Ambrogi on Tech

2 new websites offer platform for crowdsourced legal research

Posted Jan 1, 2014 3:50 AM CDT
By Robert Ambrogi

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If two heads are better than one, then why should legal research be a solitary pursuit? What if you could put three or four or even dozens of heads to the task? If you could tap into a collective, collaborative research process, it seems fair to say, you could complete your work more quickly and be more confident of your conclusions.

Enabling just that kind of crowdsourced legal research is the goal of two innovative websites. But they go at it from different directions. Casetext starts with simple case law research and uses crowdsourcing to flesh it out with references and annotations. Mootus starts with legal queries and uses crowdsourcing to answer them with relevant cases and arguments.

Crowdsourcing uses contributions from groups of people to create or enhance content, products or services. Examples include Wikipedia, written and edited by authors all over the world, and Digg, where users share news stories and others vote to rank them by popularity.

Casetext borrows from both. At the core, it is a database for researching case law. But unlike other free research sites, Casetext seeks to enhance raw cases by encouraging users to add descriptions, tags, annotations and documents, as well as links to secondary sources.

Other users can vote up or down on these additions. The right half of the page shows the most popular annotations, secondary sources and related cases. Select any of those categories to see the full list of user-added items.

Casetext was created by two lawyers, Jake Heller and Joanna Huey, who met in 2009 when he was Stanford Law Review president and she was Harvard Law Review president. After clerking together at the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Boston and separate stints as associates, they reunited to build Casetext.

Casetext is free to use and will stay that way, Heller and Huey say, although they plan to add premium features.

DIGGING IN

Mootus describes itself not as a legal research site, but as a platform for “open online legal argument” for both law students and practicing lawyers.

Users post legal issues to be argued. Other users respond by adding cases they believe are relevant, together with their arguments for why a case applies. Still others can comment and vote on whether it is “on point” or “off base.” A planned upgrade will allow users to add statutes and regulations.

(The Casetext folks must like what Mootus is doing. They recently added a similar feature where lawyers can post questions others answer with case law.)

To encourage participation, Mootus adds a game to the mix. Users earn points based on the frequency, speed and quality of their answers. More points mean greater status and influence within Mootus, and users can opt to identify themselves.

Boston-based Mootus was founded by lawyer Adam Ziegler and computer scientist Jeff Schneller. It is free to use but offers two paid options.

The first pertains to submitting an issue: Standard users can only “suggest” an issue, leaving Mootus to decide whether to post it. For $100, a user can ensure it will appear. The second is a $10 monthly subscription. Subscribers get access to the issues archive, can build a personal library and are able to monitor issues important to them.

In an age of ubiquitous connections, why shouldn’t it be easy for lawyers to put their heads together and crowdsource legal research? But it works only if contributors ante up. These sites provide the platform, but only lawyers can make them succeed.

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "Crowd Searching: Collaborative research is on tap at 2 sites."

Robert J. Ambrogi is a Rockport, Mass., lawyer and writer. He covers technology at his blog LawSites and co-hosts the legal affairs podcast Lawyer2Lawyer.

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