Lawyers could benefit from thinking more like hackers (an interview)

Joe Mornin

Our most shared post of all time was an interview with Joe Mornin (It’s a Double Life of the New Lawyer), then a 3L at Berkeley, who had created a free app called Bestlaw, designed to “add the features that Westlaw and Lexis forgot.” It’s rare that a 3L up-and-builds an app that boasts 16,000 registered users– mostly attorneys.

Well, Joe just graduated from law school, he’s out in the big, bad world now, and as you’d expect, he’s making it look easy in LegalTech.

So begins Interview Part 2:

LI: We interviewed you late last year about Bestlaw while you were still a 3L at Berkeley. Now your double-life is out in the real world. How are things going out there?

JM: The “real world” is great so far. I just took the California bar exam. Now I have a couple months off to travel and work on side projects. I’m excited to launch the latest version of Bestlaw, which now supports Lexis and Westlaw and runs on Chrome and Firefox. It includes a new premium version, called Bestlaw Pro, aimed at practicing lawyers. It gives free printing, free PDF downloads, and free access to secondary sources. It can save hundreds of dollars in monthly fees, and it costs $5/month to subscribe.

I’m also volunteering for Lawrence Lessig’s presidential campaign. His sole issue—getting money out of politics—is one of the issues I care about most. I’ve worked with him for several years on this cause, both before and during law school. I’m glad to have some free time to devote to the campaign.

I’m hacking on some other side projects, too. For instance, I’m collaborating with researchers at UCSF to build a platform to crowdsource common scientific tasks. We’re launching soon, and we hope to publish a scientific paper around the same time.

LI: Are you working at a firm or are you full-time in LegalTech?

JM: I’ll be joining the cyberlaw litigation group at Winston & Strawn in San Francisco. I’ll be working on IP, privacy, and other internet law issues. I’m still very interested in legal tech. I think I’ll learn a lot from the experience of being a practicing lawyer. Hopefully it leads to insights that I can use to build better software.

LI: In December you weren’t monetizing Bestlaw yet– in fact, you said you never would. We understand that’s changed. How did that come about– and are you building the next LegalTech empire?

JM: Not quite—I said that Bestlaw “will always be free.” That’s still true. In fact, the number of free features has grown substantially.

The big change is Bestlaw Pro. As I mentioned above, it adds features that save money for practicing lawyers. So the free version is still free, but you can upgrade to Bestlaw Pro.

One great thing about being a law student is that you have free, unlimited access to Westlaw and Lexis. Law school grads realize that life as a lawyer is harsher, because suddenly you’re charged a fee each time you perform an ordinary research task. For instance, to print or download the case you’re reading, you get charged. Or, say you’re searching for journal articles or other secondary sources. When you click to read an article, you’re charged again.

This is bad (but great for Westlaw and Lexis) for at least two reasons. First, it makes research expensive. Big firms may not care, because they can shift the cost to clients that can afford it. But if you’re a solo practitioner, or a nonprofit that survives on donations and grants, research costs can be a real constraint.

Second, it distorts the research process. Sometimes you can’t tell if a document is relevant until you open it. Cost-sensitive lawyers will tend to avoid sources that might incur unnecessary charges. This leads to another subtle distortion: well-heeled lawyers can afford to do better research, while cost-sensitive lawyers face limits.

These limits are mostly artificial. Court opinions are in the public domain, so there are no copyright restrictions on copying, distributing, or remixing the text of cases. And most articles published in law reviews and journals are available for free online, thanks to the popularity of open access in the world of legal scholarship. (For instance, the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, where I was the Editor-in-Chief, has put its full archive online for free.)

Bestlaw Pro bridges this gap. It lets you download and print cases for free—with beautiful formatting and typography—instead of paying hefty fees to Westlaw or Lexis. It also lets you open secondary sources for free. The idea is that practicing lawyers can avoid getting charged over and over for these unnecessary research fees. It costs $5/month.

LI: You’ve been adding features to Bestlaw. Tell us about what’s new.

JM: Bestlaw Pro is the big change. As I mentioned above, it adds free downloading, free printing, and free secondary sources for $5/month.

The other big change is that Bestlaw now supports Lexis and Firefox. When Bestlaw launched, it worked on Google Chrome and added features to Westlaw. Now, Bestlaw adds features to both Westlaw and Lexis. It also now works on both Chrome and Firefox.

The other changes are more incremental. The automatic Bluebook citations are more accurate, for instance. And I’ve added several usability enhancements to make the research process smoother and more efficient.

LI: Your user base at Bestlaw is growing like crazy. What’s your three-year plan and has WestLaw coming knocking yet?

JM: Yes—the growth has been amazing. Since it launched, Bestlaw has enhanced almost six million legal documents. Lawyers and students have used it for more than 220,000 research sessions.

Here’s an interesting question: how many possible legal research questions exist? The theoretical limit is probably infinite, but I’d bet that 90% of those questions recur fairly often. So, when you’re doing research to answer a legal question, there’s a good chance that someone else has already done the work to find the answer. For me, the interesting engineering challenge is to figure out a way to mine that data to build a reasonably useful recommendation engine. Ideally, an algorithm would analyze your activity and suggest where you should look next—sort of like Netflix or Amazon. That’s the general direction I plan to take with Bestlaw.

I haven’t heard from Westlaw yet—but Bestlaw has over three hundred users from Eagan, Minnesota, which happens to be the home of West Publishing.

LI: Your interview from December was our most Tweeted post ever. Obviously you’ve struck a chord with law students and young lawyers interested in tech. What advice do you have for them?

JM: Try learning to code, at least a little bit. It’s easy these days to pick up the fundamentals of a popular language like Python or JavaScript. I’m not sure it’s useful for most lawyers to develop the skills to build full-blown sites or applications, but there’s a lot of value in learning how coders think about problems. It can help you look at legal practice in a fresh light, which can lead to new insights. There’s a hacker mindset that says: “this seems broken; I think I know how to fix it, so I’ll just give it a try.” Lawyers could benefit from thinking more like hackers.

About Preston Clark

Preston Clark has been writing about legal tech since 2010. He's currently the CRO for a leading legal tech SaaS company in the San Francisco Bay Area. Preston was formerly in-house counsel for the University of Miami and a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central America. In his free time, Preston enjoys building world-class sales teams, reading about SaaS, playing pick-up basketball and planning adventures with his son.