How attorneys can enhance their practices and their entry to justice with open supply software program (OSS)
In the past few months, the legal profession in the United States has seen seismic changes in the wake of COVID-19 with the introduction of basic technology that has vastly improved access to the legal system and the way lawyers practice law. As lawyers incorporate new technology into their law firms to provide better remote legal services to their clients, they should also consider adopting another type of technology that has been widely used in other industries for decades: Open Source Software (OSS).
In this article, we will examine what OSS is, how it is being used in other industries, how it can improve lawyers’ daily practice and access to justice, and what efforts are already being made to bring OSS more widely into the legal profession. We’ll also share insights from leaders in the legal open source movement, including John Tredennick, Lourdes Fuentes Slater, and Mary Mack.
What is Open Source Software (OSS)?
Almost everyone has heard of OSS by now, but the bigger problem is that few people can define it, let alone grasp its ubiquity. According to Lourdes Fuentes Slater, CEO of Karta Legal, LLC: “We all work on OSS every day.” For example, Windows is based on an OSS structure. John Tredennick, Chairman and Executive Director of the Merlin Legal Open Source Foundation, agrees, saying, “In fact, it’s harder to find cases where open source is NOT used.” Linux is the very first open source project, which was originally started as a Windows alternative. More than 80 percent of the world’s web servers now run with open source software. Other notable examples of OSS are WordPress, Mozilla Firefox, and Open Office.
OSS and access to justice
Mary Mack, Chief Legal Technologist at EDRM, shares one of the biggest limitations of OSS: “It’s important to note,” she says, “that while open source software is free and the source code is available, there is still a learning curve and a time investment to implement and maintain [it]. ”
In addition, the presence of OSS development in legal technology is still small compared to the funds raised in recent years. According to Bloomberg Law, around $ 178 million was invested in legal technology in the second quarter of 2020, surpassing the prior-year figure of $ 122 million. In fact, legal tech companies have raised $ 339 million so far in 2020. However, with a few notable exceptions, most legal tech software development was not an OSS.
- Docassemble is an open source system founded by Jonathan Pyle of Philadelphia Legal Assistance that enables users to build legal apps using built-in integrations for electronic signature, SMS-based reminders, and machine learning.
- CaseBox is a file management system that allows users to control the servers that they store their data on and use filtered searches, smart folders and graphics.
- Accord Project is a not-for-profit community initiative that aims to create open source tools for creating smart contracts. In particular, it provides a common framework for contracts, enables the sharing and reuse of contract templates, and offers domain-specific functions designed to create and execute business agreements.
Despite these inadequacies in funding and training of OSS resources, these programs have been used for decades to improve access to justice. According to Tredennick, “Lawyers have been using software to improve their practices since I started practicing in the 80s and 90s.” Mail over. “All of this improved a lawyer’s access to justice.”
In the past decade, software has largely moved to the cloud. “A lot of the programs we use run on open source software,” notes Tredennick. “The software we license is proprietary but runs on open source components, and companies like Google, Microsoft, and even Amazon release thousands of open source programs and components every year.” This collaborative model benefits the broader community, and many of these programs and components are used downstream to improve access to justice.
Programs like Docassemble, for example, are open source and freely available to lawyers and laypeople alike. Docassemble, in particular, makes it easier and cheaper for lawyers and legal aid organizations to develop custom, guided interviews and applications that assemble key legal documents for clients such as wills, contracts and court records.
What efforts are underway and what can we expect?
Tredennick explains that ongoing efforts are being made to make OSS more widely available. “The nice thing is that you don’t have to get someone else’s approval to market your software as open source,” he explains. “Rather, just make it available in one of the open source repositories like GitHub.” He notes that the software will be used as long as there is a way to make lawyers aware of its existence.
This is precisely the mission of his foundation, Merlin Legal: “Our goal is to create a home for open source, a place where developers can exchange ideas while lawyers find useful open source for their needs.” While the foundation is new and open source is new to most lawyers, Tredennick reiterates that organizations like him need to create the space for legal open source collaboration. Slater, Mack, Pyle, and several other eminent lawyers, including Josh Blandi, CEO of UniCourt, serve on Merlin Legal’s Advisory Board.
Other organizations like EDRM use OSS in conjunction with proprietary software. According to Mack, EDRM publishes almost all of its materials under a Creative Commons license. Indeed, the Creative Commons licensing model is shaping software and technology development at universities and colleges, such as Harvard’s course to train the next generation of tech-savvy lawyers and Cornell’s international online legal information platform.
According to Slater, “the use of OSS BSS in the legislative field is by definition innovative”. She goes on to explain that for a successful innovation “there must be a perfect storm of technical feasibility, the market factors indicating this and the human desire for innovation”. She explains that there are already several signs of this perfect storm:
- Resource banks: Law schools can help encourage students developing legal technology to make their software open source. So CourtListener began a project to provide free access to legal opinions.
- Regulatory reform: The Utah Supreme Court recently approved a two-year pilot program tasked with licensing and overseeing new forms of legal providers and services. This change will drive innovation and enable lawyers to compete in the legal industry.
- Collaboration groups: Finally, cooperation groups like Merlin Legal lead innovative projects in the legal sector and offer a central platform for lawyers to work together on OSS projects and to sell OSS under a free license.
Slater predicts rapid growth for OSS BSS, especially OSS BSS in building IoT platforms, billing and data management tools, as well as 5G operational support and mobile computing.
According to Slater, lawyers not only need to use the law, but also create it, in order for OSS to lawfully flourish. Lawyers are committed to being pro bono and understanding the importance of having equal justice mean something under the law. So let’s look at the OSS development as pro bono for the good of the legal profession. The development of legal OSS by lawyers not only leads to improved access to justice by providing better solutions and tools to legal aid organizations and nonprofits, but also to improved legal technology, data management tools and billing solutions for lawyers to manage their practices make and render legal services more efficient and profitable.