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I wish I could say that it seems like only yesterday… but it’s been a quarter-century.  We started the LII in 1992, just Peter Martin and I,  and, a little later, a student employee who became our first full-time sysadmin. There were 30 web servers in the world then, and I got excited when we got more than 100 page views in a day.  All those numbers have increased a lot since then — there are nine of us, and we serve as many as half a million pages on any weekday.   We’ve come quite a distance, and we’ve accomplished a lot along the way

During the coming year, we’ll be doing a few special things to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the LII.  We’re not extravagant — these will be low-key events, but we think you’ll like them.  The longest-lasting and most interesting will be the dedication of our popular VoxPopuLII blog to a series of articles by 25 leading thinkers and doers in the field of legal information — a collection of academics, publishers, scientists, librarians, and government officials who collectively represent the history of the field from then until now.  The series — published on an irregular schedule averaging twice a month — is called “25 for 25”.   We hope you’ll enjoy it.  I’ve kicked off the series with a first article here.

A short but unusual message appeared in my email a few weeks ago. It ended: “Veel succes met het onderzoek.”

This wasn’t a case of someone typing too quickly on his phone. It was Dutch. And the story of why I found myself cutting and pasting it into Google Translate is worth re-telling.

It begins just after Thanksgiving, when LII Director Tom Bruce and I took a meeting with two members of the Board of Directors of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, or CAUCE for short. CAUCE is an internet end-user advocacy group. You can read more about them here. From time to time CAUCE funds Cornell law students to research and write about laws and regulations pertaining to commercial email and privacy both in the United States and abroad. We call this collection the Inbox Project, and it is its own little neighborhood within Wex.  

CAUCE asked us to explore what might be written about regulations in the European Union since our last update in 2013. My first task was to find a student. As it so happened, we had several working for us in various capacities, including a couple of former LLM students who remain in the US on their student visas performing Optional Practical Training (OPT). With finals and then holidays approaching, it made more sense to use one of them than a current JD student.

I chose a young woman named Rachel for this project, as her resume showed some prior familiarity with the issues. Her first task was simple:  to read the 2013 article, ensure the hyperlinks were still valid, and find new hyperlinks for any that weren’t. She found and updated about a half-dozen defunct hyperlinks that same day, and so it was time to expand the assignment.

Meanwhile, Tom had sent an email to a number of his European colleagues seeking experts who might provide us with research leads. One responded right away, the Dean of the PPLE College at Universiteit Van Amsterdam, Dr. Radboud Winkels.  

I asked Rachel to contact Dr. Winkels to follow up, and to copy me. She did.  In Dutch.  By sheer coincidence, she is Dutch and has two degrees from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. (The last line of his response to her begins this article.)  

And it’s moments like that when it’s easy to see how the expansiveness of the internet, Cornell, and the LII all complement each other. Sitting in tiny Ithaca, New York, by sheer coincidence we found a Dutch law student who could correspond with a Dutch academic in their native language to discuss European email privacy regulations. That student will turn those conversations into research, and that research into content for the website. And we’ll publish that content for everyone to read, free of charge.

In English.  🙂

 

johnsflagFrom time to time, we travel to Washington DC to meet with friends, supporters, and collaborators.  Last month, Sara, Craig and I visited collaborators at 18F (the Federal team dedicated to improving government websites), the National Archives (our collaborators on the Oyez project), the Justice Department, and the House of Representatives, and some of you,  as well as with friends and helpers among the Cornell Law School’s many alumni who work in the city.   As always, we got a ton of useful suggestions about things we can do to help people find and understand the law — either new things, or things we already do that can be improved.  And it seems that the subject of law and cybersecurity is very much on everyone’s mind — that was good news, as we are planning a few special events on that theme for our 25th-year celebration in 2017.

For me, the centerpiece of the trip was a day spent at the Fourth International Conference on Legislation and Law Reform, held at the World Bank’s headquarters.  I had the honor of being the first person to speak to that group about use of online legislation by the general public.  Non-lawyers are now a majority of the users of every web site that publishes legislation (at least, of the ones that measure such things), and those who draft and publish law are beginning to take note.  For example, legislation.gov.uk and the UK Office of Parliamentary Counsel have created the “Good Law” project to make legal language easier to understand, and here at the LII we’ve done a joint study with researchers at the Australian National University to study readability of legislation.   The most gratifying part of the experience for me was that the conference organizers — who thought the topic experimental when it was proposed — are now planning future sessions on making legislation more understandable for the public.

The Puzzler

I thought it might be fun to challenge our readers with a puzzle I posed for the audience at the conference.  After all, what else do you have to think about during the holiday season?  

Here is the current, valid version of 4 USC 1:

The flag of the United States shall be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white; and the union of the flag shall be forty-eight stars, white in a blue field.

That’s right. 48 stars, in the most current version of the law.  We get several e-mails each year loudly telling us just how dumb lawyers must be if they don’t know there are 50 states in the US — and they sort of have a point. There’s nothing confusing or unclear about that language — but it creates an enormous amount of confusion.

The first person to write to me with a convincing explanation of how this can possibly be good current law wins a shout-out in the next newsletter and the eternal gratitude of any number of teachers of legal research who will have a lot of fun using this in class.  Extra credit if you manage to figure out what happened to Alaska… and why someone thought all this confusion was necessary in the first place.

logoBack in June we announced our involvement in taking over control of the popular Supreme Court audio website Oyez.  We were a logical choice for Oyez because our missions of public access to the law aligned perfectly, and our affiliation with Cornell will provide both stability and notoriety for Oyez.  That June article ended with a promise to update you when we had more to  report.  Happily, that time has come.

As of December 15th, we officially became co-owners of the Oyez.org domain and website.  Though the paperwork is just now getting wrapped up, we at the LII and our partners at Justia have been operating Oyez for several months.  We spent the summer working with Oyez’s two full-time employees (as well as Professor Goldman himself, of course) to make sure we understood all the data sources, processes, and related workflows so that we could provide uninterrupted coverage of the Court when oral arguments began again in October.

One big decision we had to face early in that process was who would do the work creating the case pages for each case in the new term.  Rather than add something new on short notice for Supreme Court Bulletin students (though the substantive overlap is obvious), we approached some of the returning students at Chicago-Kent who had done the work during the previous term.  They were all thrilled to remain on the Oyez team (and to continue to get the paychecks)!    So, they’ve been busily and happily summarizing the facts of each new case when the Court grants cert and the opinions in those cases as they’ve already begun to trickle in.  If you’d like to help offset our costs in paying them to provide this public good, please consider donating.  

LII Staffer Craig Newton also recently met with employees of the National Archive in suburban Washington DC to discuss Oyez.  The Archive has been supplying audio to Oyez for several years, and this was our chance to introduce ourselves along with Justia, explain our mission, and assure them that we had every intention to keep the audio collection free and open to all.  (We learned that they are big fans of Oyez, as “something like 95%” of all people requesting Supreme Court audio from the government are satisfied when directed to the Oyez website).  

While we continue to exercise some new muscles as we work through the Court’s current term, the LII and our partners at Justia already have an eye toward improvements.  We’ll be re-branding the Oyez website with our own logos and updating the “About” pages to reflect the new management structure, expanding the selection of available blogs, transitioning the authoring of case-related content to our own students, and possibly seeking out sponsors who wish to attach their name to the Oyez project.

We hope in another six months we will have more news to share about this exciting project.

headshotKimball Bighorse chose Stanford University because its well-known Native American program draws students from many tribes.

However, he didn’t study Native Americans; he studied Symbolic Systems. That includes, he explained, “philosophic questions, natural language, and cognitive psychology.” And computers. Bighorse is now a web developer for the LII.

But his Native roots remain strong. His father is Navajo, his mother Cayuga, and he’s the oldest of four children. Bighorse and his siblings grew up in Utah, Santa Cruz California, and Albuquerque. His mother taught elementary school; his father taught high school—including computer classes.

“Our mother always told us where we were from, so it’s always been our aspiration to return here,” Bighorse said. That’s because many Native tribes are matrilineal. “Here” is the area surrounding Cayuga Lake, which once belonged to the Cayuga tribe, part of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. Two of his siblings also live in the area. His brother works for a Cayuga Nation enterprise, and one sister lives in Seneca Falls. (His oldest sister lives in Hawaii.)

Not only is Ithaca the center of his Native roots; it feels comfortable in other ways. “Being here reminds me of Berkeley. It’s a mini-Berkeley.”

“I’m here because I want to be here,” Bighorse added. “It’s a critical time for the tribe. It’s the first time we’ve needed to govern ourselves; there was always some other government. I’m a crazy activist,” he adds calmly. Bighorse played football in high school and still looks the part—which is not that of a crazy activist.

He did, however make a trip to Standing Rock, the weekend of December 3rd and 4th. “When we got out there, things were getting heated,” he said. “The camp was pretty well organized. There were a lot of different interests there, environmental activists, tribal people. The veterans were just coming in. At sundown we went up on Facebook Hill, where you could see everything; the security lights, the campfires.” (“Facebook Hill” is where the media camp was, because there’s no phone service down below.) Bighorse was there when the Army Corps of Engineers announced that they would not approve an easement to allow the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe. “We were all celebrating. It was a great moment.”

Before moving back to Cayuga territory, Bighorse worked for several Silicon-Valley startups. “My first job was for a company that recruited for hedge fund and private equity jobs. We built and maintained a technology platform to track candidates’ applications by skill set, all the way through the interview and hiring process. I did everything, including fixing problems in the middle of the night. It was a great introduction to Internet work.”

The founder of a competitor startup left to create an e-commerce company, and Bighorse joined him. “He built an audience, I built the tech. I didn’t get paid; I was part-owner of the company. We worked out of my co-founder’s bedroom. Building something from scratch was a great experience.”

Then Bighorse got married, and he said, “I needed a more stable lifestyle.” He also wanted to move back to his Cayuga Nation roots. His wife, a nurse from the state of Washington, takes care of what he calls his “two-and-a-half children:” a three-year-old girl, a two-year-old boy, and a new one expected in April. “I try and give her a break whenever I can,” he said.

Once his family was settled in Ithaca, he worked for a travel startup. “We had developers in Thailand, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and the Ukraine, all in different time zones. We had a lot of meetings at 11 p.m.” But as a father, such long hours were difficult.

Last year, he joined the LII. “If you’re doing Internet work anywhere in this area, the LII has industrial strength traffic,” he said. “It dwarfs all other Cornell Internet traffic.” Unlike his startup experience, he explained, the LII has a “legacy system.” That means the technical underpinning has been around for some time. After all, the LII was a startup back in 1992.

Because the LII does a lot with a small staff, his startup experience is helpful. “I’m used to limited resources and time, and having to prioritize,” Bighorse said. We discuss the iterative process that both writers and software engineers use. “Coding is writing,” Bighorse said. “I think of it as literature. You create a strong architecture, then you get it to work, then you do new and better iterations.”

The LII, and the Law School, offer other opportunities for Bighorse. Last fall, John Dossett, the General Counsel to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), was in residence at Cornell Law School. “He visited us in our office,” said Bighorse. “Then he gave a talk. I had lunch with him afterwards. It was great to hear from him about the law in general, and what his needs are.”

Bighorse enjoys his work with the LII. “It’s fun to re-invent something that’s been around. In a startup, you build from scratch, but there’s no one to use it. But tons of people use the LII,” said Bighorse. “My task is to reinvent it and make it better. When it started, it was the only way to read law online, but that’s no longer true. What problems aren’t we solving? What can the LII do to meet users’ needs? That’s the charge I see myself playing a role in.”

 

wagnerFrank Wagner, the longest-serving and most prolific Reporter of Decisions for the Supreme Court of the United States, passed away unexpectedly on August 28.  He was a good friend to the LII.  

The first time I met Frank he scared the hell out of me. Peter Martin and I were meeting with the Supreme Court’s Director of Data Services to talk a bit about what we were doing with Supreme Court materials at Cornell.  At that point, sometime in 1996,  the Court did not yet have a web site; we were urging them to add digital watermarks to the electronic copies of the decisions they were distributing via Project Hermes.  We ended up meeting with Frank.  In a tone that I suspect he had perfected solely to freeze the blood of unwary clerks, he said, “If the public wishes an official version, they may refer to the bound edition.”  And that, it seemed, was that.

Except that it wasn’t.  Frank went on to guide the Court’s publication process into the online era, as part of the team that built the Court’s official website.  And nobody was more concerned than he was about public access to — and understanding of — the Court’s work.  I met him the second time at the Association of Reporters of Judicial Decisions in New York a few years later.  He had just given a talk in which referred to the work of the Reporter of Decisions as “an exercise in serial nitpickery”, a happy phrase coined by an earlier Reporter.  In the break after his talk, he came up to me and said, “I bet you could tell me what the ratio is between the number of people who read the syllabi in a case and the number who read the majority opinion”.  It so happened I could — it was, and is, about 7 to 1 in favor of the syllabus.   Apparently there was a difference of opinion between two of the Justices as to the value of the syllabi.  Frank wanted to bring facts to the argument.  Ever discreet, it was three years or more before I could wheedle him into telling me which two Justices were involved (out of respect for Frank’s discretion, I’m going to keep that to myself).  He was, more than anything, concerned that the public be able to understand what the Court had said, and he saw the syllabi as the best official vehicle for that.  And, though he never really said much about it, Frank was fiercely proud of that work — of its importance and of its precision.

We had many encounters after that; I remember after one lunch in DC telling my wife that I had just spent 90 minutes with the biggest grammar geek on the planet; another time, over a grilled cheese sandwich in the Court cafeteria, Frank told me about the night that Bush v. Gore came down, about the suspense and the hurry and the frantic cite-checking. The way he told it, it was as if they’d done the edit with bullets flying over their heads.  It was a great story.   Much later, I found that we shared a love of science fiction and some of its stranger byways.

When Frank retired, I had the good sense to ask him if he’d work with us and our students on the Supreme Court Bulletin and he had the bad judgement to accept.   He was a tremendous resource for the students and a terrific mentor.   He worked directly with the students whose work was scheduled to appear in the Federal Lawyer magazine, ensuring that we always put our proverbial best foot forward in that publication.  More importantly, though, because we try to ensure that every team of students has a chance to appear in that magazine, it meant that every team would also get the chance to work with Frank.  Frank frequently attended the orientation for our new Bulletin associates each August, and the Q & A he held was full of the great stories and even better advice that those of us who knew him had come to expect.  

Frank once said of his job that “I do not kid myself that it has brought me even 15 minutes of fame in the wider world.”  In our part of the world, where saying things clearly and cleanly is important, he was a giant.

I will miss him.

-t.

janet_odetsi_twum

Janet Odetsi Twum (Photo credit: Carol Clune)

Janet Odetsi-Twum, whom we met during her recent Bitner Fellowship at the Cornell Law Library, is a librarian to watch.  Educated in her native Ghana, she speaks six languages (English, French, Ga, Twi, Krobo and Ewe). Prior to her career as a librarian, she worked in a wide variety of settings and jobs.  She has taught in rural Ghana, serving as a classroom teacher as well as a teacher of English and Ga.  This gave her experience “improvis[ing] learning materials” in low resource environments.   She also worked on projects for young women living with HIV/AIDS.  

Odetsi-Twum’s interest in libraries began at an early age.  Growing up with a love of books and reading, she had a natural affinity for librarianship.  “I erroneously [thought] working in the library could afford me more books to read,” she says.

She has worked in a wide variety of libraries — children’s libraries, school libraries, academic libraries.  Children’s libraries, she says, are “full of action, creativity, and teaching”, and allowed her to build skills in working with computers and digital scholarship which she later brought to an academic setting.  At the time, internet resources for children’s libraries were not yet developed, so she worked with CD-ROMs — which, she points out, had their benefits: they involved “a one time payment, unlike with online legal resources where subscription is annual and expensive”.

Odetsi-Twum’s specific interest in working in legal libraries began from the ground up, when she started one.  A decade ago, when the school in which she was working as a librarian was accredited to teach law, she set up a law library from scratch.  

Having gained wide experience at so many types of libraries, Odetsi-Twum sought the Bitner Fellowship in order to gain experience in a library outside of Ghana. Law Library Director Femi Cadmus was quick to point out the benefit to the librarians here as well: “Cornell Law Librarians were excited to host Janet Odetsi-Twum in October.  Janet is an enthusiastic and resourceful librarian who  powers on undeterred by some of the challenges faced by her law library. She is an excellent communicator and was able to provide staff of our library with a very insightful overview of the workings of the Ghana legal system and the administration of law libraries in Ghana.”

While she continues to work as the head librarian at the Ghana School of Law, Odetsi-Twum is also currently working on an LL.B.  (In Ghana, she explains, while a law degree is helpful for a law librarian, it is not as common as it is for employees of American law school libraries.)  Even her Bitner fellowship caused her to miss a few weeks of classes — “I [had] to catch up with lessons and reading assignments for two weeks,” she says, admitting that it was “taxing”.  She notes that every class begins from the ground up: unlike library work, “the semester ends you have nothing to do with the course again”.

When starting the Ghana School of Law Library, one resource she relied upon was the LII, and she remarks on the coincidence of getting a chance to be at Cornell Law School in person. Of particular interest to us is Odetsi-Twum’s work putting Ghanaian legal information online. She sees pressing issues in open access and online presentation of legal materials: “currently the need to get government agencies as a key stakeholder in the provision of legal data generated is very important. Also the issues with copyright with regards to other companies who may be making profit out of the case law that government generate.” Her experience as a Bitner fellow has helped shape her project:  “I have learnt to focus on what is within my reach and with time I will get all others to join in the provision of legal resources online. As a first step, I intend to harvest and organize the scattered bits of pertinent legal data put online by other organizations in Ghana.” We can’t wait to see what she does next.

lincolnFrom the point of view of an analytics wonk, elections are an interesting time at the LII.  We see a lot of people’s political and social concerns reflected in the materials that they look at on the site.  Here’s a quick rundown of some of the more interesting things that popped up during this election season:

  • The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. We first noticed a real run on the 14th Amendment during the first GOP primary debate back in August of last year .  During the middle 20 minutes of the one-hour debate, we clocked something like half million hits on the Second and Fourteenth Amendments.  Naturally, people were reading the Second Amendment in the context of gun control.  The Fourteenth pops up in many discussions — it is fundamental to recent controversies over Obamacare, immigration, and many other high-profile issues.
  • 18 USC 879, Threats against Former Presidents and certain other persons. “Certain other persons”, in this case, includes both Presidential candidates and the family of former Presidents.  In the wake of Mr. Trump’s suggestion that “Second Amendment people” could take things into their own hands in the event that Hillary Clinton were to be elected President, we clocked nearly 125,000 visits to this Federal statute in two days.  A second, much smaller blip occurred in mid-October.
  • 18 USC 793, Gathering, transmitting, or losing defense information.  We got another 125,000-visit bump on July 5 and 6, in the wake of FBI director James Comey’s announcement that he would not be recommending that criminal charges be filed against Hillary Clinton over her use of a private e-mail server. Interestingly, people seemed to spend nearly three times as long as usual reading the page, indicating a serious attempt to understand the meaning of a statute that is by all accounts difficult to read and understand.
  • 18 USC 2071, Concealment, removal, or mutilation generally.  This one has popped up at intervals throughout the campaign season, probably because of claims made by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and various Washington DC think tanks.  Each claimed that the disqualification provision in 18 USC 2071 would bar Clinton from becoming President if she were found guilty of violating federal document concealment and destruction laws.  Mukasey has since reversed his position.   The statute has been viewed nearly 200,000 times in the last six months.
  • 18 USC 700, the Flag Desecration Act. This one has a habit of popping up when flags are burned or otherwise mistreated during protests. It’s been viewed at a fairly steady pace throughout the election season, with a small spike occurring in mid-April.
  • 18 USC 594, Intimidation of Voters.  This one peaked from October 14-16, apparently as a reaction to reports of ominous flyers distributed to Democratic voters in Albequerque, New Mexico.

Given all this, you might predict that statutes related to immigration, Social Security, and other issues that generate heated discussion during election season might also appear in the list, but they don’t.  Perhaps that’s because they generate heated discussion all the time.   But it may be that, during the most bitter election campaign in decades, substance matters less than criminalizing  the behavior of your opponent.

Although we publish legal information and operate from within a law school, people working in non-legal professions comprise most of our online audience (We don’t use cookies to track website visitors’ behavior, but we can infer some things about audience demographics from traffic chronology and Internet Protocol Network data). Despite the makeup of our audience, the majority of feedback and support we receive comes from those practicing, using or studying law on a frequent, if not daily, basis. We’re glad to serve those with legal training, but we also strive to better understand and serve those with no training.

So, when Michael Schneider, an LII donor and the Managing Member at Noodle House Studios LLC, mentioned why he came to our site and supported our work, it caught our attention. As the production company’s Managing Member and father to its founder Kurt Hugo Schneider, Michael Schneider is someone from our non-law audience who needs access to online legal information to be successful at work.

After working for years in direct marketing, banking and real estate, Schneider’s career took an interesting turn in 2009. His son, Kurt, was creating music videos with a friend from school, Sam Tsui, and had reached some success in his first year of production. Before they embarked upon a skunkworks shoot on a particularly snowy day in Connecticut, Schneider casually mentioned to his son that he really should have liability insurance and operate under a company. As he wondered about his liability in the operation, he decided to help his son pull together the necessary components of a business.

Although his protective instincts prompted his involvement, Schneider says he also based his decision to help Kurt upon basic business principles. “You don’t really make decisions, exactly. You just sort of follow the way you are drawn as a result of business opportunity and clients.”

That approach panned out for Noodle House Studios, which has since produced hundreds of unique video song covers and original works. Kurt’s YouTube channel alone has racked up over 7.5 million subscribers and nearly 2 billion video views. When Kurt moved to the west coast to do more creating, his father stayed home to continue managing all business, legal and operational matters.

Schneider only went full-time with Noodle House around a year ago, when he let his broker license lapse. His prior careers had exposed him to a few intensely regulated legal areas of commerce: The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA), Truth in Lending Act (TILA), and Unfair or Deceptive Acts or Practices (UDAP) in relation to his work in direct marketing; regulation laws associated with his position in Default Services at a bank; and property law, which he absorbed while working in real estate secured lending.

Early in their collaboration, a music company threatened to sue Noodle House. “There is something incredibly motivating about receiving a credible threat of litigation in an area when you really don’t understand the first thing about it,” says Schneider. With one Google Search he found the LII, and he proceeded to invest “hundreds of hours understanding copyright law as it applies and relates to music and the digital arena.” He feels that the only way to understand the basic underlying legal issues in music is to read the statutes and judicial decisions. “You simply have to open up copyright law and read it, and then read the reasoning of court rulings.”

Ultimately, the threat was resolved, but Schneider’s research on our website gave him a pretty strong background in legal issues affecting music, and he still references the LII on a regular basis. “Music is an intensely hard area, in terms of the legal issues. And it’s an area that has so many complications that are specific to music.”

With new media in YouTube, he says, things get even more complicated because of three complex assets: “Composition, which is part of the song recording, which is part of the video. Each asset has separate rights. In order to manage a music business which has audio/visual content and is being distributed digitally, you must understand the underlying issues.”

Amid that complexity, Schneider praises YouTube’s Content ID system for giving creators “a pretty sound basis for managing their assets and managing their copyrights.” And he has praise for the LII, too: “Just as YouTube allows a creator to disintermediate more traditional companies such as labels, sites such as yours allow a business to disintermediate other more traditional players such as consultants.”

Early on, Schneider’s ignorance led to a potential legal conflict. Since accessing legal information at our site, his improved knowledge of underlying legal issues has allowed Noodle House Studios to form good relationships with major companies like Sony, Universal, Warner, Disney, Nickelodeon in the last 3 years. It also has allowed them to maintain a “pretty lean operation” by managing its own assets.

When asked what to expect next from Noodle House, Schneider says “the plan is to keep doing what we’re doing, only do more of it and do it better and with more exposure. I started this because I wanted to protect my son. Now it’s about running a successful business.”

Peter Kopp

When Peter Martin and Tom Bruce decided to publish legal information for the handful of people on “the Net” back in 1992, neither could have predicted the magnanimity of that decision. Their small research group at Cornell Law School would eventually give millions of people access to the federal law, which their government still fails to provide today.

Over the years, as our programs and impact have grown enormously, our staff remains small. Only a handful of full-time employees conduct research and run a five hundred thousand page-website. Last year, after a decade of dabbling in fundraising, the LII brought on Peter Kopp to explore more sustainable, diverse funding sources. We thought we’d ask him a few questions.

What did you do before coming to the LII?

A lot of things. Most recently, I raised operational support via direct response methods for public broadcasting in Arlington, VA. Before that, I worked in development in the arts and higher education, book-ending the few years I spent teaching kids how to sail small and large boats.

One of those careers is not like the other. What made you decide to return to the harbor?

A few reasons. Although a sailor’s life sounds awfully romantic–and it was, for the most part–I grew tired of feeling disconnected from the world. Also, my child supervision skills had reached their ultimate height after playing parent for three week stretches to a dozen boys and girls living aboard a 50’ sloop, so I had nothing left to prove–or give–in that realm. Plus, the girl I married probably wouldn’t have said yes to getting me 8 months out of the year.

Were you already familiar with the LII before you applied for your position?

No, but it took only minimal research to recognize the important role it plays in society, via its staggering usage statistics. I was very familiar with Cornell, having grown up just 20 minutes outside of Ithaca, and my experience in both online fundraising and higher education development prepared me well for the position. Those things combined — a mission that I could get behind, a familiarity with the parent organization and the chops to make a difference — have made up for my lack of program content-specific knowledge or training. Our success this year demonstrates that.

So you’re returning home. Had that always been the plan, and was this position the deciding factor?

Getting out of DC was the plan. My wife and I decided to move to Ithaca when she accepted an unrefusable offer to work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. When the LII posted its fundraising position just days after she accepted hers, it felt like fate. There wasn’t another job in upstate New York — and probably the country — I would have found more appealing. The LII has formed its solid reputation and substantial impact by efficiently pursuing its mission. I was — and still am — excited to contribute to that effort by building and maintaining relationships with those who value the organization.

Do you have a legal or technical education?

Nope. All three of my siblings went to law school, so getting a legal education was the last thing I wanted after college. At Hamilton College I received a liberal arts education, where I spent most of my time either on or behind a stage. When I wasn’t performing, I was usually writing a history paper. Since graduation, my varied experiences have prepared me to listen and engage with the LII’s constituents to advance its mission, something a law degree or technical training may not have done as well.

What have you been up to in your first year?

I spent the first few months learning about legal information and the role the LII plays. Since then, with the help of several LII staff members and minor strategy and operational tweaks, we raised more net revenue this year from individual and corporate support than ever before. I’ve spent the balance of my time wading through constituent relationship management (CRM) systems and processes — both the LII’s and Cornell’s — to document, update and optimize them for more efficient operation. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting there.

What will be your biggest focus in the coming year?

This year the LII will celebrate twenty-five years of helping people access and understand law via the Internet. Broadly, my goal will be to celebrate this milestone in a way that enables our audience to better understand and appreciate the organization behind the mission. As part of that celebration, we hope to establish connections–in the form of sponsorships–with organizations that value our work. For years, we have benefited from advertising revenue to help fund our research and publishing efforts. If we could replace it all with direct, tax-deductible support from corporations looking to make a difference, we would. So, if anyone reading this knows an organization who might sponsor us, they can share that information by emailing sponsorship@liicornell.org.

Why does the LII need donor support? Isn’t Cornell well-funded already?

The financial model in higher education has received a lot of press in recent years, for a good reason: college has become prohibitively expensive for many students and their families. Cornell and most other institutions have turned their focus to tuition and scholarship to improve access. Subsequently, ancillary research programs like the LII get bumped down the priority list. Plus, our operational costs only increase as our user audience grows.

So, the LII is more dependent now than ever before on individual donations. We’re fortunate to have so many people out there who care about our work. They’re making a difference. With their help, we’re decreasing our reliance on the law school more every year.

When someone asked a 5 year-old you what you wanted to be when you grew up, was “fundraiser” your answer?

Believe it or not, I had my heart set on being either a politician or a comedian. Unfortunately, I didn’t turn out to be sleazy or funny enough. As I learned how difficult performing could be, I discovered some of the harsh funding realities nonprofit organizations face. I benefited directly from a college scholarship, and I’ve been fascinated with the philanthropic support model and connecting people to causes they care about ever since.

We hear you’re raising chickens. Are you setting a deurbanization trend for your Millennial generation, and should we be worried about hipsters taking to the fields?

 

No, and no.