Cornell’s Legal Information Institute Celebrates 20th Anniversary

September 17, 2012 12:00 am0 comments
Noah Rankin

Cornell’s Legal Information Institute –– a major forerunner in the realm of the Internet, law organization and free access of information –– is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

The LII was founded in 1992 by Prof. Emeritus Peter Martin ’61, law, and Thomas Bruce, who became its director. The database has been using web technology to provide information about the law to the public in ways that even now can be “expanded almost infinitely,” Bruce said. 

“The vision we had back in ’92 was that, given the changes that were occurring in digital technology like communication and information exchange, law schools ought not just to be receivers of legal information products … but they ought to be a place where … new ways of distributing legal information could be developed,” Martin said.

Since the web was a new means of communication at the time of LII’s creation –– it was among the first 30 websites developed in the world –– Bruce said Cornell Law School had “a lot of room to play, and [saw] nobody else playing.” 

“Web technology really just opened up a lot of opportunities for a law school to be a locus for a kind of creative [and] technical activity that had just never existed before,” Bruce said.  

The LII attracts visitors for both its immense library of re-published legal material and its original editorial content, including the legal encyclopedia Wex and the student-powered LII Supreme Court Bulletin, according to Bruce.

It runs on an annual budget of $900,000, earning back slightly more than half its cost every year. Bruce’s goal is for the database to become self-sustaining within two or three years. 

About 80 percent of the site’s total traffic comes from visits to pages housing primary legal information about the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations and decisions of the Supreme Court, according to Bruce. 

“The thing we’re proudest of at the moment is the Code of Federal Regulations, which we came out with a little less than a year ago,” Bruce said.

 Though there are other collections of information on the Code of Federal Regulation on the web, the LII streamlines the research process by including features like the ability to rotate images and link to corss-references, which other sites lack, according to Bruce.

 “We’ve resisted doing flashy stuff in favor of doing things that are one step ahead of the rest of the market. That’s why, despite the fact that there are about a kazillion places to get the U.S. code on the Net, everybody uses us,” Bruce said. 

The LII’s success has led to many organizations from other countries modeling themselves after it; over 20 other sites are named after the LII. However, those organizations have remained solely publishing operations, according to Bruce. In contrast, the original LII has kept a focus on complementing material that has already been published.

 “There are days where I think that the result has been that we don’t fit comfortably into either category,” Bruce said of the LII’s “hybrid approach.” 

“You feel like you have your feet on two icebergs,” he said. “That, in some ways, is what accounts for our longevity.” 

The database’s first editorial component was created in 1993 in the form of a legal dictionary and encyclopedia called Wex. Originally a successor to a series of topical pages, overseen by co-founder Martin, Wex was “migrated” to a wiki format in order to allow others to contribute information to it, according to associate LII director Sara Frug. 

“[Wex] was created out of the work of students and volunteers from a private author pool,” Frug said. “Over time, we’ve had a couple of concentrated efforts. When the Enron story broke, students looked around and realized we don’t have a separate umbrella page for white-collar crime, and so they built something that pulled together an overview of that subject area.” 

The LII Supreme Court Bulletin — another feature of the LII — was launched in 1996. Over time, the bulletin developed to include prospective analyses of cases as well as case summaries. Law students publish these previews a few weeks in advance of the arguments, according to Frug. 

“Every year, the students follow all of the cases and they explain what the story of the case was, what the political and economic implications of the case might be, and they provide a plain-language explanation of the legal issues involved in the case,” Frug said. “This is an opportunity for [law students] to get more experience writing for the kinds of people who will be their clients.”

 The bulletin gets about 22,000 email subscriptions and a further 16,000 from its presence in the Federal Bar Association magazine, The Federal Lawyer, according to Bruce. As a result, LII material goes out to all members of the Federal Bar, all Federal judges and all members of Congress.  

But Bruce said the LII does not simply attract the two “types of people” one would expect: people in legal professions or people in some sort of legal trouble. Instead, where the site has found its “voice” is through those who use law for an outside professional or industrial purpose. 

From hospitals and the police to dry cleaners and fish companies, all sorts of professionals frequent the site, according to Bruce and Frug. 

“The professional audience that is not lawyers is just a huge factor for us,” Bruce said. “It plays into everything we think about from design through the tone of what gets written.” 

Bruce also said it is important that people who are potentially in distress should be able to easily obtain answers to their simple legal questions. 

“Very often, the things that people must do are not necessarily the things that are in the black letter law,” Bruce said. “One of the things that I think we’ve done not a terrific job of here — because it’s the hardest job there is — is to tie together what we have by way of publishable legal information with knowledge of how the process works, in a way that would actually allow people to take care of themselves.” 

However much things change, the main goals of the LII remain the same, Martin said.

“We try to be the best nonprofit portal site,” he said. “You come to us for law.”

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