Friday, February 14, 2014

Plainsite: Putting the Law in Plain Sight

A feature on Plainsite has perhaps been long overdue. I first met Aaron almost a year ago at the Codex FutureLaw Conference, and every time I’ve talked to him since, I learn something new. Aaron talks about many of the useful features of his site below, but I thought I’d point out one of his sub-projects—the identification of Intellectual Ventures’ many shell companies. If you hate patent and copyright trolls, all the information on them is there. Do something with it. Go troll the trolls ;) [Note: this is not to be construed as legal advice. I'm not liable if you decide to do something stupid.]

Tell me about yourself.
I started Think Computer Corporation in 1998 as a freshman in high school who wanted something to do other than homework. Not too long after, I encountered my first legal issue: a trademark dispute over my company’s name. It lasted eight years and cost a lot of money to resolve thanks to legal fees. I didn’t really find law—it found me. Ever since then, I’ve had an interest in fixing some of the inefficiencies in the legal system and learned that trying to do anything significant will make the law rear its head. Sixteen years later, Think is still a going concern; along with its sister non-profit, Think Computer Foundation, it runs PlainSite.

Tell me about Plainsite.
PlainSite aims to present the entire legal system to the average user in an understandable manner. That’s no small task—our legal system in the United States is a byzantine labyrinth that has been shrouded in secrecy for decades by the legal profession. It’s a peculiar kind of secrecy, however, because much of the information is actually available to the public but hidden in plain sight—it’s extremely difficult to know where to look in order to connect the dots. PlainSite now has information about 100 million docket entries in almost 6 million case dockets spanning federal and state courts and agencies; 2.5 million patent applications (and growing); 5 million companies, non-profits, government agencies and law firms; over 1 million lawyers; almost 500,000 sections of laws and regulations; over 25,000 judges and examiners, and plenty of other interesting data. And much like a search engine, there’s just one box on the home page where you can go and find what you’re looking for.  Every day approximately 3,000 individuals use PlainSite to access court case dockets and documents, look up corporate profiles, investigate intellectual property assignments, research and annotate federal and state laws, learn about political donations, and view profiles for judges, lawyers and law firms, among other features.

What inspired you to create Plainsite?
PlainSite started out as a side-project dedicated to legal transparency. The question I was trying to answer, along with some friends, was why no one was being prosecuted for the obvious crimes that led to the 2008 financial crisis. (It’s still a good question.) We began by linking social issues to statutes, but it then became apparent that the statutes themselves needed to be linked to court cases, since the law is interpreted every day by judges. Using Aaron Swartz’s PACER data, I was able to put together a database of court cases, and it grew from there.

What’s innovative about Plainsite?
Perhaps the single greatest problem with the legal system in the United States is the lack of freely available information.  The official PACER database charges $0.10USD per “page” to access court documents, and many government agencies use different formats when publishing data, which is hard to find in the first place.  Simultaneously, the legal system is unbelievably complex, and so without information on its inner workings, it is effectively impenetrable to outsiders.

In 2008, information activist Aaron Swartz worked with a team at Princeton University to liberate hundreds of thousands of dockets from PACER, but once the information was technically free, not much happened with it.  PlainSite began as a site that could link social issues to specific sections of the United States Code, but with Aaron Swartz’s PACER data, it also added court cases for free for the first time (and linked those same social issues to court cases as well as statutes).  Now, PlainSite pulls in data not only from PACER via the Princeton RECAP project, but from the GPO, USPTO, IRS, California WQRB, and a variety of other government agencies to offer a comprehensive and understandable look at the legal system.

While other paid legal research services do exist, they are typically priced out of the range of even middle-class individuals, and they work on the assumption that users know the specific legal terms that they are looking for.  PlainSite takes the opposite approach, grouping information into simple, tabbed profiles that require less intense searching.

What have been your greatest challenges thus far?

The main challenges have been technical and competitive. The technical challenges stem from the enormous amount of data that PlainSite tracks; the database is about 70GB right now (and grows every day), which means that just keeping the site up and running (with a staff of one person) is no small feat. And that is after filtering and cleaning up data provided by government agencies that can be 10 or a hundred times as large. It’s truly a "big data" project. The other challenge has been obtaining more data and encouraging paid adoption so that the site can be self-sustaining. We have far more paid subscriptions that we did when we started, but the legal profession is very slow to adopt new tools given the Lexis/Westlaw oligopoly that has been in place for some time. And when the government sometimes charges per page for information, as it does with PACER, it’s that much more difficult to build a service without significant revenue.

Who have been your primary customers?
We offer two plans. Most of our customers so far as pro se litigants, who have signed up for the PlainSite Pro Se plan. It’s a very inexpensive way to conduct legal research at $9.99 per month. We also have PlainSite Pro for general counsel and lawyers, which is $99 per month.

How is your site different from companies like LexisNexis, Westlaw, Casetext, or Fastcase?
All those products are focused around general text search, usually through opinions. While improvements can always be made, those companies general do a good job with that, and the search tools for opinions are pretty mature. Plainsite is different because we structure all other data—not just opinions, but companies, law firms, lawyers, the documents they’re attached to. We focus on anything that isn’t an opinion.

Plainsite has a ton of features. Which one are you the most proud of?
There’s the blog answer, and the nerdy answer. My honest answer—I’m happy at the fact that it actually works. Behind the scenes, there’s a lot of work in taking government data with all its typos and errors, and putting it all together.  Data from governmental sources provide information in wildly different formats, so PlainSite has to clean up the data automatically.  For example, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has assignment databases for both patents and trademarks that are compiled from paper filings.  In these databases, the well-known company IBM is referred to over 1,200 different ways due to various typographical errors and reference mistakes.  PlainSite is designed to automatically detect and fix such errors.  Similarly, law firms regularly change names and cannot be spell-checked since they are named after their partners.  PlainSite merges the seemingly infinite variations automatically in many cases.

But the Motion Sensor feature is the most useful to consumers. It allows the user to read through a docket and understand how a certain judge or lawyer general behaves. Motion practice matters a huge amount. Many cases never get to trial, let alone discovery. Just getting past the initial hurdles is difficult, and it comes down to whether you can survive a Motion to Dismiss. It helps to have all evidence at your disposal. Good legal arguments are important, but so is factual information. If you can find out additional information about your opponent, their company, their counsel, or even how the judge responds to such motions, you have a greater degree of predictability in your case, and the likely outcome of your filing.

There’s been a lot of discussion about compiling info on how judges rule on motions. Have any judges every complained to you about the feature?
Not yet. I did have one federal judge email me saying that we had confused his profile. When I looked into it, it was because the information was poor, and he had been linked to another judge with a very similar name living in the same region, but during the Civil War era. That judge was eager to not be labeled a Confederate judge.

Did you ever think about going to law school?
I thought about it, but decided I’d rather not go. Actually, if you go back to the confederate judge story, there’s a part of the site that lists the educational institutions of judges and lawyers. In that time period, it often lists a judge’s law school as “Read.” This means they sat down with books and learned the law by reading it, not going to law school. Abe Lincoln learned that way as well.

What are your hopes for the company in the future? For the legal industry?
I hope that PlainSite really does change the legal profession by making lawyers more efficient, more affordable, and more accountable for their actions. I hope that in the future, government agencies use Plainsite not just to look up stuff, but to run government systems.

For the legal industry, I hope that prices come down. The end of hourly billing may not be possible, but there needs to at least be a reduction in prices to make legal services affordable to more people.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Recap of the January LA Legal Innovation Meetup


    'I had the pleasure of joining my first Los Angeles Legal Innovation/ Legal Hacking Meetup group last Monday, January 27th. It was held at IndieDesk, which is a co-working space located downtown on Broadway, between 8th and 9th street. The speaker, Adam Long from Praedicat Inc., discussed the effect of big data on the legal field. The first question that popped into my head was: What is big data? Adam mentioned that there is really no standard definition for big data; however, a simplified definition is: “high volumes of data that cannot be analyzed by traditional ways or
    tools.” The collection of big data can predict future events, upcoming trends, and patterns within the legal field. Adam gave us four examples of how big data impacts law-practice: eDiscovery, legal spending management, litigation management and risk management. [...]'

    For more details, please see the complete post.

Monday, February 3, 2014

SnapTerms: Applying the Pareto Principle to Internet Law

I'm excited about the new crop of law startups that are offering what I like to call "mass customization" or "pareto law". That is, 80% of clients have the same needs, 80% of the contractual language/work is standardized, and it's only the last 20% that's actually customized to a client's needs. Note though that I don't think the 80/20 rule applies to litigation. Fairdocument (SF) seems to be doing this for estate planning because, let's face it-- if you're married, have two kids without special needs, and are worth less than a couple million, you probably have the same needs as 80% of the American population. Snapterms (LA) is using the 80/20 rule for terms of service, as co-Founder Hansen Tong explains below.

Tell me a bit about yourself.
I am the co-founder of SnapTerms, and also provide legal services through my law firm, Kelly Warner Law.  I specialize in what people call “Internet Law,” so I generally work with startups, online companies, internet business owners, and internet marketing firms. I advise clients on terms of service, privacy policies, COPPA, TCPA, Can-Spam, CDA, and DCMA. My firm also helps with contracts, funding, corporate governance, and some intellectual property. Essentially, we help companies with what they deal with on the Internet.

Tell me more about SnapTerms.
SnapTerms is a service that helps users draft terms of service (TOS) at an affordable price based on a user’s description. We use software to generate the document and have a lawyer review them. We’re in between a Legalzoom, which generates automated template, and a full service law firm, which prepares a customized contract. We have a number of offerings, but the whole package costs between $300-600. I’ve seen competitors offering both a terms of service and privacy policy for $1000.  We also do funny Terms of Service and Privacy Policies, since normal Terms of Service and Privacy Policies tend to run a bit on the dry side. At a full service law firm, it could cost up to $10,000. It just depends on who’s doing it, their experience, and their hourly or flat rate.
Why this workflow?
It makes things more efficient and keeps costs down.  

How did you guys get started?
We’ve been operating for about two years. In my regular law practice, we work with lots of companies, but the rate we charge for drafting is generally more than what some bootstrapping entrepreneurs are willing to pay.

What are terms of service? Why and when would an online business need that? 
It’s a contract between you and your online clients or customers. For example, what if a customer buys something and it breaks? You need a document that explains your return policy.  A TOS is basically a relationship document that outlines a company’s policies and its relationship with its customers.

How about privacy policies? 
If you do business in California, meaning you are in California or have a customer in California, it’s required.  Even if you aren’t doing business in California, it’s a good idea to have a privacy policy in place. A privacy policy essentially details to the user how you collect their personal information, what you collect, what you don’t collect (e.g., user habits or IP addresses, non-personally identifiable information), how you plan on using that information, who you plan on sharing it with, what cookies you use, what tracking you use, where you plan on storing it, how you secure it, and what rights users have to it. I like to call it the who, what, when, where, and why document.

And what are the consequences if you don’t have either one of these?
If you don’t have a TOS and get sued, then a court will interpret your rights. We advise clients not to go that route because the court can do whatever it wants if there’s no contract. In California, if you don’t have a privacy policy, the Attorney General could come after you.

At what point should an online business get a TOS/privacy policy then?
I would recommend getting a TOS/Privacy Policy before the website or application goes live. You definitely should have TOS before you form any relationship with any clients or customers. For the Privacy Policy, get one before you start collecting any personal or non-personal user information.

What the most interesting TOS you’ve come across?
I like Pinterest’s TOS because they break down the legalese into little blurbs that decipher the language for average users. Most users don’t understand the TOS, so anything that can give them clear guidance always stands out.

What is SnapTerm’s greatest challenge? 

We’re looking for funding and trying to expand and diversify our document offerings. We’ve already gotten past the idea state and are now thriving but the challenge for us is scaling while making sure that our customer is satisfied and that we’re doing things the right way.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Upcoming Legal Innovation Conferences

A good number of you are probably going to the Reinvent Law conference in NYC next week, but for us West Coasters who can't afford the plane ticket, Stanford is hosting the FutureLaw 2014 conference in May. Agenda below.


9:00 AM – 9:30 AM
Opening Keynote: : “The Future of Lawyers: From Denial to Disruption” – Richard Susskind
In his keynote address, Richard Susskind will argue that three factors – cost, liberalisation, information technology – will combine in the coming decade to transform the way in which legal services are provided. He will explain and discuss the implications of commoditisation and decomposition of legal services, and suggest various techniques for the alternative sourcing of legal work. He will offer long-term predictions for the new legal landscape, including the future for law firms and law schools, the shifting role of in-house lawyers, the relevance of new competitors, the impact of disruptive technologies, the emergence of online legal services, and the coming of virtual hearings and online dispute resolution.  Throughout, he will support his claims through case studies draw from within and beyond the legal profession. Looking longer term, Susskind will outline the likely implications for the law of artificial intelligence, pervasive mobile computing, and great increases in computing power.
Professor Susskind will be participating remotely.
9:30 AM – 10:30 AM
Forging an Open Legal Document Ecosystem
The legal industry is an information industry. However, lack of access to data hinders continued innovation and inhibits the creation of whole categories of technologies. How do we unlock this data? What are the beneļ¬ts of a more open data ecosystem for the law, and what are the threats?
Brian Carver, Free Law Project
Thomas Bruce, Legal Information Institute
Paul Sawaya, Restatement
Monica Bay, Law Technology News (moderator)
11:00 AM – 12:00 PM
Managing Legal Marketplaces
By now, a generation of new legal businesses have emerged to disaggregate the traditional law firm model. The result is a number of vibrant legal marketplaces: lawyers as free agents competing in an open marketplace online to offer services. How are these marketplaces managed? And, where do they go into the future?
Matt Faustman, Upcounsel
Raj Abyanker, Legal Force
Eddie Hartman, Legalzoom
Mark Britton, Avvo
Jason Boehming, Fenwick and West (moderator)
1:00 PM – 2:00 PM
Rebuilding Legal Education
Many voices have railed against the classic curriculum of law school, but a consensus has yet to emerge as to what will replace it. How will the increased prevalence of legal technology shape legal training? How does law school look different in a world with greater automation, open data, and more empowered clients?
Richard Granat, Granat Legal Services
Janelle Orsi, Sustainable Economies Law Center
* Jason Solomon (moderator)
2:30 PM – 3:30 PM
Legal Technology in the Public Interest
Lawyers and companies alike tend to focus on the commercial aspects of legal technology. However, legal technology also holds the potential to improve access to justice and reinvent some of the classic problems that have dogged public interest legal services. This panel examines the latest, and raises case studies that explore the use of these technologies to produce broader societal good.
Ronald W. Staudt, Apps for Justice
* Margaret Hagan, Institute of Design at Stanford
Stephanie Kimbro, Indiana Legal Services
Phil Malone, Stanford Law School (moderator)
4:00 PM – 5:00 PM
Legal Ethics in the Age of Machines
While the coming wave of automation in the legal industry creates many new opportunities, it also raises a host of novel concerns in legal ethics and in the unauthorized practice of law. Is our existing framework around the professional regulation of lawyers adequate? What should the ethical responsibilities be for those designing automated systems that engage in legal action? What can we learn from the democratization of legal services more generally online?
Harry Surden, Colorado Law School
* Deborah Rhode, CLP
Norm Spaulding, Stanford Law School
Will Hornsby, ABA
Tim Hwang, Robot Robot & Hwang (moderator)
5:00 PM – 5:30 PM
Closing Keynote – Michael Genesereth
Description is forthcoming.