I am recently returned from my first LegalTech New York. It gets knocked as being only about eDiscovery, and while that definitely was a prevailing topic both in the exhibit hall and presentations, there were many aspects of legal technology covered. My attention was mostly captured, however, by the puppies.
More about that in a second. First, though, I want to draw your attention to three seemingly unrelated news stories (unrelated to each other and definitely unrelated to puppies) that have broken in the past week.
- Future of Oyez Supreme Court Archive Hangs in the Balance – One of the more interesting Free Law resources, Oyez, is possibly closing this year after its founder retires. Harvard Law Library has offered to take it over, so what’s the problem? After being funded by grants and university monies for years, the founder is claiming ownership over the IP over the technology that backs the tools and will let it die unless someone pays him one million dollars for it. One million dollars!
- Fastcase Sues Casemaker Over Publishing of State Laws – Casemaker (parent company LawWriter LLC) is a small legal publisher that has been granted exclusive access to publish Georgia State regulations. A competing legal publisher, Fastcase, had this crazy notion that the law is public domain and anyone can publish it, so they did. Casemaker issued a take down notice like Fastcase was pirating Beyonce songs or something and not just publishing the law of the land. Well, Fastcase decided that the best defense is a good offense and sued Casemaker on copyright grounds. (Complaint, h/t/ Aaron Kirschenfeld)
- The Legal Cloud Computing Association releases draft standards – The LCCA is a newish legal industry trade group of companies that use cloud technology (which remember, just means you’re using someone else’s computer) in their products and services for the legal sector. Seeing that there was little to no movement by bar associations to regulate or even define the types of qualifications lawyers should look for when choosing a provider, the LCCA went ahead and drafted their own standards. They are current seeking suggestions for the standards and have a goal of releasing a final copy at ABA Tech Show in March.
So. Puppies. And Legal Technology and Information. And the above news. What does it all mean?
So, anyway, I’m at LegalTech NY cruising the exhibit hall seeing what the pay technology world has to offer and then I see them. Puppies. Someone actually put a play pen of puppies in their exhibit hall booth to draw people in. They appeared to be all pure-bred, so I asked where they got them, hoping that they came from some sort of rescue or shelter. It turns out that there’s a company that rents puppies in NYC. Yes, folks we live in a PaaS (Puppies as a Service) world.
Now, there’s two kinds of people in the world – those that buy purebred dogs (which often come from horrific puppy mills, are prone to diseases and disorders caused by in-breeding and are very expensive) and those that adopt mutts from the pound or rescues (which are generally healthier, cheaper to adopt and socially responsible.) As I was staring at the puppies in the Legal Tech exhibit hall, I realized that these PaaS puppies were emblematic of everything wrong with legal technology and information today. Lawyers are spending too much money buying ill-fitting, socially irresponsible software/technology!
There’s a common saying that free and open source technology is free like a puppy is free. Meaning, sure you can get a free puppy from someone, but you’re then looking at 10+ years of food and squeaky toys and vet bills. So it’s not really free. Of course, buying a puppy sets you up for all of those costs too. (Possibly more given the health issues of the purebreds. ) It’s just a reminder that free-gratis is not the best part of FOSS technology and information, but that free-libre is. When something is free-libre, it can be used and adapted by other people. And, possibly more importantly, improved upon by other people.
Our first two news stories show us the problems with free but not open. Oyez, a wonderful resource, is possibly going to be shuttered or worse, go behind a pay wall, because it’s not open. It’s also not able to be built upon or used in ways that perhaps the creator (and apparently owner) did not envision. I’m having a bit of an Oprah moment and this news has stopped me cold from ever supporting a purported “free” or “public interest” legal technology or information project that isn’t open licensed. The Fastcase/Casemaker story also shows how closed information inhibits innovation and business dealings. (I’m sure the Casemaker people are very nice, but I’ve never heard the word “innovative” to describe their products.) I just checked and the Georgia Regulations are on both Lexis and Westlaw. So this is Casemaker specifically trying to impede its close competitor Fastcase (they both get much of their business via deals with state bar associations) by limiting its access to what should be public domain material.
Is there space for FOSS in the legal world? I think so, but that would require one thing that lawyers traditionally aren’t good at: collaboration sharing, not just with anyone, but with possible competitors. That’s why the third story about the legal cloud computing standards gives me some hope. This is a community effort and collaborative drafting exercise to self-regulate in the absence of bar associations stepping up to the plate to do so. I mean, I’m not stupid, I see how this is also a smart business decision by the LCCA to brand themselves as ‘safe’, but still…it’s a good start.
A common complaint that I see about legal technology of all stripes is that the developers have little idea about the actual practice of law. I was thinking about it over the weekend and it occurred to me that the ideal (in the eyes of many) legal technology developer is someone who is a STEM graduate, decided to by pass a lucrative Silicon Valley career to sink him or herself into debt to become a lawyer, practice a few years, be miserable enough to seek to create technological solutions for law, then chuck their legal career to the side to start a tech company (ignoring the fact that by this time he/she is probably in their 30s, still saddled with law school debt and likely by this time to also has a mortgage and family to support.) Basically, if “practical legal experience” is your first requirement for someone before you’ll pay attention to their legal tech ideas, you’ve probably got a long wait ahead of you. Like, “Cubs winning the World Series” long wait.
A solution, of course, is for the legal world to invest in the development of technology themselves. We’ve seen a glimpse of this with Seyfarth Shaw’s Disclosure Dragon, but that just results in another closed pay option for the legal world to purchase or lease, plus law firms are in the business to practice law, not produce software. Do law firms have the long term foresight and patience to have in house developers create products that they then open source and share with competitors, with the trust that other in the community will share creations leading to the betterment of all? Probably not. (Just like they probably won’t ever step into publishing, even though they are being shaken down by a small cartel of legal publishers for products that they themselves create.) They only way I see this happening are:
- Big law/Bar Associations/Grant Funders create a non-profit tech shop to create some FOSS tools for legal.
- Something like the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews is created that places developers into firms on rotations to develop open tools.
- Law schools step up and create technology research centers that create FOSS tools for the practice world.
The third one is the most likely, but then we fall back into the debate about whether or not legal academia knows anything about the practice world.
Unless the legal world starts to collaborate more on technology, we’re going to be stuck with expensive inferior products. Just like people keep buying purebred puppies.