Githubbing Law: Open-source legal doc repositories
What would a Github for Law look like? And is it worth building?
This afternoon I got an email from a site visitor who asked if I knew of any projects in the works that stakes a Github for Lawyers out — and if there is a profitable business model in such an undertaking.
Github is a site for coders to upload code they’re authoring & collaborating on, and that allows other members of the community to ‘fork’ from their code. Meaning, others can take the work that one person has created & then make separate versions of it, stored separately but still linked back to the original.
The site also allows for collaborative editing. A member can request to change a document — calling out an issue, or proposing a better way to accomplish a task — by submitting a ‘pull request’. The author can review the request & approve it if she agrees.
Github can serve as an advanced filing system — keeping track of revisions, allowing for multiple, customized versions of a single type of document, and allowing for collaborative back & forth. The site can be used not only for code files, but also standard word docs or any other file types.
The other thing about Github is an ethos of openness & transparency. Any Internet user can see the work product, and anyone who signs up for an account can fork the work product off & customize it in a new version. The Github model aims for a collaborative work flow, that prioritizes opening up your work product to the community, letting others borrow it & edit it, and taking in criticisms from community-members who think they can build off your work to improve it.
So could the Github model be applied to legal professionals’ work, or how the legal services that non-lawyers use?
My short answer to the visitor: there are an increasing number of Legal Document Repositories, many of them now overlaid with a user-friendly interface that allows the user to take the standard document and fill in the designated fields with their own information.
Thus, the user can take a standard doc and make it her own by simply entering in a few pieces of information (that she likely has at her finger tips). Some of these document repositories are even hosted in part on Github, so that any other visitor who signs up for Github could fork these documents & customize them for her own.
Here is a short inventory of projects that are creating such open repositories + form-filling interfaces.
One noticeable thing: most of them are aimed at entrepreneurs as the main user. The use case is someone setting up a start-up & trying to get right with corporate law.
(There is another branch of Legal Document repositories: government & legal service sites that compile standardized legal forms for users. These sites mainly just create a searchable/browsable list of downloads of government forms. I haven’t included them in this post, but the design of those sites deserve their own separate examination in a later post.)
Docracy is perhaps the most advanced repository online right now. It allows for any member with an account to upload a legal document that will be shared with the rest of the community. Any other member can then make a private customization of the document, which they can then invite others to work on & sign. Other members can also fork the document publicly, to edit & customize the doc publicly, allowing other members to use their version.
Restatement is a project from Jason Boehmig, Tim Hwang, and Paul Sawaya, funded through the Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund. They are building a repository of legal documents along with an interface-overlay to fill in the docs’ fields in a user-friendly way. They also promise that the site will allow users to use their document repository with other tools — to be able to run analytics, to be able to auto-fill and auto-create documents, and otherwise ‘hack and slice’ a legal document. Right now Restatement is not fully live, but it does have some demos.
A similar project is coming out of Singapore, from Cofounders Pte. Ltd., with its Legal Boilerplate collection of documents. Their site is more populated with legal documents, each of which the user can fill out in their browser by scrolling through the document & entering numbers and words into the open fields. The site also has a Github repository attached to it.
Law firms have also created start-up oriented legal document repositories. Cooley has a set of open source legal documents available on the startup-accelerator Techstars’ website.
From this quick inventory, the status quo model is clear:
- collect together some standard legal documents
- identify the fields that any user will have to change to customize the document to their situation
- build an interface in the browser that lets the user enter their custom data into these fields
- allow the user to export the document for their own use
- perhaps, make the document open for forking & editing, for others to customize, build upon, or improve
The question is what the next-level ambitions for Legal Document Repositories should be.
One path would be scaling up the types of documents available (like Docracy is doing, with different types of crowdsourced docs besides startup-focused ones, though their site is still mostly populated with startup-docs).
Another would be what Restatement is hinting at, with more integration of the legal documents into automated processes, analytics, and other work flows that could prove to increase efficiency & knowledge for legal professionals.
I’d love to see some more features & functions that serve the end-user of these documents. Can we have some metrics associated with these docs? Docracy has a love button, that allows a visitor to see how many people ‘love’ this document, and it has stats on downloads and views as well. But there must be a better metric than just ‘popularity’.
Could we have Expert Curators who give their reviews & recommendations of documents?
Could we have Stats on the Document’s Worth, that document the number of lawsuits or other problems that arise after using a document?
Could we have Popular Ratings, Yelp-style, in which those who have downloaded the site are then invited back a year or two later to give star-ratings & comments to the document they have been using?
Could we have Customized Forks of Documents with clear descriptions of which scenario this version should be used for?
Could we have Best Practice Packages of documents, that have been vetted and staged so that a user who is on a certain legal path can use this series of documents and know that expert users recommend them for exactly the scenario she’s in?
Just some ideas — I’m sure there are plenty more improvements for stage 2 of these legal document repositories. Post away in the comment section, or send me an email!