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Who Will Disrupt The Disruptors? Part 3

(Note: this is Part 3 of a series regarding Stanford CodeX Future Law 2016 ConferencePart 1. Part 2.)

“So tell us what’s the difference between ‘naked’ and ‘nekkid,'” she said.

“It’s quite simple really,” I replied. “‘Naked’ means you’re undressed. ‘Nekkid‘ means you ain’t got no clothes on and are up to something.”

While everyone at Codex had their clothes on, almost everyone there was up to something. Although, if lawyers are going to be appearing in courts via VR in the future, I guess we could all be nekkid.

Almost everyone in attendance was trying to alter/change/improve the practice of law in some way. Whether or not the changes they had were good or not is yet to be determined. They all had business ideas, or apps, or startups that were going to ‘disrupt’ things.

People kept asking me what Associate’s Mind was about. When I told them it was just a blog, they got confused. It wasn’t a startup or an app or…? No one just has a blog anymore. They’re passé. Eventually I started telling people it was ‘an aspirational lifestyle brand.’ A disturbing number of people said: “Oh, really? How did you get started with that?” But I digress.

One of the other companies that stood out to me while I was hanging out at Codex was Casetext. Here is Sam Glover and I facing them down before our Moot Court. FYI – it’s not a good sign at a Moot Court when the defendants are introduced and the audience breaks into applause and cheering.

Horse and Buggy Problems

If you’re not familiar with CaseText, think Wikipedia for law. Before the Internet and Wikipedia, people used to own these things called encyclopedias.

Encyclopedias were reference compendiums for knowledge. I remember using them frequently growing up in the 1980s. In the afternoons after school (because I’m a huge dork) I would often sit down with a random volume and learn about Rationalism, rationing, Raton, New Mexico. Encyclopedias allowed people to get a basic working knowledge of a subject.

Then in 2001, Wikipedia came along and trashed all that. Wikipedia allowed anyone to create and edit articles on whatever topic they liked. Due to the immense storage capacity of computers, this meant that Wikipedia could provide articles on thousands more topics because it wasn’t limited by being printed and bound. And by being editable by anyone, it meant that a far broader range of topics could be covered as well.

In 2012, just over a decade after Wikipedia was created, Encyclopedia Britannica, the grandaddy of encyclopedias, stopped publishing.

“It’s a rite of passage in this new era,” Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., a company based in Chicago, said in an interview. “Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.”

Once cars came along, horses and buggies were displaced. Some people keep them around, but mostly for enjoyment or nostalgia, not because of their practicality or ease of use. The web offered an improvement over the old model of doing things, so encyclopedias were replaced. Even when people decried Wikipedia for not being accurate or bad for “being editable by anyone” and not only experts, many studies have found it to be on par with other encyclopedias regarding accuracy, bias, and error rates. Even many federal courts rely on it.

One Resource To Rule Them All

Casetext is attempting to do the same thing with law by crowdsourcing that annotation and commentary of case law to lawyers who already doing it for free anyway. Because lawyers are always 10 years or so behind the times, many still write blogs – specifically of the practice variety. Lawyers also often contribute to law reviews, bar journals, etc. with commentary on recent case law. Casetext is attempting to pull all these disparate islands of knowledge into one single resource, along with allowing lawyers to contribute directly on their platform.

Casetext is looking to displace traditional stalwarts Lexis Nexis and WestLaw. If not displace them, at least provide a much cheaper alternative. But the law is different than the broad base of human knowledge. It’s okay for a fifth grader to go on Wikipedia to learn about frogs, but a scientist doing evolutionary research on the lack of vocal sacks in Neobatrachus shouldn’t. For serious work, a scientist needs to rely on specialized, peer-reviewed data and information.

When a lawyer runs a search on Westlaw or Lexis Nexis, and reads commentary or headnotes on a case, they trust that it’s correct. That’s what they pay for and what Westlaw/Lexis Nexis provides. They’ve got years of experience providing accurate case law information. Can Casetext replace that with “crowdsourced” information? I think it depends.

On one hand, Casetext provides a solid resource for the general public and a good place to start researching a matter for lawyers. It might be ‘good enough’ for some matters or issues. The annotations and commentary are provided by lawyers and academics so it is ‘peer-reviewed’ in some respects.

On the other hand, Casetext makes it clear in their Terms that the information they provide is ‘as is’ and makes no warranties as to its accuracy. And despite their “real names only” policy, it is difficult to determine the veracity of someone’s identity, leading to the natural question of whether or not you should trust a user’s commentary. Or even if someone is using their real name, should you actually rely on their thoughts on a case? Does it matter what a criminal defense lawyer in Florida thinks about a property case in Idaho? Of course, other users can vote commentary up or down, but that is a slow process and still reliant on the input of the unvetted.

Will They Or Won’t They?

What Casetext is doing is interesting and their goal of providing free access to case law and consolidating commentary is laudable. When I spoke with them at Codex they told me they had just finished adding in another 100,000 documents to their system. Their LegalPad writing platform is one of the best tools I’ve used for writing about case law. But the question remains, is it enough to make lawyers trust and rely on their platform? We’ll see.

Maybe if people won’t trust other people, they’ll trust an A.I.? In the final post of this series I’ll discuss the new kid on the block that is ‘so hot right now,’ ROSS Intelligence.

(Which I promise will be bromance free.)

(Read Part 4 here.)

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