Crowdsourcing Legal Information: Fad or Change Agent

[This article originally appeared on Law Technology News, October 22, 2013]

The wisdom of the masses may not be worth much, but publishers seem to be taking into account the wisdom of experts. The impact web-based options have on legal publishing will be interesting, because the web allows newcomers to create products without, perhaps, having the infrastructure of dominant companies.

It isn’t a new idea. The idea of crowd-sourced legal information gets floated every so often. Using people to add editorial value to content is also as old as the hills. (Most obvious example: Wikipedia.) The difference is that in the legal world, publishers tended to hire authors. And crowd-sourced projects struggled because they couldn’t attract the same commitment.

Elsevier — LexisNexis’ science-oriented cousin — bought Mendeley this year. Mendeley was a tool for researchers to create collections of documents. Think of an Evernote for scientists, enabling them to tag documents and share their collections with their peers. The publisher now has access to the collaborative filtering that the Mendeley users generated.

This idea of aggregating information and empowering users to help with the organization — or evaluation — of the content is making its way into legal information resources. Australian BarNet has created a case law system called Jade that encourages this sort of social markup and sharing.

Ravel Law has been in the news recently for its legal research product, turning U.S. federal appellate case law into a visual set of search results. Researchers log in and can highlight and annotate parts of cases, adding both notes and keyword tags to parts of judicial opinions.

This approach is being applied to commentary as well. Dallas-based start-up Jurify was started by a lawyer with a corporate big law firm background. It’s been around nearly a year, is focused on building a library of 10,000 corporate law documents, and about to enter beta testing. The library involves a mixture of editorial added by the crowd as well as its own selected experts, although it’s not clear who those are. This is a marked difference from case law systems, since the service is, like Mendeley, enhancing third-party content from law firm blogs and other sources.

It will be interesting to see if these attempts can overcome some of the issues with legal information. For one, Jurify and other mostly form-oriented approaches have stuck with a single practice area. This focus can help in building a customer base and there is no comprehensive source of freely accessible commentary or case law.

Legal publishers may find that tools they already own or might acquire can provide similarly rich information to mine from their contributors. The dominance of traditional publishers is weakening in primary law but any aggregation of crowd-sourced commentary requires some effort to determine authenticity and accuracy, an expectation to which the publishers are already held. Time will tell whether the crowd — or the publisher —  is best able to wield this collaboratively generated information.

David Whelan is manager of legal information for the Law Society of Upper Canada. Email:

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