Shelves of law books are an august symbol of legal practice, and no place, save the Library of Congress, can match the collection at Harvard’s Law School Library. Its trove includes nearly every state, federal, territorial and tribal judicial decision since colonial times — a priceless potential resource for everyone from legal scholars to defense lawyers trying to challenge a criminal conviction.
Now, in a digital-age sacrifice intended to serve grand intentions, the Harvard librarians are slicing off the spines of all but the rarest volumes and feeding some 40 million pages through a high-speed scanner. They are taking this once unthinkable step to create a complete, searchable database of American case law that will be offered free on the Internet, allowing instant retrieval of vital records that usually must be paid for.
“Improving access to justice is a priority,” said Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School, explaining why Harvard has embarked on the project. “We feel an obligation and an opportunity here to open up our resources to the public.”
For many years now, bookcases of legal tomes in law offices have been mostly for show. Rather than spending days poring over book indexes and footnoted citations, as law clerks and associates did in earlier times, researchers find what they need on the Internet in minutes. But that nearly always comes at a price.
Though the primary documents are formally in the public domain, many are not put online in a convenient format, if at all. Many states even rely on commercial services to post court briefs and decisions, which then provide them to paying subscribers.
Legal groups spend anywhere from thousands of dollars a year, for a small office, to millions, for a giant firm, using commercial services like Westlaw and LexisNexis to find cases and trace doctrinal strands.
While Harvard’s “Free the Law” project cannot put the lone defense lawyer or citizen on an equal footing with a deep-pocketed law firm, legal experts say, it can at least guarantee a floor of essential information. The project will also offer some sophisticated techniques for visualizing relations among cases and searching for themes.
Complete state results will become publicly available this fall for California and New York, and the entire library will be online in 2017, said Daniel Lewis, chief executive and co-founder of Ravel Law, a commercial startup in California that has teamed up with Harvard Law for the project. The cases will be available at www.ravellaw.com. Ravel is paying millions of dollars to support the scanning. The cases will be accessible in a searchable format and, along with the texts, they will be presented with visual maps developed by the company, which graphically show the evolution through cases of a judicial concept and how each key decision is cited in others.
On Ravel sites currently available to the public, for example, a lawyer planning to challenge the 2010 Citizens United decision, which permitted corporations to make independent political expenditures, can enter “campaign finance” and see in schematic form the major cases at the district, appellate and Supreme Court levels that led up to the 2010 decision and the subsequent cases that cite it.
Enter “separate but equal” and the strands from the 1896 decision justifying school segregation to the landmark 1954 decision declaring it unconstitutional are displayed, along with the dozens of related federal and state decisions ever since.
The company hopes to make money by offering, for a fee, more advanced analytical tools it is developing, like allowing a lawyer to see how a particular judge has responded to certain kinds of motions in the past, Lewis said.
Under the agreement with Harvard, the entire underlying database, not just limited search results, will be shared with nonprofit organizations and scholars that wish to develop specialized applications. Ravel and Harvard will withhold the database from other commercial groups for eight years. After that, it will be available to anyone for any purpose, said Jonathan L. Zittrain, a Harvard Law professor and director of the law library.
In Cambridge, the huge task of slicing and scanning volumes is about one-fourth completed, Zittrain said.
“You can imagine the way your heart skips a small beat when you put a book under a chopper like that,” he said. After the volumes are scanned, workers reattach the spine to the pages, encase the book in shrink-wrap and, he said, “put it back in the depository for the apocalypse.”
The Harvard project comes at a time of ferment in legal research, in a commercial market surpassing $8 billion, said Lewis of Ravel, with the big traditional players and startups like his developing new ways to elicit useful information.
While the Harvard/Ravel project will freely provide case law that is now largely paid for, the companies that now charge for such information say they do not expect to be seriously wounded.
“I don’t anticipate this having a significant impact on our business,” said Andrew Martens, chief of legal products for Thomson Reuters, which owns Westlaw.
The reason, he said, is that his company now does more than provide court decisions, giving convenient access to a wider range of relevant information and new ways to analyze it.
“Core primary law is only the beginning,” he said, as his company develops new computer tools that help, for example, in drafting arguments and managing legal practices.
Legal aid lawyers and public criminal defenders, though, called the Harvard project a welcome development that may save them money and make the law more accessible to struggling lawyers, students and even inmates who try to mount appeals from spotty prison libraries.
Alex Gulotta, executive director of Bay Area Legal Aid in Oakland, California, called the project “brilliant” and put it in a wider context of making “government information” more readily available.
“Knowledge is power,” he said. “People will always need lawyers, but having resources available for self-help is important.”
Steven D. Eppler-Epstein, executive director of Connecticut Legal Services in Middletown, Connecticut, said that even with discounted rates, his organization spends about $40,000 a year on the Westlaw service.
“Funding for legal aid programs has been tight for years, and saving some of that money would be great,” he said, but added that he would have to see the extent to which the Harvard offering affects his office’s broader information needs.
“Over time, competition in this market has been good for us,” he said. “It has driven prices down steadily.”
Some public defender offices are able to join in on research contracts negotiated by state legal agencies and courts, holding down the costs. The free access to decisions may prove more helpful to the many private lawyers who are appointed by courts to defend the indigent, for meager pay, said Jim Bethke, executive director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission in Austin.
He said his lawyers depended on services like LexisNexis to retrieve journal articles and other secondary sources that might otherwise be behind paywalls. But overall, he added, “anything that brings down the costs of attorneys providing indigent defense is a good thing.”