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Stop feeling so guilty, willya?

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Aug 212014

guiltypuppySkilled fundraisers that we are (not), we have a variety of ways that we try to find out what motivates you to make a contribution to the LII. The number one leading answer is, “I felt guilty because I’ve been using the service and I thought it was time to give you something.” Believe me, we’re not above using guilt as a motivator (most of us are raising children, and all of us have mothers), and if you want to make another gift right now, be our guest. But if you’ve donated recently, stop for a minute and think about what you’ve done:  donations to the LII do a lot for a lot of people, and all of you who have contributed should feel really, really proud.

First of all, you’re helping around 20 people for each dollar that you give us — making it possible for them to read and understand the laws that affect them. That’s no small thing.

But then there’s the FDA inspector who tells us that our CFR is more up to date than the version that the FDA puts up for its staff. Or the Vietnamese civil servant who uses us as her only American law reference. Or the reporter who used our materials to check the truthfulness of a controversial sheriff in Arizona. And the blind law student who wrote to us this month and told us that we’re the only site that works effortlessly with his screen-reading software.

You guys make all that possible. We’re grateful. And so are all those other people you’ve helped.

Ithaca brings us the world

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Aug 212014

ithacaAs an institute within the Cornell Law School, the LII team is surrounded by students and faculty who are immersed in the study of law; as a part of Cornell University, we have access to some of the greatest minds in the study of just about everything else.

Perhaps best of all is the vibrant community of Ithaca, New York, which houses Cornell, as well as Ithaca College, and is home to thousands of young people looking to make a difference. These factors provide us with opportunities to leverage this knowledge and enthusiasm into research that directly impacts our mission, and we take advantage of this in several ways.

For example, we’re fortunate to host visiting scholars from other institutions who do work in information science, open access, and legal information. This summer we welcomed Jonathan Germann from the Law Librarianship program at the University of Washington, who worked on various things related to ALJ opinions and the CFR. Stevan Gostojic joined us from the University of Novi Sad (in Serbia). He worked on a Semantic Web ontology/project related to statutes and bylaws. In a few weeks, we’ll be joined by Juhani Korja from the University of Lapland, who is working on research having to do with privacy law as it applies to biometric data (think facial recognition, fingerprints, DNA, etc.).

During the academic year, we mentor and lead workshops for students from the Cornell University Departments of Computer and Information Science. Each semester, several Masters of Engineering students take an independent study course directed by our semantic web researcher and developer, Mohammad AL Asswad. Last year’s project led to an award from Google. LII associate director Sara Frug leads another group of students in a software development practicum. And the LII also offers undergraduate work study jobs in system administration and software development.

Our administrative team employs several students from Cornell Law School’s LLM program to help with basic data entry and other marketing and fundraising tasks and research. Some of these students also assist LII associate director Craig Newton in content development, specifically in translating Wex pages into their native languages.

And of course, there’s the LII Supreme Court Bulletin, which provides thirty Cornell Law School students with the opportunity to hone their writing and research skills by providing written previews of upcoming Supreme Court cases for 30,000 subscribers.

New this year, we launched a full-summer internship in non-profit communications and management with help from the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College. Senior Tom Dempsey worked on advertising, fundraising, and communications projects that will give him marketable skills when he graduates next June. A part-time internship will be available throughout the coming academic year.

As a matter of principle, we think it’s important to pay our students and interns for their contributions to the LII, so we spend more than $100,000 per year to reward their hard work and support their academic expenses. These funds come from users and donors like you who make financial contributions to the LII. If you’d like more information on internships, or would like to sponsor a visiting fellow, please let us know. Or, you can make a donation here.

LII donor Margaret Felts on fracking and free law

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Aug 212014

Margaret FeltsWhen did you first become interested the law?

As an expert witness since 1983, I have spent many hours with client attorneys working through laws and regulations to understand how they apply to certain industry situations. As time passed, I became interested in knowing more about the laws and how they came to be.

Where did you go to college and what did you study there? Degrees?

I have a BA in Organizational Communications from Eckerd College, a BS in Petroleum Engineering from Louisiana Tech University, a Masters in Energy/Environmental Engineering from LaSalle Universtiy, a JD from Pacific McGeorge School of Law (UOP), specializing in international law and with an emphasis in banking.

Tell us about your work experience. What led you to where you are now?

I began my career as a process engineer at the Amoco Refinery in Yorktown, VA. Following my military husband to the Midwest, I continued to be a process engineer at Celanese Plastics & Specialties in Vernon TX, where we made guar powder, the primary constituent used in fracking fluid. We moved out to California a couple of years later when I accepted an engineering position in the Fuels Office at the California Energy Commission. From there, I moved into consulting and began to work as an expert witness on utility gas cases–which continues to this day–and broadened to other types of cases, including a 5 year case that involved research of water laws and regulations since 1890. From 1985 to 1995, I spent a good deal of time working on environmental issues related to ground water and hazardous waste, including stints with the Department of Defense and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (Site Mitigation). These combined experiences led to a solid understanding of the long term effects of the production of oil & gas on the environment.

In your current position, describe what you do and how you use the LII?

As an expert witness and technical consultant on complex litigation cases, I use LII to research the law and regulations so I can work intelligently with my clients.

What parts of the LII do you use the most?

Lately, I have been working on the case involving the PG&E gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA, requiring a detailed understanding of applicable regulations under 49 CFR Part 192. LII has been a life saver. LII’s embedded links to referred sections make it really easy to follow these complex regulations.

Are there features of the LII site that you find superior to other resources of the same information?

The “free” feature is the best. As a sole proprietor, I can’t afford an expensive legal resource. Electronic access and excellent search features are important to me because they allow me to work from my office and to be efficient in my research.

You recently made a gift to support the LII’s work. Can you tell us why you gave so generously?

LII makes me look good as a consultant. I can do my research and be informed before meetings. I can answer my client’s questions quickly, without leaving the office. I can bookmark pages, making them readily available during a conference call. All of these services improve my image and lead to more consulting work, which adds to my bottom line. Since LII is my resource, I pay through donations.

If you by chance encountered another LII user at a meeting or event, what would you say to convince that user to become a financial supporter?

Try LII and compare it to the other services. If you end up going back to LII frequently, and especially if you drop a subscription to another service, send LII money so they can keep providing this outstanding service.

Can you say a few words about the importance of making the law available and accessible to everyone, without cost?

This is the most important aspect of LII – everyone can access recent versions of the law. Most individuals have very specific needs that don’t rise to the level of finding an attorney, going to a law library or subscribing to a legal information service. These people can do a simple search on the internet at LII and will probably find enough information to get them started. Small businesses who must comply with specific regulations can look up the regulations on LII using the cites provided by their regulator, saving them the enormous expense of purchasing regulations that will quickly become outdated.

Making the law available and accessible to everyone without cost brings the current law to the people affected by the law. That makes sense.

As you know, New York’s highest court recently upheld local zoning laws banning hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in two towns not far from us here at Cornell. In New York, the issue was whether the state’s comprehensive law governing the oil and gas industry preempted the municipalities’ zoning authority, and the court ruled that it did not. Other than zoning laws, are there other legal options communities have used or might use to challenge local fracking activity?

The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), or the State equivalent (for instance, California Environmental Quality Act – CEQA) is the place to begin. These laws and regulations apply to any activity that must be authorized by the government. Generally, if the entity has to obtain a permit, NEPA can be used. Under this set of laws, pretty much anything can be challenged – noise, traffic, water use, contamination, air emissions, etc. Individuals and/or community organizations can use these laws and regulations to slow the progress of fracking activities – but, ultimately may not stop them as the remedy is mitigation. So, if the fracking company can eventually show that it can mitigate all of the problems by changing its procedures, it may get a permit and go forward with the fracking. Sometimes, the projected cost of fighting through a NEPA challenge rises to a level that causes the fracking company to abandon the project, but that outcome is not something one would count on.

While delaying the fracking activity through NEPA, a community can take immediate steps to develop and implement appropriate zoning laws, as we see in the New York cases. Other legal options might include trespass, injunction to prevent drinking water contamination (includes hazardous waste discharge), injunction to stop noise, traffic, etc. Of course, once damages occur, one can sue for specific damages.

Finally, researching (on LII) the history of exemptions for the oil & gas industry may reveal an underlying intent to provide energy supply security by encouraging exploration and development. Recently, some fracking companies have been arguing that they should be allowed to export product, including build LNG facilities to export excess natural gas. Clearly, if they are over-producing to the point of needing to export, the intent to provide energy security has been met and one might argue that the exemptions no longer apply.

What legal arguments are available to the fracking industry that might allow them to proceed in areas where the local population might not be welcoming to their presence?

The industry should have a good understanding of all the applicable exemptions in federal, state and local laws. Over the years, they have successfully planted these exemptions, mostly in the name of energy supply security. When challenged under NEPA, think mitigation. Knowledge of, and compliance with environmental regulations from the start to the end of a fracking job is ultimately a good defense.

Can you leave us with a the bottom-line takeaway for our readers who want to understand the legal framework of the fracking debate?

In every state, there will be a conflict between agencies that were created to implement energy policies (Energy Commission, Dept of Oil & Gas, Dept of Conservation, etc.) and those created to oversee the environment (Environmental cleanup, toxic substance management, air quality districts, water quality boards, etc.) Anyone challenging fracking operations should figure out how all of these pieces fit together, what the priorities are and how the combined set of rules are applied. Unfortunately, the picture varies from one state to another.

LII in the classroom

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Aug 212014

teacherWe count among our many friends and donors a large number of educators and students alike.  While many folks in academia and beyond use the LII to look up the US Code, the CFR, and the Federal Rules, we wanted to share some of the more remarkable ways people use the LII in the classroom as a new school year approaches:

  • Encouraging students to look up legal terminology in Wex in real-time when those terms come up during classroom discussions

  • Using our Supreme Court Collection to teach the policy behind the procedures taught to police and corrections officers

  • Reading our hyperlinked version of the Annotated Constitution in order to prepare lesson plans for Constitution Day

  • Comparing the competing arguments made by opposing parties as articulated in our Supreme Court Bulletin Previews as a tool to teach high school-level rhetoric

  • Illustrating how legislation becomes regulations through our Parallel Table of Authorities in an undergraduate civics course

  • Expanding the academic understanding of concepts like readability of legislation

We’d also like to propose one more unique service we can offer all those teachers out there as they prepare lesson plans and otherwise look for new and different resources to help them out. Our recently launched Reference Desk not only contains a wealth of information to help you, but our staff of volunteer law librarians can point you to resources you might not otherwise find on your own.  Consider this an invitation to join our user community at the Reference Desk and to use our librarians to help you educate America’s youth.

Real law librarians give you real answers... free!

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Aug 212014

refdeskEvery year, the LII receives thousands of questions by email from users of their website asking for help in finding a statute, regulation, or opinion. Likewise, many academic, county, state, court, and other public law libraries also deal with self-represented litigants and help them to find legal information relevant to their particular legal situation. Different users may ask the same or similar questions, just like law librarians may answer different patrons’ questions with the same or similar information or resources.

To better serve a greater public, the LII created a Reference Desk in the likeness of a public forum so that these users and patrons would have a place to ask their questions and have them be answered by experts in legal information resources and in finding legal information. The LII Reference Desk is the place where all categories of users can ask their questions about finding legal information with the intention that the questions, answers, and resources will then be available to everyone. The LII Reference Desk will be a go-to resource for posting questions and finding answers, as well as a knowledge bank for sharing resources, experiences, and expertise.

Elizabeth Farrell-Clifford (Florida State University) and Charlotte Schneider (Rutgers School of Law-Camden) have put together a group of stellar law librarian volunteers from around the country to monitor the Reference Desk to help answer users’ questions about finding legal information. Anyone with an internet connection can benefit from the information available from this public forum, but we want and encourage all (human) users with a question, a curiosity, or a bit of legal knowledge worth sharing to join the forum site and start posting. Any law librarians who are interested in contributing as a volunteer should register for the site and email Elizabeth or Charlotte at help AT liicornell DOT org.

Get your expertise in front of 25 million users

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Aug 212014

justicekeyOver the past few years, we’ve grown to be very good (or very, very bad–depending on your perspective) about asking our users to contribute money to support online open access to legal information.

But now we want to ask you to contribute something else that’s vitally important to our efforts to make the law accessible to all:  your expertise.

As government gets better at the basics of online publishing for legal information (albeit slowly and incrementally) we want to continue to innovate and to drive the agenda for free legal information, as we’ve done now for over twenty years.  It’s not terribly insightful to say that finding and reading the black-letter law seldom ends the inquiry.  We’ve always known that, of course, but now we’re finally in a position to really do something more to help our users understand the law.

Begun almost twenty years ago as a series of “About” pages covering major topical areas of law, Wex has grown to more than 5,000 entries ranging from simple definitions of legal terms to in-depth treatments of important topics.  We believe that Wex can become a useful destination for a wide range of folks, from those dealing with some singular, significant brush with the legal system (such as a divorce, an arrest, or a will) to those with an academic or hobbyist interest in some legal topic or case.

In short, we’ve succeeded in making the primary law of this country available, but Wex can be a tool for making it accessible.  To achieve this vision, we are re-configuring just about every aspect of Wex, and our need for new content is considerable.

If you’d consider volunteering to write for Wex, please follow this link to a very short survey to help us understand what kind of content you’d be interested in generating.

We don’t imagine the survey to be perfect in every way.  It’s just a first step to opening a dialogue about matching your interests with our needs as we re-imagine and re-design Wex in the hopes of making the LII the internet’s premier destination to learn about the law, and not merely to find it.  Articles in the “new Wex” will be for attribution, so your contributions will be recognizable as yours by whatever portion of our 26 million annual viewers find their way to your work.

Whether or not you feel like you can contribute content to this effort, we’ll keep you posted of our progress over the next several newsletters as we transform Wex into something truly unique and special.

Calling all nitpickers

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Aug 212014

kicktiresA Reporter of Decisions for the US Supreme Court once described his work as “serial peripatetic nitpicking.” New features demand that kind of effort — we want to find out what’s needed, what isn’t, what works, and what doesn’t. We think that some of you might enjoy helping us out in this way. It will give you a chance to set your inner Hermione free while doing some work that’s really important to us. Plus, you’ll get an insider’s view of upcoming products and features (fair warning: in the early stages of these projects, when things aren’t working all that well, an insider’s view can be pretty depressing. Don’t ask us how we know that.)

What’s involved?  Usually, we’ll send you a list of tasks to perform using one of our collections — and completing the tasks will depend on using the new product or feature.  In addition, we’ll ask you to suggest other tasks that we didn’t think of.  We’ll ask you to send back a narrative telling us what you did, what worked, what didn’t, what confused you, and so on.   It will take no more than an hour, and usually far less.  How often we get in touch will depend on your interests, and on what we’re working on (second fair warning: people who like regulations may get called on a lot).

If you’d like to join the LII Beta Testers, send us an email at help AT liicornell DOT org.

The Worst Stewardship Letter Ever

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May 062014

Most fundraisers emphasize — rightly — the importance of talking to contributors about the measurable impact of their contributions. That’s surprisingly hard for us to do — and it’s not because there’s no impact and no story to tell.  It’s an information problem built into the nature of what we do.

drillbitsTheodore Levitt, a professor at the Harvard Business School, used to say that “People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.” Twenty-five million people come to the LII site every year. It’s fair to assume that they’re not doing that because using legal information systems is undiluted fun (we hired five of the seven people in the world who believe that, although I think there could be a few more hiding in the group that will read this newsletter). Each of our audience members is doing something different, and possibly something urgent. For them, finding and understanding the law is the first step in solving a personal or professional problem, and that’s where the real impact of your contribution lies — in empowering them to do that.

There’s a lot we can deduce from analyzing traffic, from the e-mails that we get at the help desk, and from surveys. For example, use of our materials on the Second Amendment went up 800% in the wake of the Newtown school shootings. But what are we to make of a survey response that says, “I’m here to research federal regulations on special education”? Is that an attorney for a school system? A teacher? A parent of a special-needs kid? We can’t be sure, and there’s a limited amount we can find out without getting in the way of what we’re really trying to do — which is to make it easy for people to find and understand the law, no matter who they are or how or where they are trying to apply it.

Every dollar that you give us provides service for roughly 20 people for a year. It does that almost entirely by buying talent — the writers, editors, software developers, and communications specialists who do the real work here. We learn enough from the stories we get via e-mail to know that it’s making a tremendous difference in people’s lives around the world — and we are hugely grateful to you for making it possible.

We can get more specifics, and we will — after all, it is an information problem, and we have a 22-year track record of solving information problems in novel ways. But until we can give you a real story to tell, know that we’re grateful and that what you’re doing is making a tremendous difference to all sorts of people in all sorts of places.

PS:  Got a story to tell about using the LII?  I’d like to hear it.

Our Supreme Court Bulletin Turns Twenty!

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May 062014


The LII’s Supreme Court Bulletin just assembled its new staff to cover the Court during the 2014 – 2015 term, which will begin in October.  The new Editor-in-Chief of the Bulletin is L. Alyssa Chen.  Alyssa graduated cum laude from UCLA in 2010 with a degree in Political Science and a minor in Civic Engagement.   A native of Northern California, Alyssa is Co-President of the California Law Students Association at Cornell Law School.  The new Executive Editor is Daniel Rosales.  In an odd coincidence, Daniel also majored in Political Science in Los Angeles–at Occidental College.

Alyssa and Dan have assembled a team of Associates (rising second-year law students) and  Managing Editors (rising third-year law students who worked as Associates last year) to continue the Bulletin’s work for the twentieth year.

The Bulletin has changed and grown since its original founding by members of the 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 for a brief period during the last decade.)  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.

Now that they have put together their staff, Alyssa and Dan have turned their attention to other matters in preparing for the Court’s fall term.  For example, the Law School has agreed to renovate their workroom to facilitate the collaboration between the Associate teams and their Managing Editors needed to generate the quality previews are 15,000+ subscribers have come to expect.

With Dan and Alyssa looking to the future, the staff of the LII is taking a moment to look back to the past.  Twenty 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-400 students who have worked for the Bulletin during that time.  We are compiling a list of past Bulletin staffers in the hopes of planning a few small celebrations around the country.   If you worked for the LII Bulletin in the past, please email us and let us know where you are!  (LinkedIn is finding most, but not all, of you!)

Meanwhile, 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.

Another Partnership is Born

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May 062014


We’ve (very) recently written about the selection of the new staff our twentieth year of LII Bulletin.  But this year’s staff saw the Bulletin’s audience recently expand in a new and exciting way.

In December, LII’s Associate Director for Content Development, Craig Newton, was approached by the incoming president of the San Diego Chapter of the Federal Bar Association.  San Diego attorney Joe Leventhal was already familiar with the LII website and also the Bulletin, principally through the re-publication of select Bulletin content in The Federal Lawyer, the magazine of the national Federal Bar Association.

As an active Federal Bar Association member, Mr. Leventhal was wondering how he could put similar high-quality content into his local chapter’s quarterly newsletter.  San Diego is a busy marketplace for attorneys concentrating in diverse areas of Federal law ranging from single-lawyer immigration practices to lawyers working for large and sophisticated international law firms engaged in high-stakes patent infringement lawsuits.

Craig suggested that the San Diego chapter could re-publish some of the Bulletin content not published in the national magazine–namely the cases originating from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Because the Southern District of California is part of the Ninth Circuit (along with Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, and US territories in the Pacific), cases from the Ninth Circuit are of particular interest to lawyers in San Diego.

The San Diego Chapter’s Winter Newsletter contained the LII Bulletin article on Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.–a copyright case originating from the Ninth Circuit and argued before the Supreme Court in late January.  Feedback from the newsletter staff and its readership was all positive.  We are repeating the experiment in their Spring Newsletter.

But it gets better.

We are now working with the board that advises all the local Federal Bar Association chapters within the Ninth Circuit to have this same content also included in all their newsletters.  If all goes well, lawyers from the Mariana Islands to Montana (as well as major law centers like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Seattle) will be reading our students’ work for the 2014 – 2015 Supreme Court term come October.  We are excited for this chance to serve the profession while growing our own audience and increasing the professional exposure of our student-authors.

And why stop there?

If all goes well in the Ninth Circuit, we’ll be looking to expand our relationships into the other Circuits.  We can easily picture a day in the not-too-distant future where local Federal Bar Association chapters throughout the country are using our previews to inform their membership about the nature and status of cases that originated in their Circuit and made their way to the United States Supreme Court.  If you are a lawyer active in your local chapter of the Federal Bar Association, we’d love to hear from you to help us make this happen.

Meanwhile, 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.