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How Harvard's 'Free the Law' project could change legal practices

Harvard Law School will be making nearly its entire collection of case law free and accessible to the public online. What might that mean for practicing lawyers?

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Harvard Law School’s massive library database of case law is about to become available for free to the public online, through a project the law school is calling “Free the Law.”

Librarians at the prestigious institution will be removing the spines from books in the library's collection – all but the rarest volumes –and moving some 40 million pages through a high-speed scanner. The library reports that they scanned over 10 million pages by the end of September.   

Once the project is completed, the public will be able to search, find, and analyze an entire history of case law in the library’s collection, which dates back to the colonial period.

Explaining why Harvard Law decided to open up its books to be accessed for free online, Martha Minow, the dean of Harvard Law School, told The New York Times, “Improving access to justice is a priority. We feel an obligation and an opportunity here to open up our resources to the public.”

Harvard Law School already offers free legal aid for indigent persons, through its student-run Legal Aid Bureau. When “Free the Law” is completed, it will not only allow those second- and third-year students who run the program to search for cases similar to their own with greater ease, but also improve the argument-making ability of lawyers at other legal aid groups throughout the country.

The New York Times reports that Ravel Law, a San Francisco-based analytics startup, would be providing the bulk of the funding for the project.

Ravel Law was founded by a group of Stanford Law students who were interested in simplifying the case-making process. The website uses visualization technology to chart connections between key cases, from state courts to the Supreme Court. It also pulls the documentation for those cases and puts it all in one place so that users can clearly see how one judicial decision on campaign finance, for example, might have influenced another.

The largest searchable databases for cases and their related documents are currently Westlaw and LexisNexis, but law firms currently pay up to millions of dollars for the ability to search those sites’ banks of legal files. In an age where conversations about net neutrality take place on a daily basis, “Free the Law” may not even the playing field completely, but is a step toward improving the current scenario.

In a Harvard Law press release, Jim Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, the largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans, said,“This is a great development. Making legal materials and analytical tools available for free will be of great value to non-profit legal aid lawyers in providing essential legal services to low-income people.”

[Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the type of documents that would be released to the public and the volume of documents to be scanned. The earlier article incorrectly implied that Harvard Law School had not been forthcoming about project funding.

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