This post is part of "2012 Law Via the Internet Conference," a series of 7 posts. You can start at the beginning or see all posts in the series.

At the Law Via the Internet 2012 conference, Clay Shirky talked about how social tools can help close the gap in comprehension between the law and the public. People don’t just need access to legal codes, they need to be able to understand them. They need context.

We — that is, lawyers — traditionally fill that gap, mostly for a lot of money and on a case-by-case basis. But as anyone who interviews potential clients knows, people are hungry for information about the law, and are busy going about finding it online.

Shirky argues that we need to embrace this impulse and assist in the interpretation of law online.

(You can watch Shirky’s presentation here.)


Many of the people at this conference are already working on ways to increase public involvement in the making, publishing, and understanding of laws. I have met publishers who are trying crowdsourced head notes. Several states’ citizens and reporters are experimenting with crowdsourced annotation of statutes. Some are using GitHub to post legal “source code” for review and comment (here’s a citizen project from Germany). Some are even using surprising tools like Rap Genius to annotate legal texts.

“E-participation” is a new theme at LVI, but it’s a hot topic as organizations that publish and organize legal information try to make that information more useful. The general consensus seems to be that the public has a big role to play. Shirky obviously agrees.

Getting the public to participate

Shirky’s advice is fairly simple: If you want people to participate, go to the people instead of expecting them to come to you. Don’t erect barriers to participation or try to limit participation to the academy (lawyers, in our case). Doing so (counter-intuitively, perhaps) lowers the quality and comprehensiveness of the content, and you can never predict how people will use what you put online. Non-lawyers may not have a lot of legal knowledge to add to the interpretation of law, but collectively they may be able to add substantially to our knowledge about a subject — or a statute.

The serious stuff and the silly stuff

They may also add other stuff that lawyers will consider crap, but that others may consider valuable for one reason or another. LOLcats image macros, for example. (Although in my experience, you mostly get questions from people trying to represent themselves.)

That’s because, Shirky says, “We are still in the confused era where the serious stuff and the silly stuff co-exist.” And, he says, we should be okay with that. Some people find value in interpretive annotation; others in LOLcat image macros. We may not prefer the latter, but we may not be able to get the former without it.

Lack of focus

People are annotating the Virginia Declaration of Rights on Rap Genius and Wikipedia. The text of most laws is buried in databases with no ability to annotate or offer corrections, and places that do seem like good places for adding context, like Wikipedia, don’t host the text of most statutes. Places that do have room for both, like WikiSource are woefully under-populated.

Even if you wanted to go out and improve the body of annotation or interpretation of the law, it’s really hard to know where to start, or where to focus your energy. Does it really do anyone any good if a hundred annotations are spread out over 5 or 10 or 15 different places online?


Here’s the point I took away from Shirky’s lecture: People are so desperate for context that they will use whatever tools that emerge that will work, whether it is Wikipedia or Rap Genius. Our job — the job of those at this conference who are in the nuts-and-bolts business of publishing and organizing legal information, as well as the job of lawyers who use and interpret legal information — is to use our specialized knowledge to improve the annotations, interpretations, visualizations, and other context in the places we find them.

Shirky’s lecture was sort of a call to action, exhorting lawyers to join the effort to add context to legal content online, and to do it where the law exists, rather than where we would like this to happen.


I’m pretty sure people really are desperate to understand the law. Like most lawyers, I’ve had plenty of potential clients walk into my office with a stack of printed statutes and all kinds of wild ideas about the merits of their claims or defenses. I’m equally sure that everyone would be better off if those people were able to get good information, instead of wild ideas.

What I’m not sure of is how lawyers, non-profits, LIIs, or anyone or anything else can best go about doing this. Before you can start annotating statutes, you need an updated, authentic copy, and it helps to be able to see the changes over time. That means someone needs to keep it updated, and the system needs to be able to show changes. So GitHub, maybe. Then you need a friendly interface for annotation and commenting. So something like WikiSource or Wikipedia. Tagging and interlinking would be super-useful. So something like Flickr. It would be nice if the published versions were authoritative, as well, so you could use them in court. But only courts and the state can do that.

In the end, I’m left with a better idea of the scope of the problem, but even less of an idea of where to devote my time if I want to contribute my knowledge. That is, of course, the primary focus of Track 1 here at LVI2012. Maybe I’ll have a better idea once I have a chance to reflect on what I’ve learned here.

Read the next post in this series: "."

1 Comment

  1. shg says:

    Learning the law on the internet creates the appearance of knowledge without the substance. Any lawyer who has had a client come to his office with his “legal research” in hand knows that this is not only unhelpful, but dangerously problematic. This is insanity, except for crowdsourced headnotes with lolcats. How much fun would that be?

    Shirky is tryiing to create a fool’s Utopia. People may want it, and may believe they deserve it, but they cannot gain a functional knowledge of the law from reading a couple paragraphs on wiki-law. Not even with your lawyerly annotations. People believe it should be simple and easy. It’s just not.

    No doubt, there will be websites that cater to this whim, with advertising to make their business model pay off. It will bring in the new age of client ignorance, wrapped up in their misguided belief that they know the law because some website explained it to them. And they will act upon it to their horrible detriment, and then hate lawyers for having failed them.

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