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by Sara Frug

LII has had quite a 25th year. In this series of blog posts,  many of the luminaries of open access to law and legal informatics have shown us our history from the point of view of the past, present, and future of their own endeavors. It’s been thrilling – legal informatics and open access to law today are far richer pursuits than I think we could have imagined – and as we’ve seen in the 25-for-25 posts from Tom Bruce and Peter Martin, we could imagine quite a bit.

This series has also been a chance to refine our thinking about how we will carry out LII’s mission – using technology to help people find and understand the law – into our own future. Last week, Craig Newton talked about the future of LII from the point of view of the “big tent” approach to project adoption, LII’s work with students, and the evolution of the ways in which LII’s audience reaches and interacts with our work. Today I’ll add a few thoughts about some things we’ve had to balance and how we might use them as the future develops.

Collaboration, creativity, and reliability

LII was co-founded by two people who both possessed a rare combination of prodigious intellect, extraordinary imagination, and unfaltering work ethic. They foresaw that, in order to enable others to follow as LII grew, they would need to support a “deep, equal-status collaboration between legal experts and technologists” for everyone who joined them. And quite a few people joined in. LII has worked with academic researchers, government agencies, for-profit companies and non-profit organizations, post-doctoral fellows, technologists-in-residence, undergraduate and M.Eng. engineering students, and by now more than 600 J.D. students. We have mustered support from a wide variety of sources beyond Cornell Law School: individuals, corporate philanthropy, grants, and advertising. The law belongs to all of us, and helping people find and understand it takes a lot of different kinds of us.

Early on, LII’s founders made a deliberate choice to develop and protect a creative space for disciplined experimentation. Tom Bruce puts it this way: “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”. This collaborative, creative work – bringing our diverse perspectives together when trying, for example, to understand who might be affected by a statute, regulation, or Supreme Court case; planning a research study to evaluate the comprehensibility of government documents; or thinking about how to design the user experience when the scale of a set of search results varies by five orders of magnitude – is only successful to the extent that it actually helps people.  

Offering free legal information resources of first resort is a standard by which we measure our success. It also creates a set of maintenance responsibilities that we did not have in the early days. When we succeed in implementing a popular service, we are expected to maintain it at high quality for a long – indeed, indefinite – period of time. As we look ahead, we will continue to struggle over the tension – and competition for resources – between different ways of fulfilling our mission. We can, and do, and will continue to maintain resources that millions of people have come to expect us to provide. We equally must, and do, and will continue to support the development of the truly innovative products and services that we can envision.

The cosmos and the chickens

During a break at the Jurix legal informatics conference in Poland a few years ago, I stood at a tall table listening to two even taller northern European academics talk about their work – some truly brilliant advances in automating the extraction of legal argumentation from case law. One asked about what we’d been doing at LII, and I talked about using linked open data to connect the world to the law. He asked what I meant, and it occurred to me to point to the artificial potted plant on the table. I said: “we’re asking questions like ‘what is the legal context of this plant?’”. That was good for a surprised look, and I followed up with a bit of improvisation about where and how the plant might have been manufactured, safety codes for the factory, labor regulations for the workers, environmental regulations for the materials and waste products, import/export requirements if it was manufactured abroad, and so forth. For a moment, I think we could all see the cosmic beauty of what John Sheridan has called “deeply intertwingled laws” extending its web down to the molecular level and below.

At LII, we have always balanced top-down conceptual work with a relentless bottom-up perspective. But a great deal of work remains to be done. In his 25-for-25 post, Elmer Masters lamented that “it’s a whole easier for me to find out what order I should watch the Fast & Furious movies in (hint: not the order they were released) than what rules apply if I want to raise some chickens in my backyard.” Looking ahead, although LII is unlikely to operate at a scale that will enable us to hold a comprehensive answer to that question, the work we have been doing will make it straightforward for any individual, company, or government entity to connect the information they have at their beck and call to primary sources at the federal level and to original content we create. We will be able to collect the knowledge we need by aggregating the results of everyone’s efforts. So we really will be able to look at the law from at the ground level – the level of the chickens, if you will.

(Plus ça) change at breakneck speed

That Jurix conference marked a turning point in legal informatics: for the first time, we saw highly practical work with regulatory materials not only presented to scholars but honored with academic conference prizes. Since the beginning of a legal technology boom that saw venture capital pour into startup companies a decade ago, we’ve also seen new technology reach the mass market at a pace that constantly presents new challenges for the law. Whether it’s the taxation of cryptocurrency, the confidentiality implications of that smart clock on a lawyer’s desk, or the regulation of self-driving trucks, the number and variety of new things-in-the-world with which the law must contend is staggering. At the same time, the maturation of human language technologies, machine learning, and artificial intelligence gives us an unprecedented set of tools with which to address these challenges.

But a lot has not changed. If you had asked me three years ago, I would have said the odds were good that we’d see a significant decline in traffic to the LII website as our data was harvested, repackaged, and presented directly by search engines, through social media, and in standalone apps. In reality, unprecedented numbers of people have come to the LII website during the last year to read the law for themselves. As we have done for 25 years, we still rely on our readers to help us evaluate the quality of our work and give us insight into the ways in which people from all walks of life approach and understand the law. And I’d predict that 25 years from now, that direct connection with our audience will still inform our work.

The past and the future

It’s been quite a year – and quite a quarter-century. Thank you for following us on our trip down memory lane – we hope you’ll join us on the road ahead.

Sara Frug is LII’s Associate Director for Technology.


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