Seeing the Law Through a Coder’s Eyes

Before I was a lawyer, I had the good fortune of growing up in Silicon Valley at the dawn of the Internet. My dad started a web business in the early ‘90s in our garage. It was a tech playground: we had an Atari, Apple II, and a Condor; my garage was filled with Sun Unix servers. Coming of age in this world fostered in me a tendency to experiment, tinker, and build—and I’ve been hooked on coding ever since. I made my way to law through an interest in policy and social justice, and in many ways found an intellectual home in the legal community. Yet through law school, clerking, and litigating I’ve remained, first and foremost, a coder at heart.

Programmer v. Lawyer Thinking

The programmer’s mindset is, in some important ways, fundamentally different than how we’re taught to think as lawyers. Coders don’t look for answers in precedent, and they don’t approach solutions to new challenges with a presumption against change. Instead, technologists share a deep-seated belief that the best ideas are ones that haven’t yet been invented. This commitment to innovation fosters a culture of sharing. And it’s this culture—this innate understanding that collective knowledge fuels collective progress—that has led to a tectonic shift in how knowledge is generated in nearly every web-based field of information.

The internet has made possible an explosion of liberated information and knowledge creation. Many of the most powerful resources aren’t those generated by experts for a high fee, but rather crowd-sourced by large groups and free to use. Wikipedia is the greatest collection of human knowledge ever amassed. I never go to a restaurant without checking Yelp or buy something on Amazon without checking prior customers’ reviews. Even more amazingly, the software upon which most of the web runs is built using “open source” code—that is, software that was written for free by thousands of people, each doing their own part.

There is no legal analog to open source code. Legal work is often more solitary than most non-lawyers realize, and the presumption of shared information that has transformed nearly every other area of digital life is near-nonexistent in the law. Responding to the absence of a shared pool of knowledge, law firms have started investing heavily in internal knowledge management to turn the tide against redundancies within firms. But even the best knowledge management can’t empower attorneys to build on the expertise of peers in the broader legal community. Lawyers regularly rehash the same issues to reach the same conclusions as others before them. This way of doing things isn’t just inefficient; it misses the most valuable source of legal knowledge: the legal community itself.

Breaking Precedent

As I entered the legal profession and grew as a litigator at Ropes & Gray in Boston—thinking as much like a programmer as the attorney I was trained to be—I realized that a platform for collective knowledge was desperately needed in law. I also increasingly understood that for this kind of shared resource to work in law, it needed to tap into the work attorneys are already doing. Lawyers already do legal research, but they do it using extraordinarily expensive tools. They share legal commentary to demonstrate thought leadership and network with colleagues, but they do it on online platforms not built for law, and their work gets lost in the morass of the open web. After some time seeing these challenges firsthand, I broke with precedent to create something new: Casetext.

Casetext takes a new approach to legal knowledge by applying to the law the same open-source principles that made possible game-changing collective resources in other fields. We started by making the law itself free, on a platform that empowers a growing community of practicing lawyers to share insights based on their own experience and expertise. Contributions are connected to profile pages designed to spotlight attorneys to their peers based on the substance of their work. And contributors link their commentary to millions of judicial cases and statutes on a research platform that’s easy to use and free to the public, providing a built-in audience of the over 250,000 monthly users looking for answers to legal questions.

Key to Casetext’s appeal is that authors of legal commentary know their work reaches their target audience: tens of thousands of attorneys tap Casetext’s legal community architecture for insights from their peers related to their practice areas. By creating a place to write commentary on the law linked to the resource people already use to find answers to their legal questions, we’re able to collaborate with the legal community to create an insightful, free resource for lawyers and the public. And we’re disrupting an $8 billion legal research market in the process.

We’re grateful that we’ve found so much support not just from the legal community, but also from investors who share our vision. We just recently closed on our Series A financing led by Union Square Ventures, a leading venture capital firm in New York that’s a natural fit for our mission and approach. They have experience backing some of the most transformative community-driven companies, including Twitter, Tumblr, Etsy, and StackExchange. We have many lessons to learn from the success of these companies. They also internalize the goal of bringing a community-driven resource to the law; several of their partners are attorneys, and John Buttrick, who joined our board, was a partner at Davis Polk, one of the best firms in the country. We also have the support of other attorney-investors, including Tom Glocer, the former CEO of Thomson Reuters.

We’re just a few steps in to a very long journey, but we’ve seen enormous enthusiasm from attorneys of diverse practices for a thoughtful, open place to share and discover legal knowledge. We hope that as this movement to liberate legal information grows, we’ll collectively build a resource that can lift the profession the same way open source coding has lifted the field of software—and in the process make the law less opaque to the public.

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