Behind every famous web site, from Amazon to Priceline, is a common-sense idea that somehow no one thought of before. The genius behind the Legal Information Institute (LII), Cornell's most-accessed web site, is that its authors correctly guessed there were millions of people out there who needed to know -- and understand -- U.S. laws and court decisions.
"The legal information industry in the U.S. in the mid-'90s had focused totally on judges and lawyers and hadn't paid attention to the information needs of others," explained Peter Martin, the Jane M.G. Foster Professor of Law. "One of our powerful early discoveries was how much demand outside those professional sectors there was -- ordinary citizens trying to make sense of laws that impinge on their lives."
LII, which was launched in 1992 by Martin and Tom Bruce, co-directors of the institute, now contends with more than 8 million hits a week (by comparison most peer law school sites run, at best, a few hundred thousand hits a week). More than 90,000 web pages at other sites, among them those of the White House and the U.S. House of Representatives, link to LII, and it has been cited as a resource in more than 500 newspapers and magazines. But numbers alone are not the payoff.
"We're certainly not the only group that puts law on the Net," said Martin. "But if you ask who carries out applied research on how to put law on the Net in an effective way that works for a wide range of citizens, we stand unique."
The long-range benefit, said Martin, will be the instant association of useful legal information with the Cornell Law School name, a link that may prove as valuable as the association of Scotch with tape or Saran with wrap.
And if the LII offers the Law School a powerful tool for outreach, the school in turn provides the LII with an enormous resource -- the expertise of its faculty and students.
"We use students extensively as editors," noted Bruce. "They are a tremendous source of creativity and of editorial and substantive expertise."
The LII's American Legal Ethics Library is a direct product of collaboration with faculty members working in that field.
The site is kept current as well as useful. A look last week at its home page -- www.law.cornell.edu -- revealed a link to the temporary restraining order holding Elian Gonzalez in the United States until his Miami relatives' case for his asylum is heard. The Supreme Court has a decision pending on Miranda rights, so another topical LII link is to the initial 1966 Supreme Court Miranda ruling and other relevant cases, legislation and articles.
Then there are the site's top-drawing features: the United States Code, an organized compilation of current federal laws; and the collections of all recent opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court and New York State Court of Appeals. The site also provides easy-to-understand topical overviews of such areas as banking law and employment discrimination law and organized collections of links to sites offering court decisions, statutes, regulations and other legal materials. More extensive versions of the "flagship collections," such as a compilation of the Supreme Court's most significant rulings, are for sale on CD-ROM via the LII.
Making the information accessible on the web in a manageable format has been one of their bigger challenges, said Martin, with a nod in Bruce's direction. "There are 13 U.S. Circuit Courts, and each has someone putting its decisions on the web. The problem is the data structures and formats differ from site to site, and researchers need a search engine that reaches across those structures. Tom has had his arms around that gorilla for a while."
"The gorilla may be winning," quipped Bruce.
But clearly it's the visitors to the site, everyone from law students researching papers to law enforcement officers looking up the latest ruling on search and seizure laws, who are winning. LII's usefulness prompted one father of a high school senior in Chesapeake, Va., to write: "Your site is responsible for many 'A's that my daughter has received in her government class." A letter from a law enforcement instructor at a community college in Cleveland stated: "Thanks to your site, I have been able to provide the federal statutes for various investigative activities to my students." And a British author, researching U.S. law as background for a book, wrote to "express my appreciation for an outstanding resource, immensely useful and informative."
Many of the site's heaviest users are from overseas -- some from areas where Internet costs and traffic delays are a serious problem. The solution has been to establish off-shore "mirror" sites holding key portions of the content on the group of servers in the Law School's Myron Taylor Hall. As of April 13 LII has its second mirror site, in the United Kingdom, as part of a partnership with the University of Warwick, unveiled by Bruce at a conference of British and Irish legal education technologists (the first mirror site, in China, is maintained in partnership with Tsinghua University).
A timely additional service is the LII's series of bulletins on the latest rulings by the Supreme Court and the New York State District Court and legal developments on specific topics. The LII uses its own software to monitor a direct feed from the Supreme Court and automatically place court decisions on the web in searchable format within minutes of their being handed down. The software also assembles the court's decision summaries into an e-mail bulletin, which (after a final check by Bruce or Martin) is sent to over 20,000 subscribers worldwide.
The LII, which was the first law site on the web as well as the developer and distributor of Cello, the first web browser for Microsoft Windows, has inspired namesake operations in places as far-flung as Australia, New Zealand, Zambia and Kazakhstan. "We hope we're an example for other groups to steal or borrow from," said Bruce, who noted that an important new law site in the People's Republic of China "lifted their copyright notice directly from us."
With the line between electronic publishing and distance education rapidly blurring, the LII now offers law courses via the net to students at several other schools and has helped LEXIS-NEXIS develop a multi-media first-year law school curriculum.
And this summer, the LII will hold its first invitational workshop on emerging legal information standards. Participants are "a small community of people around the globe who do what we do," said Bruce, among them faculty and staff from law schools around the world as well as staff from various U.S. courts and legislative bodies. The workshop's aim is to identify best practices for electronic publishers of legal information, resolve language barriers in the sharing of legal information online and establish international standards for cataloging legal information.
The community may also share ways to protect their sites against hackers and disgruntled users who might mistakenly view them as an arm of the law, as well as how to respond to letter writers "who think we're a sympathetic ear for any kind of quarrel they have with the government," said Bruce.
And for those sites like LII that are "embedded in universities," said Martin, "we need to think about ways we can continue to support teaching in law schools and learning out of law schools, as the dichotomy between doing, learning, teaching and research continues to break down and the boundaries erode."