[ Note: This year marks the LII’s 25th year of operation. In honor of the occasion, we’re going to offer “25 for 25” — blog posts by 25 leading thinkers in the field of open access to law and legal informatics, published here in the VoxPopuLII blog. Submissions will appear irregularly, approximately twice per month. We’ll open with postings from the LII’s original co-directors, and conclude with posts from the LII’s future leadership. Today’s post is by Tom Bruce; Peter Martin’s will follow later in the month.]
It all started with two gin-and-tonics, consumed by a third party. At the time I was the Director of Educational Technologies for the Cornell Law School. Every Friday afternoon, there was a small gathering of people like me in the bar of the Statler Hotel, maybe 8 or 10 from different holes and corners in Cornell’s computer culture. A lot of policy issues got solved there, and more than a few technical ones. I first heard about something called “Perl” there.
The doyen of that group was Steve Worona, then some kind of special-assistant-for-important-stuff in the office of Cornell’s VP for Computing. Knowing that the law school had done some work with CD-ROM based hypertext, he had been trying to get me interested in a Campus-Wide Information System (CWIS) platform called Gopher and, far off into the realm of wild-eyed speculation, this thing called the World-Wide Web. One Friday in early 1992, noting that Steve was two gin-and-tonics into a generous mood, I asked him if he might have a Sun box laying around that I might borrow to try out a couple of those things.
He did, and the Sun 4-c in question became fatty.law.cornell.edu — named after Fatty the Bookkeeper, a leading character in the Brecht-Weill opera “Mahagonny”, which tells the story of a “City of Nets”. It was the first institutional web server that had information about something other than high-energy physics, and somewhere around the 30th web server in the world. We still get a fair amount of traffic via links to “fatty”, though the machine name has not been in use for a decade and a half (in fact, we maintain a considerable library of redirection code so that most of the links that others have constructed to us over a quarter-century still work).
What did we put there? First, a Gopher server. Gopher pages were either menus or full text — it was more of a menuing system than full hypertext, and did not permit internal links. Our first effort — Peter’s idea — was Title 17 of the US Code, whose structure was an excellent fit with Gopher’s capabilities, and whose content (copyright) was an excellent fit with the obsessions of those who had Internet access in those days. It got a lot of attention, as did Peter’s first shot at a Supreme Court opinion in HTML form, Two Pesos v. Taco Cabana.
Other things followed rapidly, and later that year we began republishing all Supreme Court opinions in electronic form. Initially we linked to the Cleveland Freenet site; then we began republishing them from text in ATEX format; later we were to add our own Project Hermes subscription. Not long after we began publishing, I undertook to develop the first-ever web browser for Microsoft Windows — mostly because at the time it seemed unlikely that anyone else would, anytime soon. We were just as interested in editorial innovations. Our first legal commentary — then called “Law About…..”, and now WEX, was put together in 1993, based on work done by Peter and by Jim Milles in constructing a topics list useful to both lawyers and the general public. A full US Code followed in 1994. Our work with CD-ROM continued for a surprisingly long time — we offered statutory supplements and leading Supreme Court cases on CD for a number of years, and our version of Title 26 was the basis for a CD distributed by the IRS into the new millennium. Back in the day when there was, plausibly, a book called “The Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog”, we appeared in it eight times.
To talk about the early days solely in terms of technical firsts or Internet-publishing landmarks is, I think, to miss the more important parts of what we did. First, as Peter Martin remarks in a promotional video that we made several years ago, we showed that there was tremendous potential for law schools to become creative spaces for innovation in all things related to legal information (they still have that tremendous potential, though very few are exercising it). We used whatever creativity we could muster to break the stranglehold of commercial publishers not just on legal publishing as a product, but also on thinking about how law should be published, and where, and for whom. In those days, it was all about caselaw, all about lawyers, and a mile wide and an inch deep. Legal academia, and the commercial publishers, were preoccupied with caselaw and with the relative prestige and authority of courts that publish it; they did not seem to imagine that there was a need for legal information outside the community of legal practitioners. We thought, and did, differently.
We were followed in that by others, first in Canada, and then in Australia, and later in a host of other places. Many of those organizations — around 20 among them, I think — have chosen to use “LII” as part of their names, and “Legal Information Institute” has become a kind of brand name for open access to law. Many of our namesakes offer comprehensive access to the laws of their countries, and some are de facto official national systems. Despite recurring fascination with the idea of a “free Westlaw”, a centralized free-to-air system has never been a practical objective for an academically-based operation in the United States. We have, from the outset, seen our work as a practical exploration of legal information technology, especially as it facilitates integration and aggregation of numerous providers. The ultimate goal has been to develop new methods that will help people — all people, lawyers or not — find and understand the law, without fees.
It was obvious to us from the start that effective work in this area would require deep, equal-status collaboration between legal experts and technologists, beginning with the two of us. My collaboration with Peter was the center of my professional life for 20 years. I was lucky to have the opportunity. Legal-academic culture and institutions are often indifferent or hostile to such collaborations, and they are far rarer and much harder to maintain than they should be. These days, it’s all the rage to talk about “teaching lawyers to code”. I think that lawyers would get better results if they would learn to communicate and collaborate with those who already know how.
Finally, we felt then – as we do now – that the best test of ideas was to implement them in practical, full-scale systems offered to the public in all its Internet-based, newfound diversity. The resulting work, and the LII itself, have been defined by the dynamism of opposites — technological expertise vs. legal expertise, practical publishing vs. academic research, bleeding-edge vs. when-the-audience-is-ready, an audience of lawyers vs. an audience of non-lawyer professionals and private citizens. That is a complicated, multidirectional balancing act — but we are still on the high-wire after 25 years, and that balancing act has been the most worthwhile thing about the organization, and one that will enable a new set of collaborators to do many more important things in the years to come.
Thomas R. Bruce is the Director of the Legal Information Institute, which he co-founded with Peter W. Martin in 1992.