New Legal Research Site Combines Case Law with Crowdsourcing

Imagine if you could combine a full-text case law library for research with crowdsourced editing and annotating in the style of Wikipedia and user rankings of annotations and references in the style of a site such as Digg? That, roughly speaking, is the idea behind Casetext, an innovative legal research site launched this week that provides free access to court opinions together with a platform for crowdsourcing references and annotations.

casetextCasetext is the brainchild of two lawyers, Jake Heller and Joanna Huey, who met in 2009, when Jake was president of the Stanford Law Review and Joanna was president of the Harvard Law Review. After clerking together for 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boudin and then serving separate stints as law firm associates, the two reunited to build Casetext.

At its core, Casetext is simply a case law research database. Presently, it includes all Supreme Court cases, all federal circuit cases starting from volume one of the F.2d series, all federal district court cases published in F.Supp. and F.Supp. 2d since 1980, and Delaware cases published since Volume 30 of the Atlantic reporter.

Crowdsourced Annotations

But what makes the site unique is the ability of its users to add descriptions and annotations to the cases. When you view a case, the screen is divided in half. On the left side, what you first see is a section of “Quick Facts” about the case — its holding, citation, court, judges, docket number and the like. After that comes a section called “Case Wiki” with a more narrative description of the case. Following those two sections comes the case itself.

Both of those first two sections — Quick Facts and Case Wiki — are fully editable by registered users. Simply click the “edit” button and revise or supplement any of the text. Click the “revisions” button to see the full history of edits by all users.

Similarly, the right side of the screen contains sections for “tags,” “cases,” “sources,” “analysis,” and “record.” Users can create and edit any of these items. Thus, a user can do any of the following:

  • Add tags to a case to help organize it.
  • Add links to secondary sources that discuss the case, such as news or law review articles.
  • Add annotations to a case, sharing your analysis.
  • Reply to and comment on other users’ annotations.
  • Add related cases and indicate whether their treatment of the case is positive, negative or distinguishing.
  • Add record items, such as briefs or transcripts.

Any of the items users can add can be linked to the case as a whole or to a specific paragraph of the case. As you scroll through the text of a case, you will see the points at which paragraph-specific items have been added.

In addition to adding to the page, users can vote up or down on others’ additions to the page. The more popular an annotation or sources, the higher in the list it appears.

As you view a case, the right half of the page shows a condensed summary of only the most popular annotations, secondary sources and related cases. Select any one of those categories to see the full list of items that have been added.

Everything that I have described here is free to use. The site’s founders say it will stay that way, but that they will be adding premium features at some point that will require payment.

The Future of Legal Research?

To my mind, Casetext reflects the sort of innovative thinking that will define the next generation of legal research. There are now plenty of sources of raw case law on the Internet. But when it comes to finding case law that is fleshed out with annotations, references and secondary sources, we remain restricted, for the most part, to the major legal research vendors. Why not build a body of annotated case law by tapping into the collective knowledge and experience of the legal community at large?

Of course, the idea works only if contributors come forward. Therein may be the rub. I have seen other attempts to build crowdsourced legal resources fail for lack of participation and contributions. I don’t know whether this was because lawyers are stingy with their knowledge or simply too busy to share it. But Casetext makes it easy for lawyers to participate and I would love to see it take off.