Tuesday, January 17, 2012

New Users = New Bugs. Patience requested.

We're getting a lot of new sign-ups for the private beta of Tabulaw's legal research and writing platform.  Most of this was triggered by the review by Bob Ambrogi on his blog, LawSitesBlog.com, and word-of-mouth growth from there.  One of the results is that the new users have quickly found many bugs in the software.  Some small (logins are case sensitive), some large (rendering doesn't work on all versions of Internet Explorer), and many that will require significant changes in the application.

I've been pleasantly surprised by the range of people who are interested in an integrated legal research and writing platform like Tabulaw: lawyers from large and small firms, many law professors and students, legal technology entrepreneurs, and government lawyers from an impressive selection of agencies from across the country.

Along with bugs and feature requests, the higher volume has also created a significant problem that may take more than software engineering to resolve: access to Google Scholar from the application has been disabled.  The reason --Scholar limits search requests from a single source-- points out one of the paradoxes of Google Scholar.  Scholar has become a terrific free resource for legal research.  Many articles have pointed out the potential for making Google Scholar (and Google Documents) a mainstay of legal work. As a free source of court opinions, connected to the open web, Google Scholar stands in contrast to the proprietary, walled-off databases of the major legal publishers.  This makes it -- theoretically -- possible to create a fluid workflow for lawyers who want to access legal information on the web and directly integrate it into their writing, without the inconvenience and cost of a publisher's paywall.

That is where Tabulaw comes in.  We are building a set of tools that helps to organize sources such as Google Scholar and integrate them seamlessly into the documents that lawyers and legal researchers are writing.  It makes it possible to imagine an ecosystem of applications by entrepreneurial startups using a common set of open access data, similar to the access developers have to APIs (programming interfaces) from Google and other tech leaders.

But there's the rub... Google Scholar Law, like other free online sources still have hidden limits, vestiges of the way that legal data is collected and owned, which make this vision of an open access web of legal data part of a more distant future.  Through initiatives like the California Law Hackathon, and our development of primary tax law resources at tax26.com, we are working to bring that future closer.

I hope that some of the people who are trying out the private beta will work with us toward that goal. In the meantime, we have a lot of bugs to fix!