Once hidden behind the paywalls of Westlaw and Lexis Nexis, the law is quickly becoming open source. Court decisions have always been part of the public record, at least in theory, but accessing those decisions has always been difficult for both lawyers and non-lawyers alike. The internet has been slow in getting around to making court decisions publicly searchable and understandable.
Recently, two online communities have attempted to make the law more user-friendly by letting lawyers and members of the public add comments, explanations, and cross-references. Both communities are worth exploring if you are a solo or small practitioner.
Heller’s vision for Casetext is to make the law free and accessible to lawyers and laypeople alike. Users of the site are encouraged to add their expert analysis to cases and share their knowledge via a comment system. A comment can then be up-voted or down-voted by the other users. Other lawyers, as well as the public, can then share in this shared knowledge and expertise.
Right now, Casetext seems to be inhabited mainly by lawyers and law students and is geared toward a more “expert” analysis of case law. Its community feature lets users follow different practice areas and get updates based on those areas. Also, if you are into deep legal research, Casetext’s feature of linking briefs to court decisions is very useful.
The Law Genius community was the brain-child of Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam, a Stanford Law grad.1 The vision for Law Genius is very similar to that of Casetext: to make the law accessible and understandable by letting people add their commentary through the annotation system. Law Genius is geared more toward the general public, although its interface is much harder to understand than Casetext’s. This confusion can be attributed to Law Genius’ reliance on the Genius format for posting texts and letting users add explanations and commentary. The Genius platform was originally geared toward annotating rap lyrics, which are much shorter than court opinions, constitutional provisions, and statutes.
Once concern with Law Genius is that it seems to be much less used than Casetext. The latest Law Genius post was nearly four months ago, whereas Casetext gets updates daily.
Should You Start Annotating?
Sharing your discreet knowledge in furtherance of the public interest is an honorable and worthwhile endeavor. The principle behind both Casetext and law genius is the law should be crowd-annotated for the betterment of society. In theory at least, these sites will make the law and analysis of the law easy to understand and accessible without paying Westlaw and Lexis Nexis hundreds or thousands of dollars each month.
Solo and small firm practitioners are busy. We can wear many different hats: lawyer, bookkeeper, marketer, blogger, and firm administrator. Many of you may wonder what the benefit is to adding Casetext and Law Genius contributor to your already large hat collection. Whether or not you have enough time to regularly add commentary is up to you.
If you are strapped for time, do not prioritize adding commentary on these communities above serving your clients. If you are researching a certain legal issue and have an interesting insight into what a case says, then adding your thoughts to these communities is relatively easy.
Many of us practice in small universes.
While both Casetext and Law Genius are slowly getting into niche practice areas, they appear to be aiming at the big headline legal concepts that generate public interest. A glaring example is the omission of state statutes and state constitutions from their source materials. In many cases, the courts’ interpretations of these are just as important as precedent found only in case law. This seems to be something that Casetext and Law Genius could easily incorporate, especially since many states publish their statutes or codes online for free. Casetext seems to be working on this, and as noted above, Law Genius is entirely dependent on user-added material.
Also, both platforms’ materials are only as good and detailed as the users make them. While a lack of source materials in Casetext is a problem only Casetext can fix, lack of meaningful commentary and analysis on discrete issues is a problem for the users.
Casetext only allows users to upload briefs, not court decisions or statutes. While this may be useful for lawyers that practice only appellate law, it does not seem to benefit those who are not filing briefs every other month.
Law Genius allows individual users to upload court decisions and statutes, or any other type of text for that matter. But this can be an ordeal. I tried to add a recent decision by the Florida Supreme Court with the result looking quite garbled. Part of the problem is the content addition interface only allows copy-and-paste from long pdf’s that have unique formatting. To make the document appear in full, including footnotes, would take a great deal of formatting.
One concern I realized only after checking out the upload features for both sites is whether or not safeguards are in place to prevent someone from uploading an altered document. Something as simple as an innocent typo could change the entire meaning of a court decision, constitutional provision, or statute. This could be the rationale behind why Casetext will only allow users to upload briefs and not court decisions.
Whether or not you should contribute to either Casetext or Law Genius (or both) is entirely up to your desire to be a part of the open-sourced law movement.
Much like Wikipedia, the relevance and strength of these services rises and falls with the people that contribute. Even if you do not have the time or do not want to contribute, you should still take a look at how these services can supplement your research. While they are nowhere close to Westlaw or Lexus Nexis right now, it may not be long until they get there.
Featured image: “knowledge base” from Shutterstock.