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From an equally long time ago, and in one of those galaxies so far far away it is sometimes mistaken for the mythical Oz, we received Tom Bruce’s call for reflection on the history of free access to legal information. “Here’s what we *thought* we were doing, and here’s what it really turned into”, he suggested, so I have taken him up on that. Andrew Mowbray and I started the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII) in 1995, and our second employee, Philip Chung, now AustLII’s Executive Director, joined us within a year. We are still working together 22 years later.

AustLII had a back-story, a preceding decade of collaborative research from 1985, in which Andrew and I were two players in the first wave of ‘AI and law’ (aka ‘legal expert systems’). Our ‘DataLex Project’ research was distinctive in one respect: we insisted that ‘inferencing systems’ (AI) could not be a closed box, but must be fully integrated with both hypertext and text retrieval (for reasons beyond this post). Andrew wrote our own search engine, hypertext engine, and inferencing engine; we developed applications on IP and on privacy, and had modest commercial success with them in the early 90s. Tools for relatively large-scale automation of mark-up of texts for hypertext and retrieval purposes were a necessary by-product. In that pre-Web era, when few had CD ROM drives, and free access to anything was impractical and unknown, products were distributing on bundles of disks. Our pre-Web ideology of ‘integrated legal information systems’ is encapsulated in a 1995 DataLex article. But a commercial publisher pulled the plug on our access to necessary data, and DataLex turned out to have more impact in its non-commercial after-life as AustLII.

Meanwhile, in January 1995 Andrew and I (for UTS and UNSW Law Schools) had obtained a grant of AUD $100,000 from the Australian Research Council’s research infrastructure fund, in order to explore the novel proposition that the newly-developing World-Wide-Web could be used to distribute legal information, and for free access, to assist academic legal research. A Sun SPARCstation, one ex-student employee, and a part-time consultant followed. Like Peter & Tom we sang from Paul Simon’s text, ‘let’s get together and call ourselves an Institute’, because it sounded so established.

What were we thinking? (and doing)

What were we thinking when we obtained this grant, and put it into practice in that first year? We can reconstruct this somewhat, not simply from faulty memories, but from what we actually did, and from our first article about AustLII in 1995, which contained something of a manifesto about the obligations of public bodies to facilitate free access to law. So here are things we did think we were doing in 1995 – no doubt we also had some bad ideas, now conveniently forgotten, but these ones have more or less stuck.

  1. End monopolies – Australia had been plagued for a decade by private sector and public sector monopolies (backed by Crown copyright) over computerised legal data. Our core principle was (polite) insistence on the ‘right to republish’ legislation, cases, and other publicly funded legal information. We appropriated our first large database (Federal legislation), but got away with it. The High Court told the federal government to supply ‘its cases’ to AustLII, and other courts followed.
  2. Rely on collaboration – Our 1995 ‘manifesto’ insisted that courts and legislative offices should provide the best quality data available to all who wished to republish it. Insistence on collaboration was a survival strategy, because we would never have enough resources to manage any other way. From the start, some courts started to email cases, and adopt protocols for consistent presentation, and eventually all did so.
  3. Disrupt publishing – Much Australian commercial legal publishing in 1995 was not much more than packaging raw legal materials, with little added value, for obscene prices. We stated that we intended to force 2nd-rate publishing to lift its game (‘you can’t compete with free’). It did, and what survived, thrived.
  4. Stay independent – While we had material support from our two Law Schools, and an ARC start-up grant, we tried from the start to be financially independent of any single source. Within a year we had other funds from a Foundation, and a business group (for industrial law), and were negotiating funding from government agencies. Later, as the funds needed for sustainability became larger, this was much more of a challenge. However, independence meant we could publish any types of content that we could fund, with no one else dictating what was appropriate. A 93 volume Royal Commission report on ‘Aboriginal deaths in custody’ for which the federal government had ‘lost’ the master copy was an early demonstration of this.
  5. Automate, integrate, don’t edit – The DataLex experience gave us good tools for complex automated mark-up of large sets of legislation, cases etc. Collaboration in data supply from official bodies multiplied the effect of this. We edited documents only when unavoidable. Sophisticated hypertexts also distinguished the pioneering work of the LII (Cornell) and LexUM from the chaff of commercial publishers. AustLII inherited from DataLex a preoccupation with combining the virtues of hypertext and text retrieval, most apparent from day 1 in the ‘Noteup’ function.
  6. Cater for all audiences – Our initial grant’s claim to serve academic research was only ever a half-truth, and our intention was to try to build a system that would cater for all audiences from practitioners to researchers to the general public. The LII (Cornell) had already demonstrated that there was a ‘latent legal market’, an enormous demand for primary legal materials from the public at large.
  7. All data types welcome – We believed that legislation, cases, treaties, law reform, and some publicly-funded scholarship should all be free access, and a LII should aim to provide them, as its resources allowed. This was a corollary of aiming to ‘serve all audiences’. In AustLII’s first year we included examples of all of these (and a Royal Commission report), the final element being the Department of Foreign Affairs agreement to partner a Treaties Library. It took us much longer to develop serious ‘law for the layperson’ content.
  8. ‘Born digital’ only – In 1995 there was already more digital data to gather than AustLII could handle, and scanning/OCR’ing data from paper was too expensive and low quality, so we ignored it, for more than a decade.
  9. ‘Comprehensiveness’ – As Daniel Poulin says in this series, AustLII was first to aim to create a nationally comprehensive free access system, or to succeed.  But the initial aims of comprehensiveness were limited to the current legislation of all 9 Australian jurisdictions, and the decisions of the superior courts of each. That took 4 years to achieve.  Addition of decisions of all lower courts and tribunals, and historical materials, were much later ambitions, still not quite achieved.
  10. ‘Australasian’ but ‘LII’ – We asked Cornell if we could borrow the ‘LII’ tag, and had vague notions that we might be part of a larger international movement, but no plans.  Our 1995 article exaggerates in saying ‘AustLII is part of the expanding international network of public legal information servers’ – we wished! However, the ‘Australasian’ aim was serious: NZLII’s superb content is a major part of AustLII, but PNG content found a better home on PacLII.
  11. Neutral citations, backdated – As soon as AustLII started receiving cases, we applied our own ‘neutral citations’ (blind to medium or publisher) to them, and applied this retrospectively to back-sets, partly so that we could automate the insertion of hypertext links. As in Canada, this was a key technical enabler. A couple of years later, the High Court of Australia led the Council of Chief Justices to adopt officially a slight variation of what AustLII had done (and we amended our standard). The neutral citation standard set with ‘[1998] HCA 1’ has since been  adopted in many common law countries. AustLII has applied it retrospectively as a parallel citation, for example ‘[1220] EngR 1’ and so on. Later, the value of neutral citations as a common-law-wide interconnector enabled the LawCite citator.
  12. Reject ‘value-adding’ – We saw invitations to distinguish ‘value-added’ (now ‘freemium’ or chargeable) services  from  AustLII’s ‘basic’ free content as a slippery slope, a recipe for free access always being second rate. So AustLII has stayed 100% free access content, including all technical innovations.
  13. ‘Free’ includes free from surveillance – Access was and is anonymous with no logins, cookies, advertisements or other surveillance mechanisms beyond logging of IP addresses. We used the Robot Exclusion Standard to prevent spidering/searching of case law by Google etc, and most (not all) other LIIs have done likewise. This has helped establish a reasonable balance between privacy and open justice in many common law jurisdictions. It also helps prevent asset stripping – AustLII is a free access publisher, not  a repository.

This ‘bakers dozen’ aspirations comes from another century, but the issues and questions they address still need consideration by anyone aiming to provide free access to law.

Why we were lucky

In at least four respects, we did not know how fortunate we were in Australia: the Australian Research Council awarded annual competitive grant funding for development of research infrastructure, not just for research; all Australian law schools were willing to back AustLII as a joint national facility (already in 1995 ‘supported by the Australian Committee of Law Deans’); UNSW and UTS Law Faculties backed us with both material assistance and academic recognition; later, we obtained charitable status for donations; and our courts never required AustLII to redact cases (contrast Canada and New Zealand), they did it themselves where it was necessary. Our colleagues in other common law jurisdictions were often not so fortunate.

Cornell, LexUM and AustLII were all also fortunate to be better prepared than most commercial or government legal information publishers to take advantage of the explosion of  public usage of the Internet (and the then-new WWW) in 1994/5. None of us were ‘just another publisher’, but were seen as novel developments. Later LIIs did not have this ‘first mover advantage’, and often operated in far more difficult circumstances in developing countries.

Unimaginables

Given what AustLII, and free access to law globally, have developed into, what did we not imagine, back in 1995? Here are a few key unforseens.

Digitisation from paper did not became financially feasible for AustLII until about 2007. Since then, capturing historical data has become a major part of what AustLII does, with results such as the complete back-sets of over 120 non-commercial Australasian law journals,  and almost all Australasian reported cases and annual legislation 1788-1950. The aims of both ‘horizontal’ comprehensiveness of all current significant sources of law, and ‘vertical’ comprehensiveness of past sources, is new and no longer seems crazy nor unsustainable.

We did not envisage the scale of what AustLII would need to manage, whether data (currently 749 Australasian databases, and almost as much again internationally), sources (hundreds of email feeds), page accesses (about 1M per day), or collaborations (daily replication of other LII content), nor the equipment (and funding) demands this scale would pose. Independence allowed us to obtain hundreds of funding contributors for maintenance. Innovative developments are still supported by ARC and other grants. The future holds no guarantees, but as Poulin says, history has now demonstrated that sustainable large-scale LII developments are possible.

While AustLII’s initial aims were limited to Australasia, by the late 90s requests for assistance to create similar free access LIIs involved AustLII, LexUM and the LII (Cornell) in various countries. The Free Access to Law Movement (FALM) has expanded to nearly 70 members, has directly delivered considerable benefits of free access to law in many countries, and has encouraged governments almost everywhere to accept that free access to legislation and cases is now the norm, in a way that it was not in the early 90s. The delivery of free access content by independent LIIs has, for reasons Poulin outlines, turned out to sit more comfortably in common law than in civil law jurisdictions, and no global access to law via a LII framework has emerged. However, although this was not envisaged back in 1995, AustLII has been able to play a coordinating role in a network of collaborating LIIs from many common law jurisdictions, with compatible standards and software, resulting in access via CommonLII to nearly 1500 databases, and to the daily interconnection of their citations via LawCite. This extent of collaboration was not foreseeable in 1995.

Every free access to law provider has a different story to tell, with different challenges to overcome in environments typically much more difficult than Australia. Somewhere in each of our stories there is a corner reserved for the pioneering contributions of Martin, Bruce and the LII at Cornell. The LII (Cornell) continues to innovate 25 years after they set the wheels in motion.

Graham Greenleaf is Professor of Law & Information Systems at UNSW Australia. He was co-founder of AustLII, with Andrew Mowbray, and Co-Director (with Andrew and Philip Chung) until 2016, and is now Senior Researcher.

[ This post was contributed by Daniel Poulin, the founding director of CanLII, the first open-access publisher of law outside the United States, and a good friend of ours for many years ].

The Origins

In the eighties and nineties, the nascent Internet was closely connected with a culture of sharing. In those times, sharing did not meant “sharing economy” in today’s sense (Airbnb, Uber, etc), but making something available for free on the Internet. The dream was that over time even more things would be available for free and that everybody would benefit from it. It is the context in which I personally became interested in making Canadian law accessible for free on the Internet.

My first models were FTP sites accepting anonymous connections. I vaguely remember one at Stanford giving access to computer fonts and executable programs. I thought that the same approach could serve legal purposes and I was not alone thinking so. Indeed, at the beginning of the nineties, several American university professors, researchers and technology specialists started to use the Gopher technology to publish legal documents, generally case law collections. These offerings were not necessarily up-to-date or coherent, to say nothing about being complete. We were nevertheless in awe to discover that legal information could be made freely accessible as simply as that. I decided to do the same at the Centre de recherche en droit public (CRDP) of the University of Montreal and I set up a Gopher server.

I was started, yet the real epiphany for me was a presentation by Peter W. Martin and Thomas R. Bruce about the Legal Information Institute in fall 1992 in Montreal. Even better than a Gopher site, they were developing a World Wide Web site and they were ambitious. This was exactly what I wanted to do. I briefly met with them after their talk. I remember that my worries about converting decisions in HTML were brushed off by Tom in the offhand manner he always had with perceived technical difficulties. I was not alone in being impressed the LII work. As a matter of fact, in the following years, Internet publishing started adding up in American law schools (see Fig. 1).

 

Fig 1: Screen shot of the CRDP Gopher server circa 1993 listing legal Gopher sites

However the general enthusiasm for legal publishing did not last long. By the end of the nineties, most of these initiatives had been abandoned, although the model set by Peter W. Martin, Thomas R. Bruce and their small team at Cornell remained, and had also found followers abroad, in Canada and Australia and, few years later, in the UK.

A web server was launched by Lexum at the U. of Montreal in summer 1994 to publish the decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1995, the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII) was set up in Sydney and they soon joined in with a web server as well. In retrospect, it seems that these three initial teams, which are still active today, LII, Lexum and AustLII were all characterized by a mix of research activities, technical developments and publishing. The pure play publishers in law schools probably never found a way to obtain the institutional and financial support required to keep going.

At the turn of the century there were a handful of groups in academia who were actively exploring the potential of the Internet to serve the law and were maintaining free access to law resources. This was the nucleus which was to grow and become the Free Access to Law Movement. Soon BaiLII, PacLII, HKLII and CyLAW and several others were to follow the LII model and start publishing.

The Evolution of LIIs

The approach initially developed by the LIIs, continued and further developed by several other academic groups, was apparently taking off. It was already successful in several common law countries. Colleagues in various European countries were starting to pay attention to the LII model. The older and better-established LIIs were involved in empowerment projects aiming at establishing free access in developing countries. We started to envision a constellation of LIIs covering the world. At the Law via the Internet Conference in 2002, a founding document was drafted (the Montreal Declaration on Free Access to Law) and an informal organization of legal information institutes, the Free Access to Law Movement, was established to further develop the LII model and to reach out to all those interested in maximizing access to public legal information.

More than twenty years later, taking stock of progress made, we can only note spectacular changes in many countries. In Canada, the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII) now constitutes the first source of legal information for legal professionals. CanLII will soon have 2 million decisions published, frequently in both French and English. All statutes and regulations enacted over the last 15 years from all fourteen Canadian jurisdictions are also available. According to a survey of legal professionals prepared for CanLII in 2012, 56% of respondents start their legal research on CanLII. Four years later, CanLII’s usage statistics doubled again.

Beyond CanLII, to understand the strength of the Canadian free access to law system today, one must consider the favorable policies adopted by the Canadian Judicial Council and subsequently implemented by all Canadian courts. First to be noted there is the adoption of a neutral citation system. The existence of an authoritative way to cite judgments outside the privately-owned sphere of commerce now constitutes a central element of the legal information system in Canada. Courts add a citation they own and control to all their distributed decisions (something like “2017 QCCA 16”). This identifying element pertains to the decision and must follow it. Furthermore, decisions distributed by courts are final. There are no rules precluding the citation of a court decision in a counsel’s authorities beyond the principles of Stare Decisis as they apply in Canada. As a result, all court decisions, taken from a court’s own website, from CanLII or of course from a law report can be cited in court when relevant. Since decisions’ paragraphs are numbered, pin-point references are available. Today, counsels mix references to law reports and to CanLII in the authorities they submit to a court, and judges do the same in preparing their reasons for judgment (See Fig. 2).

Fig 2: Use of citations to CanLII (based on neutral citation) in a decision from the Ontario of Court of Appeal, 2015 ONCA 495 (CanLII)

The outlook is similar for Australia. Today, clearly, AustLII is the main outlet for case law in Australia. It must be recognized that the principals at AustLII were the first to establish almost country-wide comprehensive free access in 1997. It took four more years to reach that stage in Canada. Cornell’s LII demonstrated how the law can be published for free, but it is AustLII’s team that showed how this model can be expanded to its full-scale.

Several other legal information institutes are now well-established and would call for a more complete description. Unfortunately, such a description goes far beyond what is possible to do in a short blog post. SafLII and AfricanLII are superb achievements in improving access to legal information in Africa, and both are developing the legal information institute approach in conditions difficult to imagine for a Canadian living in Montreal. PacLII is doing similar work to serve the needs of some twenty developing countries in the South Pacific. BaiLII, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, would also merit being more fully described here, for its very small team is maintaining a good offering with very limited resources. CyLAW, established in collaboration with the Cyprus Bar Association is illustration of competence and institutional viability in a smaller state. Other extremely valuable initiatives can be found on the Free Access to Law Movement web site.

To sum up, the pioneer work done at Cornell 25 years ago led to the establishment of viable, efficient free access to law resources in several countries, especially countries belonging to the common law tradition. However, the full–fledged internationale of LIIs has never materialized. Many factors can contribute to explaining that. First, in countries of the continental law tradition, case law plays a less central role as a source of law, the publication of legislative material is often taken in charge by the legislative authority (which is not a bad thing), and doctrinal comments and treaties play a much larger role. Altogether these differences have made the development of a LII more challenging. Second, most of the LIIs which reached sustainability started in universities; many are still attached to academia. One must admit that such academic ventures are more valued (or face less prejudice) in North America and Australia than, let’s say, in France. Third, Martin and Bruce were — and still are — “entrepreneurs”. They were doing whatever was needed to finance their LII (consulting for government bodies or the industry was not out of question), they were taking risks and they were persevering. The principals at AustLII, SafLII and Lexum were venturers too (even swashbucklers for some). Some deans could have been less understanding in accepting the activism required to maintain an LII. A related and final ingredient required for survival and growth was the capacity to obtain the required financial support. In this regard, all of us in developed countries were privileged. In the developing world, international development organizations supported some LIIs for a limited time but the end of their funding brought many free legal information concerns to shut down their servers.

The Future

The next question is to try to figure where all this is going: the LII at Cornell, the other LIIs, the Free Access to Law Movement. Divination is not my specialty, but I will try to single out some of the results of the last 25 years that appear to be more durable and mix them with observable trends today which may contribute to determining the future of the free access to law idea.

The very first thing to say is that governments and courts are much more present and active than before. For instance, in all Canadian jurisdictions, statutes and regulations are freely accessible on the web and most courts and tribunals publish their decisions on their web site. Commercial legal publishing has gone through a major transformation over the last twenty years: most publishers specializing in case law reports have disappeared or been acquired by bigger competitors. The survivors linked to major global publishing groups are bundling all they have, such as jurisprudence and various doctrinal writings, case law and legislation, and they offer integrated information products by practice domain. This kind of offering finds takers and business seem to be good. Finally, free access to law seems to have found its footing. CanLII’s funding is provided by the legal professions which obtain through CanLII a national common legal library serving their missions to ensure the competence of their members and to serve the public.

To conclude, let’s say that free access to law is possible and sustainable. Capture and control of official legal information by private interests is avoidable. The well-established nation-wide systems in Canada and Australia, to name only these two jurisdictions, demonstrate that trustworthy, efficient publishing of law is compatible with public domain status and that public legal information can be made accessible for free.

Technical standards are key. The adoption of neutral citation and related policies by the courts played a significant role in ensuring that country-wide free access to law publishers, such as CanLII and AustLII, achieved their potential. More standardization would help deliver even more benefits.

Funding and benefits can be linked. Canada with its communist public health system is sometimes perceived as a middle-of-the-road society; not squarely socialist like those small countries in Northern Europe, but not entirely liberal either. Then, go figure, CanLII is privately funded by the legal professions and operated under contract by a for-profit company, Lexum. The reason private interests can serve a social mission is that those who pay are those who get the most out of the benefits. The business of the for-profit company is to help make the law accessible, not only as a service provider to CanLII, but also through all the other products it sells.

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Since inception, Cornell’s LII has favored quality over quantity. LII’s siblings, Lexum (then CanLII), AustLII and BaiLII, and later on PacLII and SafLII, have gone for volume, to make a difference in access to law in their respective countries. This is not to minimize the practical significance of Cornell’s LII: it has made a difference too, but not the same way. Instead of trying to offer comprehensive access to USA law, which would have been an overwhelming objective, the principals at the LII decided to put their talent into achieving excellence within the more defined boundaries of specific collections, such as the US Supreme Court decisions, the US Code and now the Code of Federal Regulations. These are not tiny corpuses. All are significant bodies of law heavily used not only in the US but abroad as well. Even though other legal information initiatives produced innovations, none aside from Cornell’s LII put knowledge development as the central product of their activities. Even 25 years after starting, LII is still on the edge, figuring how to accelerate the development of a legal semantic web. Beyond the fact that they were the first LII, this constant contribution to knowledge may be the real reason for the ongoing influence and prestige of the institute established 25 years ago by Peter and Tom.  

Twenty years later, the model initiated at Cornell has flourished. Members of the LII family have found their own ways. Looking at the global picture, one can only be pleased to see how an idea born in academia, and in large part at Cornell Law School, has influenced many legal information systems for the better. Even more surprising, it seems that we have not yet seen the end of it. The Cornell LII remains, after all these years, a hotbed of innovation with friends all around the world.

Bon anniversaire et amitiés au LII de la part de nous tous chez Lexum,

Daniel Poulin is the founding director of CanLII, the Canadian Legal Information Institute.  He is widely known for innovation in both legal publishing and in the business apparatus needed to sustain open-access efforts over the long term. He is now Emeritus Professor of the Law Faculty of the University of Montreal, and President of Lexum Information Juridique, a legal-information technology company spun off from his original research group at the University of Montreal.


25 logo[ 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.