Mootus Will Soon Be Moot, As Founders Announce its Closing

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The crowdsourced legal site Mootus launched in 2013 with an innovative concept: Provide a platform for “open online legal argument” so that lawyers and law students could create and share legal knowledge.

But as I noted in a post here last summer, sites that rely on crowdsourcing and collaborative input from lawyers have not fared well. “Over the years, site after site has attempted to make a go at crowdsourcing,” I wrote. “But they almost always fail.”

Now, Mootus is joining their ranks. This week, founders Adam Ziegler and Jeff Schneller sent out the following email:

Dear Friends:

It’s time to say farewell to Mootus. After 3+ years, we’ll be shutting things down at the end of the month.

We’re grateful for your interest and support along the way. Many people loved what we were trying to do, but that enthusiasm didn’t translate into enough activity to make Mootus viable.

We hope you’ll continue experimenting with new legal tech products. Keep giving them a chance to impress you!

Best wishes,

Adam and Jeff

The idea of Mootus was simple. Users would post legal issues to be “argued.” Other users would respond by adding cases they believed were relevant, together with their arguments for why the case applied. Still others could comment and vote on whether the case was “on point” or “off base.” A planned upgrade will allow users to add statutes and regulations.

To encourage participation, Mootus made it a game. Users earned points based on the frequency, speed and quality of their answers. More points meant greater status and influence within Mootus.

But the site never picked up enough traction to be viable. Last summer, when I was preparing a presentation on crowdsourcing for the American Association of Law Libraries annual meeting, I asked cofounder Ziegler about his experience running the site. Here is what he said:

Our early experiments asked:

Would lawyers post research questions to the crowd?
Would the crowd post answers in the form of legal citations?
Would other lawyers find the public Q&A thread useful/helpful?
We found yes to the first, no to the second, yes to the third.

On the second, we found “no” even for unemployed new lawyers sitting on the couch – pretty clear refutation of our hypothesis that we would find early contributors among the community of underemployed lawyers.

My takeaway from those results was that explicit, unpaid crowdsourcing, Q&A-style, isn’t a viable model right now. I’d love to see someone prove that wrong.

Those words of his struck me as significant: “isn’t a viable model.”

In that same presentation, I quoted Apoorva Mehta. He is now a huge Silicon Valley success story as the founder of grocery-delivery service Instacart. But earlier in his career, he attempted to start a legal networking and crowdsourcing site called Lawford (later called LegalReach). Asked later why Lawford failed, here is what he said:

I didn’t know anything about lawyers when we started. Turns out, they don’t like technology, and they don’t like to share things.

To which I wrote in my post last summer: “Anyone who is considering starting a crowdsourced law site should take Mehta’s quote, frame it and hang it above their desks.”

As for Mootus cofounder Ziegler, a lawyer, he has a very cool day job as manager of special projects at Harvard Law School’s Library Innovation Lab. The other founder, Schneller, a computer scientist, is a manager at e-commerce company Envisa.

And as for me, I keep believing that one of these days, a crowdsourced legal site will find success. As I’ve said before, I’m encouraged by what I see happening at two crowdsourced sites, Casetext and CanLII Connects. But I can’t help but be disappointed when an innovative site such as Mootus closes its doors.

For a 2014 article that I wrote about Mootus and Casetext for the ABA Journal, see here.

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  • For what it’s worth, I attribute very little of our outcome at Mootus to generic lawyer attitudes about technology and sharing. Lawyers use technology constantly. And sharing – particularly public sharing of legal knowledge and analysis through advocacy – is a fundamental part of what many lawyers do. Beyond that, blaming lawyers (or users in general) for tech they don’t use is a lame cop-out. So anyone who’s considering launching a legal crowdsourcing site should feel free to reach out to me. I’ll tell you all about the 10,000 things you should worry about more than whether lawyers like tech and sharing.

    • Bob Ambrogi

      Adam, I should have made clear in my post that I do not agree with Mehta’s point about lawyers not liking technology. I’ve never bought into that idea. However, I do believe that lawyers are not interested in sharing. I think there are any number of reasons for this — some are proprietary about their work, some just don’t have or take the time, and some just don’t see any value in it.

  • I saw the potential for Mootus to be something like a sophisticated StackExchange for lawyers. And, if we say lawyers are as amenable to tech and sharing as much as a contributor on StackExchange, then, perhaps, it’s a matter of motivation. While I think Mootus had a good point system for fueling motivation, lawyers, especially the new and underemployed ones, need a hotter spark to get going in the first place. Avvo’s Q&A platform motivates lawyers because it helps generates leads, but it’s not really crowdsourcing legal research. FantasySCOTUS offers pretty good motivation and get’s closer to crowdsourcing but the usefulness of its data is limited.

    • Bob Ambrogi

      Excellent points. In the post I wrote about crowdsourcing last summer, I offered what I believe are the four keys to success in crowdsharing: 1. Make it easy to contribute. 2. Make it rewarding to contribute. 3. Make the content useful to others. 4. Success will breed success. That second one — making it rewarding — is the tricky one. I thought Mootus had a good approach and I am surprised it didn’t generate more involvement.

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