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Law.gov is the beginning of imagining.

By Jason Wilson

Last August, Joe Hodnicki asked me if I would be interested in responding to his open invitation to legal publishers to answer the question “What does Law.gov mean to you?” At the time, I was overwhelmed with work, work. Since his request, three individuals have taken up his invitation:

  1. Ed Walters, CEO of Fastcase. His perspective is here.
  2. David Curle, Director & Lead Analyst of Outsell. (Disclaimer: Jones McClure Publishing is a member.) His perspective is here.
  3. Sean McGrath, Propylon. His perspective is here.

The following folks (and we’re just talking about bloggers here) are—in my humble opinion—missing from this list:

  1. Tom Glocer, CEO of Thomson Reuters
  2. Tim Brandhorst, Deputy Director of Book Publishing, American Bar Association
  3. Rick Klau, Product Manager at Google (they publish through Google Scholar don’t cha’ know)
  4. Peter Jackson, Chief Scientist of Thomson Reuters
  5. Bill Pollak, CEO of American Lawyer Media
  6. Westlaw Reference Attorneys, employees of Thomson Reuters Legal
  7. Kilby Shepard, contract employee of Thomson Reuters Legal

That’s about all I can come up with. As best as I can tell, the Lexis-Nexis folks are either prohibited from blogging or aren’t creative enough to do it. Your call on that one.

Here’s what I see in the responses so far:

  • (via Ed Walters) Law.gov will create an “abundance market,” which will allow legal publishers to (1) build tools to make researchers smarter, (2) innovate, (3) provide great service, and (4) price services transparently and fairly. Law.gov might also disrupt the duopoly of Thomson Reuters (Westlaw) and Reed Elsevier (Lexis-Nexis).
  • (via David Curle) Law.gov will provide for “good enough” legal information products for all types of professionals: lawyers, business professionals, small business consumers, etc., but only if the underlying data is accurate and authenticated. Law.gov probably won’t disrupt the duopoly of Thomson Reuters and Reed Elsevier.
  • (via Sean McGrath) Law.gov will engage the electorate by providing real-time proposed amendments and impact statements or visualizations and codified-on-the-fly statutes.

While Ed Walters referenced innovation, I don’t think any of the commentators focused on imagination, which is what Law.gov means to me. To be fair, Ed Walters mentions Cornell’s LII, Data.gov, FederalRegister.gov, Justia, and vLex as innovators, but his focus remains on the duopoly and how democratizing effects of Law.gov could serve to topple it. For me, Law.gov suggests a future beyond our current understanding of “the law” and how to access it or even understand it.

What excites me the most about Law.gov is the idea that it represents large sets of law-related data that are made available to public (authenticated and accurate as David Curle suggests) to analyze and re-imagine. We’re already seeing it in glimpses with the Sunlight Foundation’s efforts in Cole§law and realtimecongress.org, the guys at Computational Legal Studies (who are doing some wild shit with data sets), and the folks at Govtrack.us. This is just the tip of the iceberg too. So let’s go one better.

IDEO, a design consultancy known for (among other things) creating the first Apple Mouse, and whom I’ve referenced before (“How will we read?“), has created a new video showcasing their ideas on the future of the book. I suggest you watch it. The interesting thing about their concepts—Nelson, Coupland, and Alice—is that each attempts to extend what we think about reading. And this is what I think Law.gov can do for us as individuals who study legal information for profit. [If you’re missing it, I’m talking about design.]

This is what I see almost immediately from the idea of free, authenticated law data sets:

  • Access to codes, statutes, rules, and cases based on geolocation. Shit, everything we access as research should default to geolocation. Honestly, why doesn’t Westlaw or Lexis tell me “I’m sorry Dave, there are no opinions in your jurisdiction addressing this issue, but you may find these helpful.”
  • Real-time notifications of similarly situated parties (e.g., in motion practice).
  • Push notifications for anything (obviously).
  • Sentiment analysis of amendments and new legislation or rules (pro/con).
  • Some type of social component to uniform codes (e.g., banker-to-banker, builder-to-builder) and just about anything else might fit the bill.
  • Data visualizations of the interconnectedness of everything (e.g., check out the development of the citation network of a U.S. Supreme Court case by the Computational Legal Studies dudes). This is important because it tells us something about how we might learn.
  • Federal-state law relationships. For example, The Citizen Participation Act of 2009 (H.R. 4364) and the California Anti-SLAPP statute (Code Civ. Proc. §425.16).

There are undoubtedly dozens if not hundreds of others. I’m not a visionary, but I do recognize that Law.gov represents a beginning of imagining new ways understanding and interacting with the law. I could give a shit about whether Law.gov topples the duopoly of Westlaw or Lexis. Only the people that compete against them are concerned about that extension. I see Law.gov as an interrobang. It is both a question and an excited utterance. And Google’s recent investment (gift) of $2 million to the effort suggests as much.

In the end, Joe’s question is less about about what publisher’s think about Law.gov, but rather what do you think about it? More importantly, what do you intend to do to help?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nick Holmes September 28, 2010, 5:03 am

    Jason – There's something missing in all this talk (thanks for gathering it here) about better access to primary legal materials enabling an informed citizenry and new ways understanding and interacting with the law. It's the cheeseburger.

    • jasnwilsn September 28, 2010, 7:23 am


      I'm hoping with these data sets, someone will create something better than the cheeseburger.

    • Nick Holmes September 28, 2010, 7:38 am

      Just like we've been hoping robots would be doing the housework by now?

    • jasnwilsn September 28, 2010, 1:03 pm

      And jet packs. Don\’t forget the jet packs.

  • Joe Hodnicki September 29, 2010, 6:46 am

    When I read "More importantly, what do you intend to do to help?" Jason, i thought are you a mind reader (!) because I had a post scheduled for publication on the same topic. Now published. See "Engaging in Profitable Labor" at http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/law_librarian_bl

    • jasnwilsn September 30, 2010, 9:41 am


      Getting the National Inventory done (and then the state inventories) is going to be a huge step for Law.gov. Good post.