also French Literature. Rachel taught in France and Oregon before enrolling at Cornell Law School.
Stewart is the Executive Editor. He graduated magna cum laude from Wake Forest University in 2016 with a degree in Economics and Political Science. Stewart worked as an investment banking analyst before coming to Cornell Law School.
All 36 students who make up the Bulletin Previews staff (12 third-year and 24 second-year students) are eager to bring you comprehensive and viewpoint-neutral analysis of each case before it’s argued. If you don’t already subscribe to this free service, you can sign up here: https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/subscribe
Meanwhile, in case you missed it, we wanted to feature our work on an interesting case the Court heard earlier this month. In United States v. Zubaydah, the Court will decide how much deference a trial court should give the federal government when the latter seeks to invoke the state secrets privilege when withholding evidence from discovery in civil litigation. You can find our Preview here: https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/20-827.
Usually, we use this space to feature a conspicuous bump in traffic to some part of our website and map it to a recent news event. This time, however, we’re going to do something a little bit different. In an article back in April, we told the story of how we’d used the extra student labor made available to us during the Summer of 2020 (as their other summer jobs shrunk or vanished entirely) to re-invigorate more than 1,000 definitions in our Wex collection.
In that same article, we introduced Nichole McCarthy, LII’s new Original Content Collections Manager. She spent the Summer of 2021 continuing the Wex Definitions Project, and her student crew improved upon the output from the summer prior. In total we have renovated around 2,500 Wex definitions, making each one longer and more comprehensive while linking it to more related content on our website such as statutes, US Supreme Court decisions, and other Wex articles. We also added dozens of new definitions.
All of that work makes those pages better in the eyes of search engines, resulting in our Wex pages being more findable to the general public. And the public has, indeed, found Wex. This graph shows Wex pageviews up 20% from July through September of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.
Considering all that was in the headlines during this time last year–the election, the pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement all come instantly to mind–it’s amazing that Wex traffic is up dramatically this year. All signs point to the output of our Wex Definitions Project as the reason why.
Of course, traffic in-and-of itself is not our goal. The purpose of Wex is to provide useful, viewpoint neutral explanations of legal terms and concepts to anyone who needs them. We like to think that some segment of that increased viewership was spared a trip to other websites offering answers that are at the very least aligned with a political or social agenda and the very worst just flat wrong.
We still have more than 5,000 other definitions in Wex, all of which will be re-visited in the coming years, and most of which will be revised in the process. Meanwhile, we continue to explore better organizations and linkages within Wex to provide even deeper context for our readers. We’ll keep you posted along the way.