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[Note:  the second post in our “25 for 25” series is from Peter W. Martin, the LII’s founding co-director,  and former dean of the Cornell Law School.  Peter is, as well, a pioneer in the use of computers in law teaching, where he was the first to teach for-credit distance-learning courses (in copyright and Social Security law) across multiple institutions — another, less well known, LII first.  He is also the author of the immensely popular online guide, “An Introduction to Basic Legal Citation“.]

Tom Bruce has explained how he secured the Sun computer that launched our Internet escapades. I’ve been charged with adding further detail to the LII’s origin story.

Honesty compels a confession of how unclear we were at the outset about the role the Internet would play in our collaborative enterprise, but my files do contain notes on a January 1992 talk heralding the publication potential of the Internet. The venue was the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools; the presenter, Mitch Kapor, then chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Three previous years spent designing and building an electronic reference work on Social Security law had persuaded me that:

  • law publishers were not reliable partners for such novel endeavors;
  • hypertext (not present in either Westlaw or Lexis at the time) had enormous value when applied to legal materials;
  • electronic media had the potential to erode barriers that had limited law schools to the role of consumers of information products; and
  • a zone of digital innovation could be established within a U.S. law school with only modest amounts of external funding.

A New York non-profit, the National Center for Automated Information Retrieval or NCAIR, spending down funds generated by the establishment of LEXIS, had supported my Social Security project. In April 1992, with the endorsement of Dean Russell Osgood, Tom and I submitted a proposal to NCAIR seeking a handsome sum for establishment “of an institute of legal information technologies” at Cornell. At NCAIR’s request, we scaled back our multi-year proposal and asked only for start-up funds. Critically, those included salary monies to buy Tom freedom from his duties as the school’s director of educational technologies. Upon securing that funding, we declared ourselves co-directors of an institute – coining a name that has stuck for 25 years and has, as Tom notes, been taken on by many others.

The two labels proved to be startlingly important. To the external world “institute” suggested significant scale and permanence. Within the academic environment that surrounded us – where boundaries of academic discipline and status framed most activity – “co-directors” expressed a partnership that straddled both, making possible the most exhilarating and fulfilling collaboration of my career.

The agenda we sketched for NCAIR included disk publication of important U.S. statutes (electronic course supplements) and experimentation with use of the Internet as a mode of electronic publication and exchange. Unquestionably, we did not anticipate the pace, scope, or longevity of those experiments. Much of what followed was a consequence of fortuitous timing. Looking back, one can see that by 1992 several critical factors had aligned.

First, thanks to LEXIS and Westlaw, U.S. legal insiders (lawyers, judges, legislators, and participants in legal education) had grown familiar with computer-based legal information.

Second, the bodies from which legal texts emerge – courts, legislatures, administrative agencies – had begun using computers in drafting and revision. Most continued to consider the resulting word processing files simply a more efficient means of producing print, but some offered journalists, lawyers, and interested others dial-up access to the digital originals. In 1990 the US Supreme Court took a further step, distributing its judgments electronically on the morning of release to a small number of redistributors. A dozen or so media companies and law publishers subscribed. But so, too, did one university, Case Western Reserve, placing the decision files on the Internet at an ftp site. This was a far cry from effective public access. To retrieve the syllabus and opinions in a specific case one had to have a dial-up connection to the Case Western site or be part of the scientific community then connected to the Internet. One also needed to know the docket number, download multiple files, and have compatible word-processing software.

Nonetheless, the availability of primary legal texts in digital format straight from the source and unencumbered by copyright (another favorable factor) spared electronic publishers, including upstarts like us, the cost of digitizing print – a huge expense burdening early legal database research and LEXIS and Westlaw during their first decades. Together with the spread of PCs and the emergence of CD-ROM as a high-capacity distribution medium, this opened the U.S. legal information market to a disruptive wave of fresh competition.

Disk distribution offered important functionality, including hypertext and copy and paste, that the major online systems did not then deliver. Software exploiting this potential had appeared by the early 1990s. By 1992 work was underway to bring the best of them to a scrollable graphical user interface, capable of displaying and printing legal documents with all the information carried in print by font size, style, graphics, and layout. This development was in turn made possible by Microsoft’s release, only a year and a half before, of Windows 3.0.

Neither the major legal information vendors nor U.S. public bodies responded nimbly to the opportunities opened by disk distribution or the Internet. And that created space for our uninhibited, experimental non-profit.

We ventured into that space during the summer of 1992, with a handful of disk publications and the Gopher server Tom has described. Gopher could not, however, deliver important features we had been able to realize in the LII disk publications. It was a desire to bring the quality we had achieved on disk to the Internet that led us to html and the Web in early 1993. Way back then, the Web, also in its infancy, was the tool of a technical community that worked on UNIX machines that had high bandwidth connections to the Internet. Our principal audience as we then conceived it consisted of legal insiders working with PCs and dial-up connections. For them no Web browser existed nor was one in sight. So Tom set to work and created the first Windows-based Web browser, Cello.

By then the infrastructure that would allow the explosion of the World Wide Web was in place. The capacity and speed of the Internet’s backbone had just been dramatically improved. Congress had removed the ban on commercial traffic over that backbone imposed by NSF’s “acceptable use policy,” and privatization was underway.

These developments put distribution of legal information to a broader public within reach, but only those who were aware of and had access to the Net. In 1992 and 1993 that was a small population. During 1992 the word “Internet” appeared in only twenty-two New York Times articles and not once in the American Bar Association Journal. In December 1993, when the product “Internet in a box” was announced, estimates of Internet users had climbed into the 15-20 million range (a ten-fold increase over the course of only a year or two). By then the LII was an established Web destination, and Tom and I had begun to appreciate that the public that valued our growing collection of legal information was far broader than the set of legal insiders we initially had in mind.

As early as 1995 all the ingredients that enabled our initial experiment to germinate, grow, and reach a global audience had come together. Although the LII enjoyed significant first mover advantage, the period since then has been filled with repeated challenges and hard choices – as public bodies, commercial entities with business plans that incorporated public access to legal information, new search engines and other finding aids crowded into the sector the LII once shared with only a few others. Casualties furnished a steady reminder that in this rapidly changing environment, survival, let alone impact, could not be taken for granted. Long gone, for example, are the fine treaty collection hosted by the University of Tromsø, the index to federal agency material offered by Villanova, and Indiana’s law meta list. In some cases disappearance was the result of being displaced by something better, in others of having attempted too much, and still others of shifts in allegiance or priorities of key personnel or the host institution.

Successfully threading a path through these and other obstacles, the LII has had to address a set of critical and recurring questions, concerning:

  • the institute’s relationship with Cornell;
  • whether to work in consort with any of the increasingly numerous commercial and public players in this field, and if so on what terms;
  • how to staff, organize, and fund expansion in scale and longevity beyond the initial experiment; and
  • how to continue to innovate while maintaining the information services essential to holding and growing the LII’s audience.

As the years have gone by, these questions have not grown less difficult. In the 13 years since retirement removed me from the founding partnership, Tom and his team have addressed them with such success that I have high confidence that this venture, begun so long ago, will continue to break fresh ground, while meeting important public needs, long past this 25th anniversary.

Peter W. Martin, the Jane M.G. Foster Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Cornell, co-founded the Legal Information Institute with Thomas R. Bruce and served as its co-director until 2003.

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