|Oregon State Bar Bulletin FEBRUARY/MARCH 2008|
The Most Notable Legal Sites of 2007
By Robert Ambrogi
Fire up the Klieg lights and tidy up your tux. It is time for legal.online to honor the most notable legal sites of 2007. We focus on the sites that made news or should have made news — not necessarily the best or the worst, but the ones that most deserve their moments in the spotlight.
Where else to start than with Avvo, www.avvo.com. When it came on the scene in June, with its promise to rate and profile every lawyer, it became the buzz of the blawgosphere. In fact, the buzz started even before its launch, given advance word of $14 million in venture capital, a board of directors that included the former CEO of LexisNexis, and an advisory board that included a former president of the American Bar Association.
The concept of rating lawyers on a scale of one to 10 proved controversial at first. Critics dug up examples of convicted felons who received better ratings than renowned litigators. In short order, several lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against the company on behalf of lawyers everywhere.
Remarkably for a newly launched business, Avvo listened to the critics and made changes in its rating system, assigning numerical rankings to lawyers only when it can gather a certain level of information.
Avvo’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit against it remains pending as of this writing, but the furor that followed its launch has died down. In fact, even lawyer-directory mainstay Martindale-Hubbell is becoming more consumer friendly with the addition of the Avvo-like feature of client reviews tacked onto law firm profiles.
Next on stage: Public.Resource.Org, http://public.resource.org. Back in 1872, John B. West had a good idea for a business: publish and sell court decisions. Soon his idea grew into the National Reporter System and, a century later, into the online research service Westlaw. Now Carl Malamud and his nonprofit organization Public.Resource.Org want to upset that private-enterprise applecart by creating a public-domain repository of all federal and state case law. "The U.S. judiciary has allowed their entire work product to be locked up behind a cash register," says Malamud.
In November, Malamud and the legal research company Fastcase made headlines by announcing an agreement that will allow Public.Resource.Org to publish 1.8 million pages of federal case law in the public domain. The archive, which will become available sometime in 2008, will include all U.S. courts of appeals decisions since 1950 and all Supreme Court decisions since 1754. Notably, this public-domain database will come about with the cooperation of the for-profit legal research company Fastcase, which has agreed to sell this case law with no strings attached.
Once it receives the cases, Public.Resource.Org will format them
using open source "star" mapping software, which will allow the insertion
of markers that will approximate page breaks based on user-furnished parameters
such as page size, margins and fonts. "Wiki" technology will be used
to allow the public to move around these markers, as well as
to add summaries, classifications, keywords, alternate numbering systems for citation purposes, and ratings or "diggs" on opinions.
Malamud’s project was not alone in 2007 in striving to decommercialize access to case law. Another was AltLaw, www.altlaw.org, unveiled in August as a joint project of Columbia Law School and the University of Colorado Law School. Its purpose is similar: to make federal case law easier to search and freely accessible to the public. It contains nearly 170,000 decisions dating back to the early 1990s from the U.S. Supreme Court and federal appellate courts.
The site’s creators, Columbia’s Timothy Wu and Stuart Sierra and Colorado’s Paul Ohm, said the database will grow over time. "It’s been more than 10 years since the start of the Internet revolution, and case law is one area that has not budged," said Wu in announcing the site’s launch. "Somebody has to take the initiative. We want to open the law to the public."
AltLaw features full-text searching of opinions as well as advanced search options such as proximity, Boolean and wildcard searching. Search results display a preview of the original court PDF file, from which you can download the opinion as PDF or text.
Next up for honors: the ABA Journal, www.abajournal.com. In July, it revealed a head-to-toe redesign of its website. Of itself, the redesign was so sweeping as to command attention. But the big news was that, after years of allowing access only to ABA members, now the magazine’s entire site and all of its content became open to the public. That opened a valuable resource that had hitherto been behind locked doors. The site added back issues through 2005 and was slated to include ever earlier years.
The website supplements the print magazine with added content, such as court opinions, interview transcripts and other materials. In addition to the magazine, the new site includes two other notable features. The first, Law News Now, is a continuously updated feed of the day’s legal news stories, selected by staff editors. These stories are also sorted by topic and state for readers wanting more focused news. Second is the Blawg Directory, an index of more than 1,000 blogs written by lawyers, law professors and law students. The index identifies each blog’s author and focus and includes excerpts from their 10 latest posts.
One site that tends not to blow its own horn is Justia, www.justia.com. But steadily and almost stealthily, founder Tim Stanley and his crew continued in 2007 to build one of the best free legal-research sites on the Web. After founding FindLaw and then selling it to West, Stanley started Justia modestly. At first, its main focus was "legal marketing solutions" — creating law firm websites and blogs and providing search engine optimization. At the same time, Stanley and his staff worked on public-interest side projects such as the Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center and RecallWarnings.com.
Later, Justia added its Supreme Court Center, pulling together a searchable collection of Supreme Court cases along with related resources from all over the Web. It continued to add innovative features, such as BlawgSearch for searching law-related blogs and Blawgs.fm for searching law-related podcasts. In February 2007, Justia launched Federal District Court Filings & Dockets, for searching and browsing federal dockets. Along the way, Justia expanded its offerings of court opinions, even down to federal district court cases; added collections of links to Web legal resources arranged by legal practice areas; and added links to legal research and law practice resources arranged under cases and codes, courts, states, law schools, legal forms and the like.
One fun feature Justia offers is its listing of the most-popular blawgs of the day, week, month and all time. Day after day, one blawg that always seems to hold the top spot on that list is the sometimes controversial Above the Law, www.abovethelaw.com, a self-styled "legal tabloid" written by David Lat, the formerly anonymous author of another notorious blawg, Underneath Their Robes.
With its fare decidedly yellow, Above the Law is unlike most
other legal blogs. If there is an extramarital affair or vice raid involving
lawyers, you can bet Lat will blog about it. But as Lat told one interviewer,
he tries to walk a fine line between provoking readers while not alienating
them. One legal blogger called Lat, "just another precocious baby lawyer
with too much time on his hands." Maybe
so, but he’s no doubt the best-read precocious lawyer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Ambrogi, who practices law in Rockport, Mass., is the former editor of National Law Journal and Lawyers Weekly USA. He is internationally known for his writing about the Internet and technology.
© 2008 Robert Ambrogi