By Ashley Ahlbrand • June 05, 2014•Writers in Residence
A couple of posts back, I talked about Jurify, a new website where attorney-members contribute cases, legal forms, and other legal documents that they have found particularly helpful in their own practice. This type of pooled-resource contributions is commonly referred to as crowdsourcing, defined as "the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees or suppliers." (Merriam-Webster.com, "crowdsourcing," obtained June 5, 2014) Traditionally, the legal industry is not known for its collaborative environment. Of course, this is a gross generalization, but after all, associates are competing against each other to make partner, and opposing parties want to keep their case strategy close to the vest; this profession, therefore, naturally lends itself to an individualist work ethic. Yet I believe that the legal industry is changing, starting to embrace collaboration as a tool for accuracy and efficiency in legal practice. This transition is evident through the recent emergence of legal resource platforms, like Jurify, that utilize crowdsourcing to build their collections. For this month’s post, I thought we would look at two more such sites: Mootus and Casetext.
Similar to traditional mooting events in law school, Mootus allows subscribers to post issues they would like debated, and participants can then post citations to and self-written summaries of cases, regulations, and statutes that they believe either support or refute the issue. Others in the community can then up-vote or down-vote these contributions as relevant or irrelevant. A nice added feature is the ability to post an issue publicly or privately. If your issue is private, you can use your Mootus account as a place to organize and collect research on a particular issue; you also have the option to share a private issue with one or more participants, so that your small group can collectively research an issue without opening it fully to the public. Participants are even encouraged to make a game out of Mootus, earning rewards such as free subscription upgrades for frequent and credible contributions to posted issues.
Mootus was designed based on the founders’ premise that “Legal research should be iterative, not redundant.” (About – Our Story) The idea was to create a common collection of arguments and research on a variety of legal issues; this would both benefit attorneys by saving some of the time devoted to research, and benefit students or unemployed JDs by providing them an opportunity to build their mooting skills. Mootus is careful to emphasize that this is not a platform for crowdsourcing legal advice, but is instead a medium interested in exploring how technology can improve the quality and efficiency of legal research.
I think Mootus could be an excellent training tool for law students. The ability to not only argue your side of an issue, but adequately support it through thorough research is a critical lawyering skill, and Mootus provides a great practice arena. While I love the premise behind Mootus’ creation, I question how heavily attorneys, however, will utilize this platform for client research. As I said earlier, case strategy and attorney work product is something held close to the vest, so while I admire the idea of crowdsourcing these issues, I think you walk a fine line. Now, clearly you wouldn’t be advertising who your client is or the seedy details of the case, so it is conceivable that an attorney might post a broad issue related to their client’s case for public mooting. Even then, however, I would caution users to still do their own research. The problem with crowdsourced content is that no one is responsible for updating the issue when new cases/laws/regulations arise that change how that issue is treated in the law. Further, you always want to consult a citator like Shepard’s to assure that the sources you’re relying on remain good law. Law is constantly in flux, so no matter how much work has already been done on an issue, it is still your responsibility as the attorney to make sure you’re relying on good law and that you’ve found all the law you need to support your argument.
My overall impression: while I question how much time Mootus will really save attorneys in legal research, I still believe this is an excellent teaching tool for law students.
Similar to Mootus, Casetext utilizes crowdsourcing through its subscribers, but for the purpose of case law research specifically, rather than for mooting an issue. In this case, Casetext subscribers can help annotate case law by adding their own expertise about issues in a case. Annotations range from comments about an entire case or a specific paragraph, and users are also encouraged to add links to a case with related helpful documents, such as related cases, news articles, or journal articles. Some content is added to cases automatically by Casetext Bot, part of the database’s algorithm. As with other crowdsourced platforms, users are encouraged to up-vote and down-vote content to help ensure accuracy and vet the annotations and added materials.
Looking at a case in Casetext, content will vary based on how much participant contribution has taken place; but typically you will begin with the case caption (name and citation), followed by quick facts (such as a case summary and the presiding judges), expert analysis (tends to be lengthier articles about the case), and finally the case opinion; following the opinion you will find links to related materials, such as other cases, articles, and news coverage. Along the left side of the screen is a navigation menu for easy access to each of these features, and if people have contributed annotations to all or part of the case, they will appear along the right side of the screen as green thought bubbles. Case coverage is growing, and currently includes all Supreme Court cases, federal circuit court cases from volume one of F.2d on, federal district court cases in F. Supp. and F. Supp. 2d from 1980 on, and select Delaware cases. You can save cases to your account by bookmarking them for easy access.
Casetext was created with the idea of providing a free platform for case law research. With companies such as Google beginning to jump on board the free access to law bandwagon, accessing case law for free is becoming increasingly easier; however, accessing annotated case law is still difficult to do without a paid subscription database. Casetext may be the solution. Are you getting all the content you would with Lexis or Westlaw? Certainly not. But you’re not having to pay an arm and a leg either, and you’re still getting the benefit of some case annotation and related documents. For those unable to afford these expensive databases, that benefit is enormous.
My overall impression: While the annotations in Casetext don't come close to the volume of content available in a paid database like Lexis, Westlaw, or Bloomberg Law, in terms of free access to annotated case law, Casetext is among your top options, and I only expect it to improve from here.
As with the other legal startups I’ve discussed this year, I would not recommend relying solely on Casetext or Mootus for your legal research. These are new platforms, and their content is incomplete. To do thorough legal research, you still need access to a subscription database or a complete print library of legal research materials to ensure that you’re relying on good law and that you’ve found all the materials you need to adequately argue your case.
However, these platforms are not to be disregarded, either. Being new, they can only grow, and I am excited to see where they go from here. It’s no coincidence that all of these new legal research and practice platforms are emerging right now; it clearly marks a trend in the legal industry - toward what? Collaboration? Open access? At the very least, toward new ways of thinking about legal services.