Oregon State Bar Bulletin — OCTOBER 2010
Crowdsourcing the Law:
Trends and Other Innovations
By Robert J. Ambrogi

The Internet’s completely over,” the musician once-again known as Prince declared last month. If so, I am at a loss to explain the ongoing emergence of innovative websites such as Spindle Law, a new site that is reconfiguring the traditional legal treatise to make it better fit a Web 2.0 world.

If the Internet is on its way down, then how do I account for the building-up of a site such as Judgepedia? Using the model of a wiki, it is developing what it hopes will become a comprehensive encyclopedic reference about America’s courts and judges.

These are just two of the sites I review this month. They suggest that the Internet — and Internet innovation — is alive and well.

Crowdsourcing the Treatise
Spindle Law, http://spindlelaw.com, describes itself as “a new kind of legal research and writing system.” Its goal is to make legal research “faster and smarter.” It seeks to do this in two ways: by structuring information more intuitively and by building on the knowledge of the lawyers who use it.

Spindle Law resembles a treatise in that it assembles rules of law together with the authorities to back up those rules. Structurally, it organizes the law into a tree, with each branch leading to ever-narrowing branches. Thus, the broad branch “courts” leads to narrower branches for “evidence” and “civil procedure,” and each of those branches leads to increasingly narrower branches.

As you browse or search the tree, you are presented with rules of law. For example, in the environmental branch, there is this rule: “The general purpose of the Clean Air Act is to broaden federal authority to combat air pollution.” Under that statement is a list of three cases that support the rule.

Here is where the crowdsourcing enters in. Much like with a wiki, all registered users can add or edit authorities, edit the tree, comment on authorities and vouch for or reject authorities. To ensure the quality of user contributions, all of this is overseen by “branch managers,” who are Spindle-designated editors with top-level editing authority.

When you find an authority that is helpful to your research, click “add to SpinDoc” and both the rule and the authority will be placed in a notepad in proper Blue Book form. Continue to add authorities to SpinDoc as you perform your research. You can also add your own notes or even begin your drafting here. When you’re ready, copy it all and paste it into your own word processor.

On the theory that the mind processes images more quickly than text, Spindle Law makes extensive use of icons to convey information. For example, a ruler icon indicates a rule of law. An asterisk indicates an exception to a general rule. A frog indicates an opportunity to jump to a cross reference or related topic. With 34 different icons, they take some getting used to. Fortunately, a convenient icon “cheat sheet” is available on every page.

Spindle Law is in the very early stages of development. So far, it has what it considers “substantial coverage” in just three areas of law: evidence, the Clean Air Act and federal securities liability under Rule 10b-5. It so far has only federal authorities — cases, the U.S. Code and rules of evidence and procedure. State authorities will come later.

Note that it does not house the full text of the cases and authorities. It provides links into free case law sources as well as into Westlaw, Lexis-Nexis and Fastcase. Spindle Law positions itself as a starting point for more quickly finding relevant authorities, thereby reducing time spent in paid legal research sites.

The chief executive behind Spindle Law, David P. Gold, is a graduate of Columbia Law School who clerked for the 9th Circuit and became a litigator in New York City before founding the company. The company’s chief business development officer, Nicholas Diamand, is also a lawyer and Columbia graduate.

So far, Spindle Law has achieved part of its mission. It has developed a structure for an online legal treatise that lawyers should find to be intuitive. But to be successful, it will need to put some meat on those bones. Given its limited coverage so far, its long-term survival will depend on its ability to attract enough lawyers to join the project and share their knowledge.

Crowdsourcing the Judiciary
While Spindle Law seeks to build a treatise based on the collective knowledge of its users, Judgepedia, http://judgepedia.org, wants to tap into its users’ knowledge to build a comprehensive encyclopedic reference about America’s courts and judges.

You might say that Judgepedia is the Wikipedia of the judiciary. Like Wikipedia, its users are also its editors — anyone can register and then edit any article. “By helping to edit, add information, any fix any mistakes you see, the quality and depth of the information steadily improves and grows over time,” the site explains.

As you would expect it to, Judgepedia has pages for virtually every federal and state court and judge. (For the U.S. territories, it has only federal courts, not territorial courts.) The depth of these pages varies widely and correlates with the level of court — supreme courts get deeper coverage than lower courts. For many trial courts, the page is nothing more than a stub with a link to the court’s official website.

Other sections of the site cover judicial selection, judicial philosophy and court-related news stories. The judicial selection sections discuss the topic broadly and also on a state-by-state basis. The philosophy section covers topics such as judicial activism, originalism, stare decisis and strict constructionism.

For lawyers, the site is perhaps best used as a reference source on specific courts and judges. Each state gets a main page from which you can drill down to pages for particular courts and judges. The supreme court pages are the most developed, with current and historical information about the courts, their judges and their notable opinions.

Judgepedia is sponsored by the Lucy Burns Institute, an organization devoted to helping promote openness in government and to helping citizens compile and share information about governments. It also sponsors the projects WikiFOIA and Ballotpedia.

Better Access to Rulemaking
For any lawyer who follows or participates in federal rulemaking, the U.S. government’s launch a few years ago of Regulations.gov, www.regulations.gov, was a great leap forward. Finally, from a single site, you could find and track proposed rules from nearly 300 federal agencies and even submit formal comments.

But Regulations.gov is difficult to use for experts and average citizens alike, say the founders of a new site, OpenRegs.com, http://openregs.com. They have created this site “to make the proposed and final regulations published in the Federal Register easy to find and discuss, so that citizens can become better informed and more involved.”

The site offers several features that legal professionals will appreciate. One is the ability to browse regulations by agencies and topics and subscribe to RSS feeds for any agency or topic. Surprisingly, the federal site does not allow tracking by agency.

OpenRegs.com is also distinguished by its layout and the way it organizes and delivers information. The front page presents the most recent regulatory news, showing comment periods about to end, comment periods just opened, the most recently published final regulations, and recently published significant regulations. Each of these news categories has an RSS feed you can subscribe to.

OpenRegs.com has its own iPhone app that offers most of the same features. Use it to find recently issued rulemaking notices or browse by agency.

“All these computers and digital gadgets are no good,” Prince said in his statement declaring the end of the Internet. “They just fill your head with numbers and that can’t be good for you.”

But they can also make your lives easier and your work more productive. That, most would agree, is certainly good for you.

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. He is the author of three blogs, which can be read at www.legaline.com.

© 2010 Robert Ambrogi

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