Thomas R. Bruce is the co-founder and Director of the Legal Information Institute. After serving for five years as...
Bob Ambrogi is the only person to have held top editorial positions at both National Law Journal and Lawyers Weekly...
There are a surprising number of nonlawyers who want to know more about the law. While Google may have made access to legal information easier, it hasn’t completely solved legal information availability. In this episode of Law Technology Now, host Bob Ambrogi talks to Tom Bruce, co-founder of the Legal Information Institute (LII), about what the LII is and how it has adapted to changing technology, including using natural language processing techniques to identify defining terms in regulations and statutes and linking together related subjects. They also discuss who the LII serves today and what resources the group offers, including a complete archive of the Supreme Court’s oral argument audio.
Thomas Bruce is the co-founder and director of the Legal Information Institute. An internet and web pioneer, he developed the first web browser for Microsoft Windows.
Law Technology Now
Legal Information Institute: Access to Legal Information for All
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Bob Ambrogi: Welcome to Law Technology Now on the Legal Talk Network. This is your host Bob Ambrogi. My guest today is Tom Bruce, the Director of the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, New York. This year is the 25th anniversary of the Legal Information Institute, my how time flies, and we’re going to be talking to Tom about the history of the LII and what they’re up to now. So Tom Bruce, welcome to our show.
Tom Bruce: Oh, thank you Bob.
Bob Ambrogi: It’s great to talk to you, and thinking about this and I’m wondering how it’s going to be possible for me not to sound like an old fogey in talking about the origins of the Legal Information Institute because the world has so radically changed since you guys got started that I am worried about falling into sounding like my grandparents talking about when I was a kid. But I wondered if you could maybe kind of set the stage for us for what the legal information world looked like 25 years ago before the LII got started.
Tom Bruce: First of all, Bob, I have to tell you that I share the same set of concerns about aging out of this. Actually, it’s funny because you’re putting your finger right on one of the things that I think that I am actually proudest of and that I know that Peter Martin, my cofounder is as well.
When we came on the scene in 19 – well, when I first started working in law schools in 1998 and then leading up into ’92 when we actually started the Institute, it was very clear that it was not just that there was a commercial monopoly on legal information distribution actually really in those days more of a duopoly between LexisNexis and what was then West Publishing.
But that there was a nearly complete intellectual monopoly as well, it was no one outside those companies was really thinking about those issues very much, nobody had data to work with, there was really not much opportunity and so the Internet came along for anyone to say, well, hey, we could try something different here. It was just too expensive to do, it’s too hard to get your hands on a source material, there was no distribution mechanism really by which you could get it in front of the public. And so that was the state of thing. You had two very large, very successful and actually very good commercial providers but there was really no demonstrable alternative to whatever they chose to do. And for the most part what they had chosen to do was go a mile wide and an inch deep, lawyer-oriented legal information services have always had comprehensiveness as their first goal and that’s a very expensive thing to maintain, and it doesn’t leave you a lot of room to go deep on certain kinds of things.
Bob Ambrogi: Well, and you make this point, but their focus was on providing legal information to lawyers but nobody was really thinking about making legal information available to the public at large.
Tom Bruce: Yeah, and to tell you the truth, Bob, I think initially I’m not all that sure that we were either, which is to say it wasn’t that we went into this with a huge sense of mission on behalf of the public, much as our views on that have evolved over a long period of time. It was that we wanted to play, I mean a lot of it was just hot rodding, but we weren’t hot rodding for long before we discovered that there was just this enormous sort of latent need for this stuff out there and that it didn’t fall into the categories that you might have expected and it still does not. Even now that more than 50% of the people who make use of legislative information on our site or on legislation.gov.uk or a number of others that we’re familiar with, the majority is now non-lawyer.
So — but we very quickly became aware of was that there was this very significant audience that was not lawyers and was not people that lawyers imagined would use a system like ours; which is to say, “ordinary citizens having episodic traumatic encounters with the legal system of one kind or another” but was instead non-lawyer professionals. People who were making continuous professional use of law but were not themselves lawyers.
So the obvious examples of people like that are police officers or journalists, but let your mind open up a little further and you start thinking about people like hospital administrators, looking at public benefits law, law enforcement training people, and ultimately, pretty much anybody and everybody in regulated business, which is pretty much anybody and everybody in business.
Bob Ambrogi: The other part of the landscape 25 years ago that’s significant here I think is that the Internet wasn’t really a thing. I mean, the Internet was around but the web — the Internet as we know it today, the web, it really only just started to kind of move out of the lab, the first graphical web browser hadn’t really even been developed yet. I don’t think in 1992 I know you developed one in 1993, and Mark Andreesen’s browser came out in 1993, Mosaic. And this idea of getting legal information on the Internet hadn’t really come along. I mean, there wasn’t legal information on the Internet at that point or there might have been some rudimentary sources through FTP sites or whatever, but what we think of today as access to legal information nobody had thought of at that point, and it seems to me that you and Peter were really pioneers in starting to think about that.
Tom Bruce: Yeah, a little bit. I mean, I don’t think we can claim exclusive credit for that by any means. We were certainly very early to the web. We had about the — I want to say the 30th web server in the world, and we had actually the first professionally oriented website that was not oriented toward high energy physics. Everything out there —
Bob Ambrogi: You had the first legal website too?
Tom Bruce: Yeah — no, absolutely. So Peter had been working extensively at that point, experimenting putting teaching materials and other kinds of resources, statutory supplements for classes and that kind of thing in the CD-ROM form. So hypertext was a thing that we knew about.
And I remember sending a very early memo to the Dean of the Law School here I had to do actually with buying my time out from my day job at that point. That said that given the fact that the web was bringing this hypertext technology and that the Internet had this reach, we could see some very interesting things potentially going on in legal information distribution. But as I say, we started out hot-rodding. We put up portions of the US Code in gopher, if you are old enough to remember that.
Bob Ambrogi: May just the only one listening to you right now.
Tom Bruce: Here is this, who knows that. We did that because it was a great format in which to do stuff that was essentially hierarchical and the statute book was like that, and so we did it with Title 17. I think the web stuff was the third thing that we did. We had done a series of CD-ROM statutory supplements for courses, it was stuff like the Federal Rules before we ever did anything online.
But yeah, I mean we saw that there was an opportunity there. We had been preceded by — Cleveland Free-Net was distributing Supreme Court decisions as early as I want to say it was pre-Hermes, so it was like 1989 or so. They were taking typesetting files, they were taking Atex files from the court and transforming those and putting them online. Atex was a typesetting composition system known to lawyers or lawyers who were around at that time is XyWrite, that was a word processing program that was actually based on Atex. So they done it and there had been a couple of other fitful efforts to distribute limited a mounts of stuff, but that was really about it.
Bob Ambrogi: And Hermes for those who don’t know was what?
Tom Bruce: Oh Hermes was the Supreme Court’s program for doing rapid distribution of Supreme Court opinions to a very, very limited population of subscribers. I think there have never been more than about 20. Most of them were major news organizations. So it’s the legal publishers plus ‘The New York Times’ plus a couple of other newspapers. We joined the subscriber roster I want to say in ’94–’95.
Bob Ambrogi: This is well before the Supreme Court ever had a website of its own. I think at least a decade before the court had its own?
Tom Bruce: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think the Supreme Court started working on their website around ’98–’99, so we had had one up for six or eight years before they did.
Bob Ambrogi: Yeah. So what was the original mission and how did you get started? Where did the money come from? Where did the resources come from?
Tom Bruce: The resources originally came from a grant that we got through an organization called NCAIR (The National Center for Automated Information Retrieval), and one of the more amusing ironies of our existence is that we were actually paid — our startup was actually paid for by Lexis Royalties.
NCAIR had been started by Lexis at a time when they were still having to very, very heavily lobby judges to get them to release opinions to them for online distribution, and one of the sweeteners was they said, well, we will put any royalties aside and use it to set up this foundation, we will help with information projects in law and accounting, I think it was.
So we had a pretty substantial startup grant from them that was enough to buy out my time and to fund us for a year or so, but, but really pretty much since then — that lasted us I think about two years, but ever since then we have been to varying degrees on the books of the Cornell Law School, we are now mostly off, but it has been Cornell that has footed the bill for this thing, really right along.
Bob Ambrogi: I alluded to this earlier but it’s always fascinated me that one of the things that you did was develop a web browser, I mean, that kind of tells you the state of technology at that point that you felt obligated to do that. I think if I understood it, it was the first web browser for Windows.
Tom Bruce: Yeah, I mean it was kind of — if you really want to know the truth, it was kind of a software development exercise in body shaming in some ways because we saw no real probability that any of the players then working on web stuff who were largely in a heavily NSF-funded scientific environment that mostly lived in UNIX, and to the extent that it didn’t live in UNIX lived on Macs. We didn’t see any serious possibility that they would undertake development of a Windows oriented browser for quite some time. And so, we thought, oh, what the hell we’ll take a crack at it, and maybe if we do a good enough job or even if we do a very bad one, we can shame somebody who knows what they are doing and to doing a good one, which I think we were ultimately successful at.
I mean, there are still some things about our efforts that I value. I see some of those features coming back in browsers 20 years later, but yeah, it was essentially a gambit to get them to take the Windows audience more seriously because we knew that there were no UNIX desktops and very few Macs in law firms at that point, that’s less true now than it was then, but I think the preponderance were still Windows machines.
Bob Ambrogi: So 25 years later, what have we become? What is the Legal Information Institute today?
Tom Bruce: Well, it’s an interesting question. We’re a number of things. But, what I think we mostly are and is what we’ve always intended to be, which is first and foremost, a creative space in which to work on legal information distribution problems; particularly for non-lawyer audiences but with lawyers there as well. I mean we think about everybody. So how has that shifted?
I don’t think that 25 years later at least in the United States we have a problem with what I would call “legal information availability.” Lots of people can put legal information online, many people have. It’s a matter of time before the output of pretty much every court in the United States, every legislature in the United States is available, and yeah, I know that there are people who will raise questions about copyright barriers and that sort of thing. But from a technical point of view, there’s nothing standing in the way and it’s reasonable to expect that within a very few years, everything that anybody could possibly want will be somewhere on the web.
What there isn’t is a real move toward accessibility and that I think is where we’re mostly concentrating now and that is partly a matter of “improving search” but really improving discoverability and improving integration across collection boundaries, across governmental boundaries, across inter-branch boundaries, I mean, one of the things that I think that we here have thought about far more than anyone else are the problems of getting people to navigate fluidly between statutes regulations and judicial opinions.
The non-lawyer audience is a little bit different and even some lawyers. There are a lot of people out there who are primarily concerned with regulations and who are interested within statutes as a source of authority for those regulations and are interested in judicial opinions as interpretations of those regulations, but they really start with regs and their questions basically revolve around compliance.
So the kind of work we’re doing now is, for example, a project with Sara Frug that’s been underway for a couple of years is to use natural language processing techniques to identify and determine the scope of statutory and regulatory definition so that we can go through the entire statute book, the entire CFR, and mark up all the defined terms, because after all, when it comes to compliance, definitions are very, very, very fundamental. It’s — does this apply to me? Well, look at the definition and it may not be a sort of intuitive definition.
The other kind of thing that we’re working on is, linking law to resources outside of law mostly involving the kind of stuff that the law is regulating. A recent experiment, for example, was to go through everything in the CFR having to do with veterans’ benefits, find all the medical conditions, and link them to the organizational system for medical literature such that you can now click on the medical condition and find effectively all the scientific papers at NIH that have to do with that condition.
So we’re starting to do that with more-and-more stuff. And honestly, in one sense that’s very different from what we were doing in 1992 but it’s also not, what our software developers asked me not long ago. Well, why are we doing all this stuff if we’re not sure that anybody’s going to make use of it? And I just looked at them and said, in 1992, we weren’t sure that anyone was going to click on the links.
Bob Ambrogi: Well, and it sounds like you’re starting from your hypertext roots and extending it as far as I can go. It sounds very much like where you started in some ways.
Tom Bruce: No, exactly. I mean, there’s still that challenge to meet, and I’m not completely sure what people will actually do with this, I do know that it will help to facilitate search engine discovery if we do because all of those – Google is now taking those kinds of authored connections just as it always has other kinds of links very seriously and how it does search engine presentation.
So the other thing we’d like to be able to do by that means is, to give people a 360 degree view of all of the legal avatars of a particular substance or process. Our poster trial for that is pseudoephedrine. We would like to pop up an info card on which you can find all the ways in which the legal system relates to pseudoephedrine and you think, well, so why is that such a big deal?
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