Casetext: Wikipedia for the Law

By: Kevin Rickert, 2L
Managing Editor

Even 1Ls have probably heard this cliché at least a dozen times by now: Law school is not as much about learning the law as it is about learning how to think like a lawyer. But earning a JD does include learning a few practical skills. One of those is legal research, and anybody with a quarter of a semester of legal writing can tell you the best place to start looking for it: Westlaw, Lexis, and, if you have the patience and a touch of masochism, Bloomberg. So Oliver Wendell Holmes was right—the law is not, in fact, a brooding omnipresence in the sky. It turns out it’s actually a marketable commodity stashed away behind a paywall.

At least a couple of people have decided that there is something distinctly undemocratic about that. Two lawyers, Joanna Huey and Jacob Heller, decided to create a free legal resource called Casetext to increase access to the law. Casetext has the ambitious goal of becoming the Wikipedia of the legal world by offering a free alternative to the big three legal research services.

Logo of Casetext

Source: www.finsmes.com

The layout of the site is similar to the lyrics site Rap Genius. Instead of songs, the site has the plain text of cases, statutes, and scholarly articles. Users then highlight portions of the text to create annotations. Instead of explanations of how Jay-Z pulled off a triple-entendre in “Brooklyn (Go Hard),” these annotations note particularly important pieces of the text and their impact on other cases.

Like Wikipedia, the site depends on a dedicated army of volunteers to provide accurate, up to date information. Unlike Wikipedia, however, the site’s contributors will not be anonymous. The hope is that legal minds will use the site to burnish their reputations by contributing with their real names.

The site is not entirely free. Presumably to keep from doing an interminable donation drive a la Wikipedia, the site will include some premium features. One feature is something called a “heat map,” which shows which portions of cases are the most frequently cited. However, that isn’t to say Casetext is unusable if you’re not willing to pay for it. Refusing to pay for the premium features still gets you access to thousands of annotated and indexed cases, statutes, and secondary sources like law review articles. In other words, the stuff actually needed for legal research.

WeCite, the Casetext version of Sheperdizing, is not as robust as the more expensive alternatives, but there are free features that show real ingenuity. Along with a tally of how the justices voted, a pane to the right of the case lists “judicial summaries,” which looks to be parentheticals collected from other cases citing the one you’re reading. The “Context” tab shows briefs and blog posts, written by other users, which discuss the case. If you feel like you don’t annoy your friends enough with law school, you can also easily post whatever case you’re reading to Facebook or Twitter. One surprisingly useful feature is that the citation at the top of the page automatically updates to show which page you’re pulling a quote from.

Of course, as a crowd-sourced website, the future of Casetext will depend entirely on the quality of its volunteer contributors. However, if the site succeeds, it has the potential to open the door for the average citizen—the kind who isn’t spending three years to learn to think like a lawyer—to be able to find where the law is on their own.

Categories: Opinions & Editorials