#LegalTechLives with Michael Lissner, Co-Founder/ED, CTO of Free Law Project

Ava Chisling
December 28, 2017

It’s not hard to understand why a man who has walked from Canada to Mexico, as well as the entire length of New Zealand, would believe in a certain amount of openness! Here is Michael’s take on why free access to law is so important.

A graduate of UC Berkeley’s School of Information, Michael Lissner has a diverse background that draws on the history of technology, law, policy, and the intersection of innovation and society. As the Co-Founder, ED and CTO of Free Law Project, as well as the lead developer of CourtListener.com and the RECAP Project, he has a deep background building complex legal tools and systems.

Michael is the recipient of two Le Hackie awards from the DC Legal Hackers group, and he has led Free Law Project to receive grants or contracts from numerous foundations, educational institutions, and private organizations including Knight Foundation, Google, Inc., and Columbia University. As a long distance backpacker, Michael has walked from Mexico to Canada and has walked the length of New Zealand.

Ava Chisling: I’ve been looking forward to this e-interview! Why is free access to law so important?

Michael Lissner: Good, open legal data underpins our justice system as it empowers researchers, journalists, businesses, and individuals. When good legal data is available, researchers can study it, journalists can expose problems, and we will see legal innovation flourish. When all of these things happen, the justice system will be fairer and more people will get the justice they deserve. Legal data is not the only important piece of this puzzle — for example, legal aid organizations play a crucial role — but we believe it is a big one.

AC: Tell me about the beginning of Free Law Project. What was the spark that got you interested and what keeps you interested?

ML: Free Law Project began when I was a student at the School of Information at UC Berkeley. As part of the program there, everybody does a capstone project. When I was looking for ideas for my project, a professor, Brian Carver, suggested that I make an alerting system for circuit court opinions — basically, Google Alerts for just circuit court opinions. The first step in making an alerting system is to build a search engine, and once you have a search engine, you might as well add any historical documents that are out there, and once you’ve added that, you might as well think about doing the same for oral argument recordings, and so forth. That’s how CourtListener.com was born.

For years after graduating, I worked on CourtListener in my spare time, with Brian giving guidance and advice as the wise lawyer in the room, since I’m not a lawyer. Brian jokes that he spent more time writing emails to me than he did with his wife, and I’m afraid it’s probably true. Over time, CourtListener got bigger, and we realized that a more important niche to fill, beyond search and alerts, was that of a non-profit that’s dedicated to curating and opening data, and we made a big move in that direction by founding Free Law Project.

Black and white profile photo

AC: Where does the US rank in terms of offering free access to legal documents, etc?

ML: That’s a great question, but unfortunately not one that I’m qualified to answer. I can say, having talked to a fair number of people from around the world, that in nearly all cases, it’s a question of money. If the government and people see open legal information as a priority, it gets funded. If not, like in the U.S., then it falls to others like us, Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, Oyez, and so many others to do this work.

In our legal system, there’s an extremely wide variety of legal data, stemming from the lawmaking and adjudicating process at all levels of government, from city to county, and from state to federal. Creating open legal data at all these levels and across different branches of government is a vast challenge, and one that lacks an easy fix. However, every step that we take towards opening this data is a positive one.

AC: It always surprises my clients when I tell them they are able to look up past court cases of potential business partners or service providers. Do you think the general public is unaware of how access to law can help them? Can you name the top 3 best uses for the average person?

ML: In an ideal world, most people wouldn’t interact with the legal system much. That said, I think the biggest benefits to individuals come at one level removed from the kinds of things you list. Yes, we want to help pro se litigants to complete their research (and we provide numerous services to that end), but we believe that the real gains of open legal data come when it is used by researchers, journalists, and legal organizations. This brings first-order benefits to the average person.

When journalists identify the conflicts of interest that a judge may have, or when a startup brings a new innovative service online using open legal data, those bring valuable first-order benefits to the average person, and those are the kinds of effects we want to make possible.

AC: Tell me about the significance of RECAP and how the new version differs from the one launched 8 years ago?

ML: In case you’re not familiar, PACER is a system of public access websites for nearly every document that’s filed in any federal court across the country. It contains hundreds of millions of documents, from millions of the most important cases in history. Some of the recent cases that have documents in PACER include cases from the Mueller investigation, Waymo v. Uber, Apple v. Samsung, etc. But, though PACER is vitally important, it’s very difficult to use and can be very expensive, since it costs money for nearly every download you make. For instance, we found that downloading the documents from a single case can cost more than a new Honda Civic.

RECAP fixes a lot of the problems with PACER by uploading any docket or document that you purchase to a public archive. Then, anything that has ever been uploaded becomes searchable on CourtListener.com, and becomes freely available to everybody else using RECAP. Thus, if you use PACER, installing RECAP will save you money.

I think the new version of RECAP is hugely important. From most people’s perspective, the big change is going to be speed. After years of being slow, RECAP is finally fast. This vastly changes the way RECAP feels in day-to-day usage. The other change is that RECAP now uses CourtListener as its main document repository, completing things like OCR, and making every document searchable and available via an API. From a technical perspective, the new version is a nearly complete rewrite, meaning that the code is now easy to maintain, and allowing us to make enhancements that were previously too difficult to pull off. Just this weekend, for example, we released a new version of RECAP that will be even more reliable than ever before.

“We believe that the real gains of open legal data come when it is used by researchers, journalists, and legal organizations. This brings first-order benefits to the average person.”

AC: Is there an AI component to your work?

ML: Nope, not yet. So far, we keep to the very basic tools: scraping, databases, APIs, and search. We’re experimenting with using Google’s speech to text APIs to convert our database of oral arguments recordings to text, but so far haven’t found the quality or speaker identification to be accurate enough. Soon!

AC: What are the main barriers to free law today?

ML: The will of the people and an understanding of its importance. Open legal information will only truly happen when people realize how important it is to a functioning democracy and decide to fund it.

Until that happens, we face numerous barriers including deeply entrenched incumbents, an extremely complex topic area, little motivation for courts to work together towards standards, incentives to favor closed data for the privacy of judges and courts, and the overall high stakes of working with legal data. Any one of these would be a major barrier, but together they are a bloc that will take many years to overcome.

AC: Is there good free law and bad free law? How can people know that what they are relying on is the best source?

ML: In my view, this is a question of progress vs. perfection. There’s an incredible amount of data that we can make available, and most of it we should. With few exceptions, every bit that we open up is a form of progress. Will it be perfect out the gate? Sometimes, but not always. I think that’s fine, provided people are given a good understanding of the limitations of the data or systems that they’re using.

There are some instances of fraudulent legal data that I’ve seen, and we’re always concerned about making a technical error that might make our data flat-out wrong, but most instances of this that we’ve seen are overblown. One example of bad law that comes to mind is a judge analytics tool that presented a picture of how a judge ruled on a certain issue. The tool showed that the judge typically ruled one way, but the data behind the tool was woefully incomplete. In reality, once you gathered all the data about the judge, he was actually more inclined to rule the other way. Is this bad data by omission, or is it just that we need to ensure the user knows the limitations of what they’re viewing?

AC: So there is bad data. How can we make sure all of it’s good moving forward?

ML: As we move incrementally forward, we need to be careful of errors in our data, and we need to be cautious of errors of incomplete data, as described above. Some of this can be extremely difficult to avoid — how to know your data is incomplete? In those instances, I think user education can go far, but where that fails, we have to accept that some systems shouldn’t be built until the data is ready.

Scenic view of Michael Lissner on a hike

AC: You have archived a million minutes of oral arguments! As you say, we can watch every Simpson episode 76 times. What does access to oral arguments give us that regular case law does not?

ML: I look at our archive of oral argument audio in two ways. First, there’s the day-to-day utility. What if you could get an email every time a certain word was said in court? What if you want to hear the intonations of a certain judge in a certain case? What if you want to search for how often something is mentioned in a given court? As a student, having a podcast of customized oral argument audio can be a powerful way to up your game.

The second way I look at it is as a librarian or a historian might. Think of all the presidents that were formerly lawyers that might have argued in court. We should have recordings of those events and they should be easily accessible to the public. What about other politicians at state and federal levels? We should have their oral argument recordings too.

There are also those who would listen to oral argument audio around the clock. For these people, we can provide a stream of new oral argument audio that starts today and likely never ends.

AC: How do you see access to free law evolving?

ML: The big change I see is the slow but sure movement towards lower priority data. SCOTUS opinions, federal laws, and congressional data are now available, but how long until state legislatures provide the same data? Our historical corpus of legal opinions is slowly maturing, but what about the opinions from yesterday or the laws for your city? Are they online? Are they available as data? What about the laws as of five or ten years ago? The American legal system is a massive apparatus and we’re only scratching the surface of the important data that it produces.

I also see courts and clerks increasingly as publishers, which can only help accelerate the creation and curation of high-quality open data.

AC: You are now in San Fran but you’ve spent some time in Montreal. Tell me your best Montreal story.

ML: Montreal has a reputation for bachelor parties, but when I go, I stay with family and work full time, so my stories are pretty tame. That said, we don’t have warm summer rains out here in California, so one of my favorite stories was jogging circles around Parc La Fontaine in the warm summer rain. Such a beautiful city… in the summer.

AC: And as always, we will end the interview with this question we ask of everyone: What is the one item not yet invented that you’d like to own RIGHT NOW?

ML: Well, 99% of any good idea is execution, so I’m happy to share that the first person to make a food chiller that works as well as a microwave, except to make things cold instead of hot, will have my money.

AC: Thank you very much for your insightful views, Michael!

Ava Chisling

Ava is an award-winning lawyer and editor who counsels creative types, writes about pop culture/tech+law and sometimes creates ad campaigns. She is Quebec counsel for Momentum Law.