02 December 2009

LexPublica: Open Sourcing the Legal Process

Yet more innovation around open source ideas, from an outfit called LexPublica (with a clever URL, too):

There is a crying need for access to legal help. No one can afford lawyers. Individuals, professionals and small businesses can’t afford lawyers. Startups can’t afford lawyers. Big companies with large budgets for legal services struggle to afford lawyers. Even lawyers complain, genuinely, that they can’t afford lawyers.

LexPublica aims to solve this problem by opening up the world of legal knowledge to everyone.

The first practical step we’ll take is to make common contract templates available free of charge. These will include things that many businesses need, such as employment agreements, website development agreements and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs for short). The contract templates will be written in plain language and have supporting guides to help you use them properly.

It's plans are splendidly ambitious - nothing less than to create a global legal commons:

Tackling an enterprise of this magnitude requires an enormous team effort. LexPublica will need to be a global online community of lawyers and non-lawyers working together to create contract templates and informational guides for those templates.

The grand vision is to harness this community effort to create the reference source for contract templates generally, for practical legal information, and beyond that, for all legal knowledge across all areas of law. You might call it a global legal commons.

Think we're crazy? Wikipedia, Linux and other similar projects provide successful and similarly sized examples for us to follow.

And yes, it has a business plan:

There’s a commercial twin to LexPublica, called 8.5x14 (named after legal size paper). It will provide a wide range of commercial services, both for people and businesses who need legal services, and for the lawyers who serve them. These services will be built around LexPublica’s open content and open APIs.

As one example, imagine an online workspace to manage your business’s standard contract templates, your contract negotiations and your dealings with your lawyer. The service is simple contract management, something like the Basecamp project management web service, but for contracts and negotiations.

Wow, exciting stuff. (Via Rory MacDonald.)

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


Crosbie Fitch said...

Someone must be playing a joke to suggest that an 'open source' legal aid site should help businesses con people into believing they can alienate themselves from their freedom of speech, i.e. via NDAs.

I'm surprised they don't also list contracts for slaves and indentured servants, although maybe these are euphemistically referred to as 'employment agreements'.

The outfit may end up being called LexAsinus if they're not careful.

guy said...

Hmmm, there's a significant difference in risk here.

Can't afford MS word? Find an open source version and download it and use it *at your own risk*. What's the worst that can happen? The program doesn't work very well, there's no spell checker and the fonts look awful. But you can write and print letters that are readable. And it has bugs --- "it crashed for me when I changed the paper size, but I fixed it... here's a patch". Very decent of you, and your loss was minor.

Can't afford a lawyer to draft a contract? Find an open source version and download it and use it *at your own risk*. What's the worst that can happen? The contract doesn't cover a significant aspect of law, and you get wiped out when you come to rely on it in court. You send a bug report to the original author (perhaps you even know how to fix it). Very decent of you, but your loss was total.

Glyn Moody said...

@guy: yes, that's a good point. It shows that extending open source ideas to other domains is often tricky...

Filceolaire said...

'Cause you are so much more secure using a contract that has been reviewed by the guy who wrote it and no one else./sarcasm

I am not a lawyer but I am a consulting engineer and every day I use standard specifications which I hope are ok because there really isn't enough time to go through every line and check it. I just trust that someone else in the practice has and nearly always it is ok and when it isn't we spot it and fix it in time. If I could figure out how to do it I would probably try and get those fixes added to our standard docs.

Having a load of other parties (contractors and clients as well as consultants) using the document and submitting patches and another load checking those patches before they are applied would lead to much better specifications. I am sure the same applies to legal docs.

Glyn Moody said...

@joe: interesting comparison -thanks.

Anonymous said...

Crosbie: It is clear that individuals and organizations will continue to create and be party to legal agreements that are both fair and unfair. We aim to help people be better informed and prepared – especially that large group of people who can't afford legal services.

If you have material comments on how to improve what is offered or suggestions on dealing with the larger societal issues you hint at, we'd be glad to hear them.

Anonymous said...

Guy, Glyn and Joe: You may each be interested in the process we are using to develop agreements: http://lexpubli.ca/about/process – we understand and are working to mitigate the risks involved.

Glyn Moody said...

@Zak: thanks. it's an ambitious project, and I wish you luck with it.