Joe Mornin is a programmer and third-year law student at UC Berkeley. He built Bestlaw, a browser extension that adds features to Westlaw. He’s worked at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and others. He tweets at @morninj.
LI: As a software developer, why did you decide to go to law school– and what are you career plans post-graduation?
JM: We need good lawyers. The Internet has been incredibly empowering, but it’s still in the beta stage. Legal frameworks haven’t adapted well to the digital environment. For me, the big question is: can we write laws to govern the digital age to protect basic rights and freedoms? And can we do it without getting in the way of innovation? The laws we’re writing will decide how we value privacy, creativity, free speech, and much more. It depends on code as much as law.
Post-graduation, I’ll join the cyberlaw litigation group at a large firm in San Francisco. I also plan to continue writing code and crunching data to make legal practice better.
LI: You recently released a Chrome extension for Westlaw. Tell us about how it works and why it’s attracting so many users.
JM: Bestlaw adds features to Westlaw’s online research platform. I’ve tried to make it simple: you click a button to install it, and then the next time you read a document on Westlaw, you’ll see more tools to help you do legal research.
The most popular feature is the automatic Bluebook citation tool. Lawyers and students spend enormous amounts of time making sure their writing follows the tangle of rules in the Bluebook. Bestlaw lets you generate perfect citations with a single click.
Another feature will automatically detect the structure of the document you’re reading and generate a clickable table of contents. If you’re reading a statute with endless subsections and subsubsections, Bestlaw lets you visually collapse and expand the parts to make it easier to navigate. Also, there are links to look up the case on Wikipedia and several free law sources.
The full list of features is here: http://bestlaw.io/. The next major version will support Lexis, and it’ll be available for Firefox and Google Chrome.
There’s a lot of tedious work in legal research. We’ve come to expect great software—just look at the iPhone platform compared to the flip-phones from a decade ago. Westlaw and Lexis do a great job of collecting and organizing information, but their software is from the flip-phone era. I think Bestlaw is popular because people are excited about the tools that make their work faster and more convenient. Most of the improvements are small, but they add up to real gains.
LI: Do you plan to monetize to Bestlaw? If so, how?
JM: The browser extension will always be free.
I think there’s a big opportunity to use data to make legal research easier. Legal research is all about finding an answer to a legal question. Thousands of lawyers are researching similar questions, and they’re all doing it in isolation. That’s a huge surplus of collective intelligence. What if software could map that data, analyze your research path, and suggest where to look next? That’s what I’m working on. I’m focused on building a useful tool, finding new users, and gathering feedback.
LI: As a 3L, what’s the consensus among your classmates on the legal job market? What percentage of your classmates will go into “non-legal” careers after law school?
JM: It can be tough. I have some brilliant friends who haven’t found jobs yet. It seems especially hard for those who want to practice public interest law right out of school. But most people I know have found legal jobs that they’re excited about, and the rest are interviewing. I don’t know anyone who plans to do non-legal work, although some have left law school to do other things.
LI: There’s a lot of buzz around “LegalTech” at the moment– both for lawyers and consumers. As a developer and soon-to-be lawyer, where do you see the biggest opportunities in LegalTech?
JM: As I mentioned earlier, there’s an opportunity to use data to make legal research smarter. When I’m doing research, an algorithm should analyze my activity and recommend where I should look next, like Netflix or Amazon. I’m interested in how to apply collective intelligence to legal research. Also, data visualization could be interesting. Visual representations can reveal hidden patterns, and as far as I know, nobody is doing this for legal research. These are the areas I’m exploring with Bestlaw.
It would be great if someone could figure out how to add structure to legal data. Court opinions are usually published as long jumbles of text, which means that a machine can’t tell which parts are headings, citations, footnotes, etc. If legal data were structured, developers would have a much easier time building software to parse it. A related problem is that much court data is hidden behind paywalls or in bound volumes. If that information were freely available, you’d see more innovation in legal technology.
Broadly, there’s a huge opportunity in solving the problem of access to justice. For many people, it’s too complicated and expensive to vindicate their rights. Even if you win, you might not recover your expenses. It’s a big problem for the American legal system. Legal technology should make it possible to resolve disputes more efficiently.
LI: Where do you see yourself professionally in 3 years?
JM: Writing code to help me be a better lawyer, and using my legal experience to write better code. If I can build something that makes other people’s lives easier, I’d consider that a success.
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