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.