Canlawpedia? Crowd-Sourcing and the Law

I was sorry to miss the 2012 Law via the Internet conference held earlier this month at Cornell. Happily, many sessions are available for viewing on the conference website. I was particularly interested to watch Clay Shirky’s keynote address.

Shirky is the author of the recent popular titles Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus. At LVI, he questioned why there is so little shared annotation of the law. He reported on a couple of examples that have popped up on social media. For instance, the State Code of Utah has been included on Github, a site for sharing code, and the Virginia Declaration of Rights and a limited amount of other legal material has appeared on RapGenius, a site for annotating rap lyrics. But no broad effort has yet emerged. Most attempts are ad hoc and outside the usual structures. (I think we can safely say that RapGenius is not the first place any of us go to do legal research.)

A number of similar initiatives to crowd-source the law are underway elsewhere. Staffan Malmgrem provides an interesting account of his attempt to crowd-source commentary on Swedish law. He reports some initial success (when he was able to pay his contributors) but there haven’t been many contributions since the initial effort. Legaltree, a Canadian collaborative legal information website, has a similar objective, but is far from comprehensive. It has a few good lists but little new material has been added over the last couple of years. And Colin Lachance reports that a similar Quebec initiative has been launched.

Wikipedia, the ultimate in crowd-sourcing, contains quite a lot of legal information. For example, theentry for Pettkus v. Becker gives a good summary of the case and its importance. But the summary omits information that a lawyer would consider essential, such as the treatment of the case by the courts, whether it has been codified, and so on. I recently learned of an audience of law librarians that booed a speaker who suggested Wikipedia as a first step for legal research! Most lawyers and law librarians are working in an environment where time is of the essence and accuracy is paramount. In other words, Wikipedia is only just good enough.

What would it take for something like Canlawpedia to succeed? Will lawyers really crowd-source the law? How much cognitive surplus do lawyers have? This is not a joke! One of Shirky’s key assumptions is that people have a large amount of cognitive surplus or discretionary time to contribute to crowd-sourced resources such as Wikipedia.

It’s clear that lawyers have some cognitive surplus. After all, CLEBC recruits over 1000 volunteer lawyers every year to write and update publications and present courses. But my experience with these wonderful volunteers tells me that things get done when there is a paid project manager charged with that responsibility (at CLEBC this is done by the legal editor or the program lawyer). Slaw contributions, too, come from our cognitive surplus (though I suspect other contributors are also writing columns and posts on both work time and their own time).

Most lawyers have limited extra time; those who are natural volunteers tend to get scooped up by the CBA, the Trial Lawyers Association, and any number of other worthy initiatives; lawyers also tend to be in demand as board members for charitable organizations. Many are already writing and teaching for CLEBC or one of the other legal publishers. It is hard to say whether this effort would continue to take place without the planning, managing, and cheerleading of legal editors and program lawyers (or Simon Fodden).

One other aspect of all this volunteer work is that it is easily expressed on a resume (and readily verified), though as badges become more common these may develop to be the same sort of currency as “contributing author” or “editorial board member”.

If Canlawpedia were created, who would use it? I expect lawyers who need a quick refresher would find it useful. Its real use, though, would be for public legal education and information. There’s a great deal of excellent public legal information available online already, though. Clicklaw, an initiative of Courthouse Libraries BC, provides a portal and structure to all this information. Is something beyond this resource needed?

I’m not arguing against the creation of Canlawpedia, but given the limited success of other initiatives, the prevalence of good public legal information sites, and the finite amount of time available to lawyers for contribution, I’m sceptical that we’ll see a surge of crowd-sourced legal information online any time soon.

As I was writing this column I received an invitation from something called the WorldLawBook, which looks like it’s conceived to be an international, collaborative, legal community site. I can’t find out much about it, other than it seems to be connected with an organization called Digilex and that you must be a lawyer to join. And only two language options are available so far: English and Italian.


  1. I would have a couple of concerns with ‘crowdsourced’ law. One would be the need to control for (a) vexatious litigants – or just vexatious commenters – wanting to promote their pet theories, and (b) counsel with a point to make on behalf of a client, probably undisclosed. So: any site worth reading would have to have an active editor.

    I would also be concerned about the eventual volume of comments. Fine if there are three or four; not so fine when there are a couple of hundred, of variable quality despite the editing.

    I looked at the site that this column mentions on Quebec’s Law to provide a legal framework for information technology. It’s a remarkable site for a number of reasons, but just reading the three comments on one article chosen at random took a lot of time. If there were a long debate, or more than two relevant cases on the section, at some point one might go there only with a very specific need. The casually interested public reader would not find the commentary usable.

    At some fairly early point, most lawyers would prefer a more traditional summary of the law and its developments, in an article or book (even if the article or book were online).

  2. One of the cautionary examples that Clay used in his talk (about 40 minutes in) was Medpedia, and how the content added by experts was not as useful to the end user as that added to Wikipedia by random internet volunteers. The lesson for me was that accessibility, visibility, and usability, will trump authority.

    Canadian legal information has not received the same level of crowd input on Wikipedia yet, but as I was preparing for a legal research instruction session last week, I ran across this page on the Canada Evidence Act:

    which led me to a wikibook on Canadian Criminal Evidence:

    Looking in the introduction, we find only an email address to identify the author, so I don’t believe that any of us on would consider this an authoritative source. However, to Joe Public, this might be ‘good enough’ for their specific purpose.

    There is space-themed facebook game that I play, that allows for a wide variety of playstyles and objectives. Given that, players often struggle to find the ‘best’ way to play the game. A wiki was set up to pass on this acquired knowledge. Well, one of my fellow players began updating the wiki (as anyone can), but then began promoting himself in the game forums as THE wiki editor, and asking other players to submit ideas to him for any new pages of content that they were interested in. To him, this was a way to enhance his reputation in the game community, and promote his own expertise.

    It is not hard for me to imagine clusters of recent law school grads who might find this model irresistable, but they would have to be confident that their audience would include the community that they are trying to impress.

    Closing with a cognitive surplus comment … last night, I added re-direction notes to 30 pages of that game wiki to indicate that they were spam (which drops them out of future search results). I don’t expect any recognition for that effort, but since I use the wiki as an information tool for myself, I have ensured that those garbage results do not pollute my results pool in the future.

  3. Legal Information Institute has created the Wex crowdsourced legal dictionary/encyclopedia

    Olivier Charbonneau has developed a model of crowdsourced legal commentary on Canadian law

  4. The Jurispedia project is a multilingual, multi-jurisdictional legal wiki that has been operating for many years. It can legitimately be called crowdsourced legal information.

  5. Great article, Susan.

    A few random reflections:

    -There’s crowd sourcing, and then there is sourcing the crowd (or what we might know better as curating). I have high hopes for both. As an example of latter category, consider Slaw’s Canadian Case Commentary project or sites like Lexology that bring order to a lot of the high quality free material out there.

    -I’m convinced that there is ample cognitive surplus in the Canadian legal firmament and that it is and will continue to be deployed towards our education of each other and of the public. Maybe what we are dealing with is an efficiency or organizational issue? I’m not suggesting we all need to fly in a single direction, but any given project needs sufficient critical mass and organization to make the effort worthwhile and usable to a target audience.

    -Any given project need not be all things to all people and since the cost of entry is low, a wide variety of projects that result in many failures and abandoned efforts is a perfectly normal and acceptable outcome. Another key message from the Shirky presentation is that “success” may come in unexpected forms and that focusing on the quality of the tool and experience, and being open to user innovation should be preferred to chasing a narrow ideal through an inflexible format. So while a CanLawPedia may well emerge, it just might start out as something different.

    -The wiki format’s weakness notwithstanding, Wikipedia and Wikibooks both serve an extremely valuable purpose for those who know their research doesn’t end there (best place to start, worst place to stop). As with any secondary source, user-generated wikis may provide the spark or lead you need.

    -Whenever the “successful” version(s) of CanLawPedia does (do) emerge, I suspect it (they) will have two very prominent features: great management and gravity. The management function goes more to managing the experience than to passing judgement on the content and could itself be delegated to a small group of volunteers who deploy their cognitive surplus to that end. I use the word gravity in the Isaac Newton sense. Users and contributors will need to constantly feel the pull of the site for a purpose other than casual look up. They will need to feel invested in its success and find value with each interaction. Gravity can develop over time, but some organizations (like CLEBC and its 1000 volunteers or CBA) would have a head start all things being equal.

    Oh…and one more thing…

    Susan? As I type, CanLawPedia is available as a .ca .com and .org domain so you better hurry!


  6. Thanks for all comments; I always enjoy the conversation that results from these columns.
    Colin: I’m particularly agree with your comment about great management and gravity.
    But … are we now in a race to register that domain!?!

  7. It’s all yours, Susan. I’d be more inclined to take CanLIIpedia or encycLIIpedia! :)