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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.

LII Friend Mick McCue Talks about the Aereo Case, and Why the LII Matters

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May 062014

Mick McCue 1When did you first become interested in the law?

In college.  I became active in areas related to public policy and I began to appreciate the key foundational role of the law.

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

I went to the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.  I started out as a math major, but eventually moved toward social issues, specifically urban studies.  At Penn, that demanded I apply for an individualized major.  There were initially about 20 of us who shared that interest, and we organized ourselves.  Before I left Penn, we had helped build an entirely new academic department, with a few hundred urban studies majors.  Then I went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for law school.

Tell us about your work experience.

I first returned to the Jersey Shore where I grew up and joined a law firm there.  As the new lawyer in a 12 person firm, I got to do everything (including what others didn’t want to do.)  I was in court the day after I was sworn in.  Among my later clients were a big rock and roll concert promoter and a member of Springsteen’s E Street Band. Daily litigation wore me down, and I looked to specialize in an area that was both growing and constructive. That got me into a Chicago telecommunications company that was remaking itself.  It was probably my best job.  After only a year or two, the company sent me to Washington to do its FCC work and to run its D.C. office.  Barely two months after I arrived, the DOJ announced the break-up of AT&T.  Five decades of communications law became almost instantly obsolete.  I was only 29, and that was my big career break.  It was exciting and fun.

What are you working on now and how does the LII play a role in that? 

I am now a solo.  I still love telecommunications, but that has expanded to include wireless, Internet and cable television.  I do more transactional work than administrative law work.  Because of my broad experience, I am unafraid to mix and match ideas to get things done.  I don’t mind inserting the term “zombie attacks” into a force majeure clause so a client can complete a data center deal with a bunch of kids who run an Internet startup.  Good or bad, LII facilitates that kind of thinking.  Because I was involved in proceedings that led to much of today’s communications law, I usually have a sense of what I need to find before I even start looking.  LII provides a handy way for me to “beam into” a group of statutes, regulations or cases, and to find what I need quickly.   As I have gotten to know the LII people, I get the sense that many others use LII the same way that I do.   It is efficient and cost-effective.

What parts of LII do you use the most?

I usually go right to the US Code and CFR.  LII’s Supreme Court materials are well done and as a result are very seductive to my curious mind.  I often need to look for “building block” law as I develop positions for filings, so I sometimes use LII to access treatise materials, and to dig into definitions.  Also, I never ever thought I would be researching the UCC as much as I do… and liking it.  What a useful set of materials.

Are there features of the LII site that are superior to other resources?

To me, LII is a special kind of resource.  It probably isn’t cost effective for LII to replicate the giant data bases of the book publishers, who have a lot more dollars.  I don’t often need those giant data bases.  It is far more cost effective for me to use LII for focused research, to pull statutes and regulations in areas where I already have a feel for the flow of the law, and to dig on a single topic until I am confident that my answer is the right one.   I can take my time without worrying about the bill.

Why is important to you to financially support the LII?

I give to LII as a matter of principle.  It isn’t necessarily that much money, but I do give fairly consistently.  I believe strongly that access to the law should be free, so I try to promote that in my own small way.  The law is now far too complicated for the average person, and government’s reach gets longer every day.  I accept that the government in today’s world needs to address more and more details of everyday life, such as in food, drugs, air and water quality, and even spectrum use.  When I was in DC, I watched the first debates that took place about citizen access to the law.   At the time, a number of publishers wanted to put into place a structure where they would control all public access to the laws.  They wanted to control the gateways  – and to be the only gateways.  It was clear to me that a “pay turnstile” arrangement like that would fundamentally disadvantage the average citizen, and discourage even the diligent researcher. I believe that every person should have a realistic opportunity to investigate and understand our laws themselves.  So that is why I give.   LII is one of the best options for achieving that. 

What would you say to an LII user to convince them to become a financial supporter?

It is important here is to understand the inexorable value of expanding scale, and the comparatively low price to do that in this situation.   Awareness, access and use build on one another.  More use of LII by more people will be inherently beneficial to society.  We don’t need to care about where that use is directed.  No matter how use is distributed across the LII collections, it will still have value.  I don’t know the relationship between a new dollar and a new user.  But I believe there is one and it is positive.  I feel that over time, the number of LII users can become meaningfully larger, and this will inherently add to our collective understanding of the law.

In your view, why is it important to make the law available and accessible to all without cost?

The law should not be hidden or kept secret.  Period.  That can happen gradually, without any specific intent, just by maintaining barriers to access.  Allowing our laws to become effectively secret poses a huge threat to the essential values of this country.  Even a basic awareness of what the law says can empower people — it provides more certainty, and allows an individual to move forward on whatever it is that motivates him or her.  The fear and risk of doing something wrong, without even knowing it, is a lot more prevalent in America than it used to be.  How do you fight that?   You do it with access to the law, with plain language and with statutory simplification.  The benefits far outweigh the risks.

My career and interests have been anything but typical.  I never worked for the government, for a big law firm or for a telecom giant.  I practice law now as much for love as money.  I am better at recognizing things that are unique and underappreciated. To me, LII is both.   It deserves to be a core part of the fabric of legal research.

Can you give us some insight into the ABC v. Aereo case currently before the Supreme Court?

I am not involved in this case, but have followed it a bit through the courts.  This case exemplifies why communications is a great field, and why historical knowledge and perspective is still so important as the field evolves with new technologies.  To me, the Aereo case is a set of FCC questions dressed in a copyright law costume.  I tend to favor the Aereo position, but would be a little surprised if it prevailed.  Some background might help:

–Once upon a time, there was only an analog television broadcasting world.  In that analog world, local television broadcasters had markets that were established by the power and reach of their analog antennas. The most significant territorial boundary for them was called the Grade B contour, usually an uneven perimeter path encircling their broadcast area that took into account topography and other factors.  That line defined the hypothetical limit of a good quality over the air local TV signal.   The definition of the Grade B contour was a product of expert engineering analysis.

–Since the emergence of the cable television business, broadcasters and cable interests have always fought over payments for video content.  After years of warfare, the FCC decided that broadcasters were entitled to mandatory carriage (“must carry”) within that Grade B contour line, but at the same time, it had to be free.  Local broadcasters could not charge cable operators for retransmission of their signals within that line.

–Why?  Because any homeowner could just put up an antenna and get the local station off the air for free anyway.   In other words, the local broadcasters were just getting access via cable television to the same eyes that previously watched their programming with an antenna.  The FCC concluded that a local broadcaster had lost nothing in the process.  Making someone pay for a local signal that previously was free just because it came through a cable company went beyond the carriage bargain.  The copyright issues were there, but they did not override the FCC’s competitive solution, and the strong Federal policy in favor of “localism”.

–The landscape has changed tremendously since that time.  The assurance of free “must carry” on cable systems is now routinely passed over by local broadcasters in favor of paid  “retransmission consent”.  It has become very lucrative for the broadcasters.  (And justifiably so.  To be sure, the largest block of video content watched by Americans remains the content offered by local television broadcast stations.)  Nevertheless, the right of a homeowner to just put up an antenna and to capture local broadcast television content for free remains as alive and well as ever.

–That remains the case even in a digital world, where the Grade B contour has been replaced by a line defining the transmission limits of a digital signal instead.  The new line now defines whether your antenna can get you a great high definition digital signal.  Unlike the Grade B contour, however, where a signal gradually lost its quality, digital signal quality falls off of a cliff beyond its line.  Local broadcasters, then, don’t have to worry very much about antennas outside their digital footprint.

–If I used a small firm, say Bob’s Ithaca Antenna Service, to install and maintain a digital antenna for me, there would likely be no issue about the legitimacy of either Bob’s business model or my right to get that local television signal for free.   No one would be claiming a copyright infringement or an obligation to pay.   My use of Bob doesn’t seem to affect the fact that my viewing is “private” from a copyright standpoint.

–But now it is Aereo that is out there, as a “new” and much larger Bob’s Ithaca Antenna Service, and who is using the Internet to send me my signal, rather than running it down a wire on the side of my home.  Aereo is in effect offering to do Bob’s antenna installation and maintenance work for thousands upon thousands of people (rather than a few neighborhood tightwads), using digital technology and the Internet.  (Frankly, the Internet transport portion of this arrangement doesn’t seem too important to me.)

–Even though the Aereo antennas still only collect and forward local broadcast signals, this new type of antenna business has started to worry the broadcasters.   Aereo is scalable and is easily replicable by others, and as a result, could cost the local broadcasters real money over time.  So their response in this case has been to claim that individual viewing under the Aereo model can no longer be deemed to involve a “private” performance.

–It seems to me that the local broadcasters had always been willing to tolerate the royalty leakage from a few thousand individual rooftop antennas.  However, now that it is possible to have a giant array of dedicated mini-antennas in one place serving hundreds of thousands of local broadcast customers, it seems some kind of line has been crossed.  Broadcasters see that every one of these local viewers could potentially avoid triggering any requirement that the local broadcaster be compensated for its content, and could do so legally.

–This giant array of dedicated mini-antennas may very well be found still to fit the traditional exception for the homeowner’s antenna, if each such mini-antenna is dedicated to a single local broadcast television viewer, as Aereo claims.  And if that is so, Aereo has a pretty good legal position based on past industry practices.  Each individual viewing could still qualify as a private performance.

–However, this is not an FCC case, and this is not an issue of the business relationship between a broadcaster and a cable operator.  It is cast solely as a copyright case, with little attention paid to the past operation of the relevant markets in very similar circumstances.

–The broadcasters and content owners seem to have been very successful in controlling the description of the issue before the Supreme Court, as one simply seeking the right to compensation for the retransmission of their copyrighted content.  And that alone might just win the case for them.  But there is so much more going on under the surface.  That form of question seems to lead reflexively toward an answer in favor of compensation.  One would have to redefine the question a bit to come out with a result that favors Aereo.  (For example, Aereo could have sought to have the Court instead review whether the private nature of a local broadcast continues to be royalty free when a third party provides the dedicated antenna structure for the viewer.  See the difference?   That seems to provide much better legal positioning for Aereo.)

–Only the broadcasters’ trade association and a few other intervenors spent any time trying to educate the Supreme Court about the competitive and regulatory regime that led to this case.   None of them really helped to describe the actual situation on the ground.

Don’t think of Aereo as the video equivalent of Napster.  It isn’t.  But it is likely that the Aereo service was intentionally designed to tiptoe along the edges of what is permitted by current law.   The Aereo design was probably impossible only a few years ago, but it is the march of new technology that made it cost-effective now.  Only the Court can say whether Aereo stayed on the right side of the legal line.  The oral argument before the Court confirmed that the case is not an easy one.   My brain tells me that Aereo really should win, but my gut tells me it likely will not.   Whether Aereo wins or loses, however, there will be lots of ripple effects.   That might even include a change in your right to put up your own digital antenna and to watch your local television broadcast station for free.

Meet the Staff: The Password Master

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May 062014

Nicholas prepares to ship himself to the cloud

How does one get to the LII? Well, it ain’t exactly Carnegie Hall, so “practice, practice, practice” won’t quite cut it. Instead, our staff take diverse paths to their positions at the LII, and that’s what makes us work so well together. In a small operation like ours, it’s not so much what you know, as how much you are willing to learn.

One question many of us get asked often is, “What exactly is it that you do at the LII?” Last week, new LII Systems Administrator Nicholas Ceynowa took some time to answer from his top secret bunker at Cornell Law School. 

Q: When did you first become interested in computers?

A: At a young age.  We had an Apple 2 that I spent a great deal of time on.  I also have fond memories of upgrading our 486 with a Pentium knock-off and attempting to overclock it.

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

A: I have a B.F.A in Dance from the University of MN, and a M.S. in Computer Science from Fordham.

Q: In your earlier career, you were lauded for having “a feline fluidity that is nailed to the floor with purposeful weight.” What exactly does that mean, and how will it help you here at the LII?

A: In terms of what it means, good question.  I guess that I was doing ok?  That was a New York Times review from a performance at the Joyce. I was dancing then with Taylor 2, Paul Taylor’s second company. Very difficult solo, and costuming was white tights.  So yeah.  As to how it helps me here, I feel that if I can pull something off in front of reviewers and audiences while wearing white tights, I can take on anything life throws at me.

I suppose just being a professional dancer, and having that be the only job I needed to have.  Most dancers work project to project, I had the incredible fortune to be employed by a company that worked enough to provide a sustainable income and benefits.

Q: What is the most interesting aspect of your work at the LII?

A: Learning something new everyday.  Becoming best friends with the LAMP stack.  People don’t realize how much goes into serving a website, especially one that sees a large volume of visitors everyday.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in working at the LII?

A: Juggling a giant list of issues dominated by a giant list of connected systems.  There’s a great deal going on behind the curtains, so to speak.

Q: What parts or features of the LII site best demonstrate your work?

A: The site being up?  Honestly what I do is not easily observable.

Q: Most people have no idea of the kind of attacks websites receive every day. Can you explain some of the ones that show up and how they impact the users?

A: Without getting into specifics, the most you would generally see is a slight slowdown of the site, if even that.  Most of the attacks websites see are of the automated, brute force nature.  DDOS/DOS, SQL Injection, XSS, etc.  Dictionary attacks.  Exploitation tools have become incredibly easy to use and automate; the barrier for entry is negligible.  And the vectors chosen are becoming increasingly subtle.

Q: What upcoming projects/features are you most excited about?

A: All of the WEX improvements.  There’s a great deal of backend work that needs to be done to support this, and I feel that the technologies employed here will ripple out to the main site, making everything that much better.

Q: Anything else?

A; Remember kids, only you can truly enforce password complexity.  Don’t want to shoot the sample space of your potential password in the foot?   Stop using actual words as passwords.  puppieunicornkisses1 isn’t going to cut it.  And 2-factor authentication is neat.

LII Team Wins Googliest Project Award

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Apr 102014

BOOM Winners

Imagine you’re opening a new business that uses water in the production cycle. If you want to know what federal regulations apply to you, you might do a Google search that leads to the Code of Federal Regulations. But that’s where it gets complicated, because the law contains hundreds of regulations involving water that are difficult to narrow down. (The CFR alone contains 13898 references to water.) For example, water may be defined one way when referring to a drinkable liquid and another when defined as an emission from a manufacturing facility. If the regulation says your water must maintain a certain level of purity, to which water are they referring? Definitions are the building blocks of the law, and yet pouring through them to find what applies to you is frustrating to an average business owner. Computer automation might help, but how can a computer understand exactly what kind of water you’re looking for? We at the Legal Information Institute think this is pretty important challenge, and apparently Google does too.

In March, a team of three Masters of Engineering Students led by LII semantic web researcher and developer Mohammad AL Asswad took home honors at BOOM (Bits on Our Minds), the Cornell Department of Computing and Information Science’s annual student technology showcase. Faced with stiff competition from underwater robots and other student innovations, students Deepthi Rajagopalan, Neha Kulkarni, and Siyu Zhan worked with Mohammad on a project designed to help LII users find definitions within the US Code of Federal Regulations. This year’s “Googliest Project Award” included a glass trophy and a $250 cash prize made possible by, you guessed it, Google. The LII team was one of only six award winners selected from over 40 competing projects.

Working collaboratively with Cornell Law School students Alice Chavaillard and Rodica Turtoi, the team developed software that uses natural language processing and machine learning techniques to identify sections of federal law that define important terms. In this collaborative project, the Cornell Law students served as domain area experts and helped to produce the data needed to train the computers to classify a paragraph of text as a definition or non-definition. The engineering team then wrote software that determines the scope of the definition (where the definition applies), parses out the defined terms, and finds the boundaries of definitions that are long and complex. Once defined, the definition may be linked to other parts of relevant regulations. So when you find the term water in your particular regulation, you can click the term to be taken to the specific definition of water that applies to you, whether the definition resides in that regulation or in another section of the law.

posterWhile still in the early stages, this type of semantic infrastructure is the next phase of Internet development, in which human understanding can be assisted by a computer’s ability to understand the context in which certain words or phrases are used. You can see the details of the team’s research in this poster, which was part of their prize winning presentation. Expect more on this project in the months ahead.

Meet the Staff: It's all Wayne's work

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Jan 302014

How does one get to the LII? Well, it ain’t exactly Carnegie Hall, so “practice, practice, practice” won’t quite cut it. Instead, our staff take diverse paths to their positions at the LII, and that’s what makes us work so well together. In a small operation like ours, it’s not so much what you know, as how much you are willing to learn.

One question many of us get asked often is, “What exactly is it that you do at the LII?” Last week, LII interface developer Wayne Weibel took some time to answer from his office, high atop the Peace Tower at Cornell Law School.

Q: When did you first become interested in computers?

A: I got the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1988, when I was eight years-old.  The ability to control an avatar (though I didn’t know that word back then) by pressing buttons was fascinating. Then we got a home PC when I was 12, and I started messing around with this fledgling technology called the Internet. I wrote some silly scripts (even some “programs” in my TI-83), and I built web pages for games and friends. I finally started learning “real” programming as a senior in high school.

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

A: I got my BS in Computer Science and an MA in Human Computer Interaction, both at SUNY Oswego. I focused on artificial intelligence and natural language processing as an undergrad. I almost had a mathematics minor, and I took a smattering of psychology, philosophy, writing, and art.  I was part of the Honors Program, too.

Q: What are some of the strangest jobs you’ve had… before coming to the LII?

A: I worked at the Sterling Renaissance Festival as a food booth supervisor, mostly at the cone ka-bob and waffle cone booths. Honestly, all the jobs I’ve had have been pretty typical–supermarket, video store, sports retail–then routine office jobs after I graduated.

Q: What is the most interesting aspect of your work at the LII?

A: Parsing and combining data from disparate sources to form a (hopefully) coherent, accessible, and usable representation of the law. And working in Drupal, our content management system. And I enjoy my co-workers.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in working at the LII?

A: Same answer as the above! Plus walking the Ithaca hills and, recently, the sub-zero temperatures.

Q: What parts or features of the LII site best demonstrate your work? C’mon, speak geek to us…

A: The CFR pages are complex and interesting. The main content is pulled from our XML database, and the other tabs on the page are generated from queries to a MySQL database. The PTOA (Parallel Table of Authorities) displays the relationships extracted from text we receive from the GPO (Government Printing Office).

Another example is the TOPN (Table of Popular Names), which parses and combines the OLRC (Office of the Law Revision Counsel) popular names table and Table III information to show the regulations associated with a named act. I created the ingestion processes for these features, which I also (try to) maintain.  And, I am sad to say, I also created the fundraiser splashover. But we need donations to help keep us going, and it has been very successful for us.

Q: You recently helped develop an app for Google Glass. Can you describe what it does and how the building process went?

A: “Signtater” is software that allows a user to send a picture to an online service that extracts text in the picture and identifies any legal citations, returning the web address (if any) for the citations, which can then also be browsed in Google Glass.

So when it’s perfected, you upload this photo:


And then… <geekspeak>After straightening out some systems snafus, I began by using the starter glassware program.  With a lack of API documentation for the Google MirrorClient it was a process of looking at the existing code and the raw class files combined with the general RESTful interface documentation available from Google.  Looking back, the biggest hurdle was actually getting the project setup in Google.</geekspeak>

You get this back:


Q: What upcoming projects/features are you most excited about?

A: I want to make improvements to the Signtater glassware and build some associated mobile apps for iOS and Android based on that same technology. I’m also excited about Semantic Web improvements to the CFR and other areas of the site.

Meet our donors: Kristin Knudsen

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Jan 302014

When did you first become interested the law?

I was totally uninterested in law as a possible vocation until I took the LSAT on a dare.  My first exposure to any aspect of law was my first job out of high school – typing autopsies for the coroner’s bureau.

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

KnudsenI graduated from the University of California Los Angeles with a BA in History, with quarters at Riverside and Berkeley.  I wanted to study urban planning (living in southern California was a perfect illustration of the need for urban planning), and, until I took the LSAT, I never thought of going to law school.  A friend’s dare (and offer to pay for the test) is what started my career – I did well enough that I thought, “Why not?”

I was accepted at several schools, but ended up at Santa Clara University because the school offered me a place in the dorms free for a few weeks, found me a part-time job, and I found cheap housing in biking distance.  How cheap? $40/month for a derelict store front in San Jose. Of course, we weren’t supposed to be living there.  We made our own shower, kitchen table, a sleeping loft; it is still a shock to remember being so poor – no car, no furniture, no suitcase – and so oblivious to what being a lawyer means.  I graduated (J.D.) in 1978.

In 2010, I went back to school full time at the University of Nevada Reno, where I did a Masters in Judicial Studies, a joint program with the National Judicial College.  I survived my research and thesis to be awarded the degree in December 2012.

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

I came to Alaska right out of law school, inspired by my folks’ tales of their time up here (my widowed mom returned to Bethel, Alaska when I was in college).  I still didn’t have a car, so I shipped all my belongings (seven boxes, mostly books) to Anchorage, packed a backpack and sleeping bag, and joined 3 other young people in a tiny Mazda driving to Alaska.  I spent three days in at Denali (Mt. McKinley National Park) on the way. The sun shone, the mountain was fully visible, and I’ve been an Alaskan ever since.  Alaska was still in the Pipeline Boom and it was pretty wild.  Bars opened at 6 am and closed at 5 am.  I printed up a resume and just went knocking on doors.  I got a job as a law clerk in my first week in Anchorage with a great labor law firm. From there I went to the Alaska Department of Labor, the Attorney General’s Office for seventeen years, and ultimately, as an administrative law judge, the chair of the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission.

While I was finishing my Master’s thesis in my basement, I started teaching as an adjunct at University of Alaska Anchorage and I loved it.  When a full-time position came available, I applied and I’ve been teaching full time since August 2012.

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

I teach in the Legal Studies program of the Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage; UAA offers an ABA-accredited BA in Legal Studies, an AAS in Legal Studies, a minor, and 2 post-baccalaureate certificates.  I teach Legal Research, Analysis & Writing and Civil Procedure. I also teach Health Law, alternating with Torts, and do my own research.  Most of my students are upper division undergrads.  Alaska doesn’t have a law school.  So it is important that we have a program to train the mid-level legal workers – the legal technicians, regulation coordinators, legal researchers – who take the places that people with a year of law school would take outside Alaska.  If our students go to law school, they’ll be thoroughly prepared and do well.

I want my students thinking about law as something they participate in – all the time and everywhere – and as something they can understand and argue about intelligently.  The first day in class, I introduce them to WEX because it is accessible 24/7 by their tablet, smart phone, or laptop and it is written for NON-lawyers.  It is a way to make their huge vocabulary learning task possible.  I encourage them to “look it up” even in class.  I also use the LII to introduce them to legal argument and appellate opinions.  For this, LII’s Supreme Court previews are invaluable.  My CivPro class argues a Rule 12 motion before a local judge, on a question pending before the Supreme Court.  They did Walden v. Fiore last semester and the LII preview is where they started.  This semester they are doing Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg.

What parts of the LII do you use the most?  

I use the LII Supreme Court Bulletin – but my students probably use WEX most!

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

First, the site content is written to non-lawyers in a lively, engaging, but correct style. It is not overtly politically slanted and it is comprehensive.  With so many legal sites out there with an agenda or selectivity, it is great to be able to present one that is objective and thorough as a source for my students.  I want them to be engaged by law, and that is not done by talking down to them or by obscure blather.  Second, it is free and reliable.  They do not pay a fee nor do they have to sift through ads and politics to reach content.  The site is never down, nor are there dead links (so frustrating!).  So kudos to your techs – keeping the site clean is very helpful.

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

How could I not?  I live in an area without much information infrastructure.  In some ways, we live very intimately with the visible symbols of the law – holding court in village school gyms, for example.  Alaska doesn’t have a law school, a great, historical law library, or all the other established resources that the legal communities outside Alaska have.  A site like Cornell LII gives my students a connection to the workings of the law at the very highest level, as long as they can find an internet connection.  When they understand the arguments being made (we listen to Supreme Court audio streams), they know they and the lawyers here are part of the larger legal community and they can be participants in it – they too can stand up and argue a point of law.  It builds their confidence like nothing else.  More importantly, as I tell them, they have become translators or interpreters of legal events/thinking/speech for their communities and families.  They have a responsibility to share their understanding.  Many of them come from small communities and immigrant families; by acting as “law translators,” they build communal respect for law and the legal process in Alaska.

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?  

Stop thinking about just being a lawyer among lawyers.  Think about all the people in your region.  They can’t all afford your time, even if you had time to give, to show them how to engage in important civic legal debates or what some decision they heard about means.  They’ll get some one or two sentence line from a news assembler or TV program.  As lawyers, we should not be barriers to the public’s understanding of the courts.  Some of them will be voting on these issues and supporting politicians who will be voting on them.  What do you want their information baseline to be? some lobbying group or TV show?  Or do you want them learning that law can be a considered, deliberative process, with nuance and history?  Law – not just codes and statutes, but the ideas of law — shouldn’t be screened or reduced to sound bites for the electorate or sifted into entertainment for the masses.  The law should be transparent and open to view to everyone, rich and poor.  LII makes it so.

How do you read me? LII launches a new research collaboration.

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Jan 302014

“It should be borne in mind that all the time we were studying bats, bats had a unique opportunity to study us.”
— old researcher’s folk saying, quoted by John Brunner in “The Skynappers”.

ComputerThe LII is a place where people — a lot of people — come to find and understand the law.  They come to us looking for information.  But what if we looked for information from them?  It would help us understand what they don’t understand, what we need to organize and present more clearly, and how they make use of what we have.  We already do that through reader surveys, e-mail followups with our donors, and of course an extensive set of web analytics provided by Google and our own monitoring.  But what if we really asked the 170,000 people who visit the site on an average weekday to tell us what they find difficult to understand?

At last September’s Law via the Internet conference, we attended the presentation of a paper by Michael Curtotti and Eric McCreath of the Australian National University.  Later published in the new Journal of Open Access to Law, the paper describes a series of methods for assessing the readability of legislation.  This is actually much harder than it looks — most readability measures are designed specifically to sort reading materials into grade-level bins for use in the teaching of reading, and don’t help much if the problem is figuring out how hard a particular statute or regulation is to understand.  Linguists have, in the past, done fairly deep research on comprehension in criminal-trial settings, particularly jury instructions. But Curtotti and McCreath are the first to do much with legislation, and the first to build an extensive online system for testing particular pieces of text.

We were fascinated.  What if we could use their methods to test readability across the really large audience that is drawn to the LII?   A rough plan was hatched (in the hotel bar, of course).  Over the next few months it was refined, and the Australians began working on software that would integrate the testing with some carefully-chosen parts of the LII site.  We are now finishing up the technical integration of the tests at our end; a particular concern is that we not slow the site down for readers who are not working on the tests.   The actual tests should roll out within a month.

The work is exciting in itself, but it is just the tip of the iceberg.  The LII assembles a huge audience that is doing something that is interesting in its own right.  The ways that experts and laypeople use to find the law, and figure out how or if it applies to them, remain a little mysterious — and we hope that this will be the first of many occasions for outside researchers to help us dispel some of the mysteries.

We look forward to reporting some results in the next newsletter. In the meantime, you might want to take a look at the paper, and experiment with Michael and Eric’s system using text of your own (municipal regulations are a particular favorite of ours).

Mr. Park goes to Washington

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Jan 302014

Because the United States Supreme Court sits at the pinnacle of our system of justice, each year hundreds of lawyers seek admittance to practice before it–even though most know they will never argue a case there.  But admission to the Supreme Court means privileges in its law library and a separate entrance to the gallery to observe oral arguments.  Most notably, on the day of their admission, new members enjoy the “best seats in the house” to observe that day’s arguments.

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So, it’s no surprise that many American law schools hold an annual swearing-in ceremony to help their alumni celebrate the occasion of their admission to practice before the Supreme Court.  But Cornell’s festivities include a unique bonus.  

In what has become an annual tradition, the LII sent the Editor-in-Chief of our Supreme Court Bulletin to Washington to brief the inductees about the cases they would be watching as part of the festivities.  Chanwoo Park attended the celebratory dinner at DC’s Monocle restaurant on December 2nd and provided some very welcome analysis about the cases the inductees would be watching from the Court’s gallery on December 3rd.  

Chanwoo discussed two cases on very different areas of law that nevertheless shared a common feature. In each case, Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal were split in how to apply the law, and the Supreme Court would step in as the final arbiter to clarify the law.  One case examined the scope of preemption of state law claims under the Airline Deregulation Act.  The other involved false advertising claims brought under the Lanham Act.

Chanwoo’s trip was funded not by donor dollars but by the Law School’s Alumni Affairs Office, which is happy to make use of the Bulletin’s unique expertise to provide a much-appreciated overview of the Court proceedings accompanying the swearing-in ceremony.  Stewart Schwab, the Allan R. Tessler Dean of Cornell Law School, also attended the event and was very complimentary of both Chanwoo’s “great job” at the dinner and of the Bulletin generally.  

The Supreme Court Bulletin features student-written analysis of every case to be argued before the Supreme Court.  These profiles feature a helpful recap of the important facts, a breakdown of the legal arguments both sides present in their briefs, and also analysis of the larger issues implicated by each case.   While entirely student-run, the Bulletin staff benefits from the advice of Frank Wagner, the retired Reporter of Decisions for the Supreme Court.  Bulletin excerpts also appear monthly in The Federal Lawyer, the magazine of the Federal Bar Association (FBA).  

While lawyers certainly comprise an avid part of the Bulletin’s readership, the students strive to strip it of the sort of jargon and legalese so often prevalent in “insider” pieces written by lawyers for lawyers.  Bulletin authors also hyperlink their explanations and analysis to a wide variety of primary and secondary resources to enhance the value of each piece for readers from all backgrounds.  But neither the prose nor the analysis in the Bulletin is by any means “dumbed down.”  In fact, we frequently hear from our more than 20,000 email subscribers that the Bulletin is their preferred source for thorough and unbiased assessment of the cases argued before our nation’s highest court.  We even recently heard that from a sitting Federal Judge!  

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.