New-look legal research site works like a collaborative encyclopedia

By September 04, 2013
Online legal research

A case law database inspired by Wikipedia and updated by legal eagles is bidding to disrupt the legal research industry in the United States.

Whenever they have todeal with complex cases, lawyers need permanent access to legal researchintermediaries who provide them with annotated reports taking account of the latest developments in case law. Every year, these commercial research services, which are an essential tool for many attorneys, cost law firms several billion dollars. Even though they use publicly-available data, their pricing structures are very rigid and their rates rather high. This type of service is however especially vital in the United States, where the law is to a great extent based on judge-made precedent and therefore constantly evolving.  Now a new startup, Casetext,has decided to go up against the dominant legal research providers, Lexis and Westlaw, offering an alternative which works on the basis of crowdsourcing in a similar way to Wikipedia.

An open, collaborative interface

Casetext was set up by two young attorneys who went through the Y Combinatorstartup incubator process. The firm aims to open up the legal research industry using crowdsourcing to draw on the expertise of various legal professionals. The idea is to make over a million cases, complete with illuminating annotations, available free of charge online, encouraging lawyers to update the information according to their field of expertise on an ongoing basis.

The basic content on the Casetext site is entirely free of charge, but the startup’s founders have indicated that they intend to offer premium services in order to make the service financially viable. If Casetext is to work the way Wikipedia does, the main issue will however be a rather different one. In order to convince the legal profession of its value, Casetext will firstly have to provide irreproachable information, and secondly broaden its current field of expertise.

Greater security and wider scope required

For the moment, Casetext’s database is limited to cases argued before the US Supreme Court, federal Appellate Courts, some federal District Court decisions and jurisprudence from the state of Delaware, but the founders are planning to extend its geographic coverage to the two most dynamic states from a legal point of view, New York and California. In order to ensure high quality information, Casetext requires contributors to publish under their real names so as to limit the risk of hoax contributions and thus bolster the site’s reputation with the legal profession. Several high-profile legal authorities and teachers have already contributed annotations to the cases in the site’s database. Casetext would be appear to be emblematic of a real rethink currently going on in the legal profession, which is still generally very traditional and rather rigid in its practices.  Websites such as UpCounsel and Ravel which, based on a similar philosophy to that of Casetext, offer legal services online, are now working to make the practice of law more flexible and less hidebound.

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