Home ShopTalk VersusLaw: Seattle Law and Order (in the Court)

VersusLaw: Seattle Law and Order (in the Court)

There’s nothing like a gripping courtroom drama to keep you riveted to your TV screen — or your PC screen for that matter. Let’s localize that for the Internet community. We’re not talking about “Law and Order: Internet Intent,” or “CSI Seattle.” The viewing we have in mind falls squarely into the category of “reality programming.” It’s called VersusLaw. Its time slot is 24/7. And it’s not a TV program, but a Website that is involved in the very human drama of dispensing information and justice over the Internet.

VersusLaw delivers the letter of the law in the form of court rules, case law, statutes and other legal information for attorneys, business owners, professionals, average citizens, and even jailed inmates, all with a critical need to know. How does VersusLaw information translate into justice? By bringing legal findings, precedents and knowledge to light.

In the American system of jurisprudence, the only case law that is ever considered in a trial or an appeal is the law that a defendant or plaintiff brings to light on his or her own behalf. It isn’t a judge’s role to inform the parties about the court rules or case law that might apply in the interest of the defense or prosecution. The information you present is yours alone, and that of your attorneys! That makes access to the latest legal information an overwhelming advantage. It’s an empowerment that is now permeating the civil and criminal justice system with the advent of wireless laptop computers and access to vast databases of information like VersusLaw’s from inside the courtroom.

Once available only to the wealthy, the light of legal knowledge is now reaching the masses. And that change parallels the growth of VersusLaw. When Joe and Ann Acton founded the company in 1985, their distribution network was a printed newsletter and an electronic Bulletin Board. Today, it’s a Website receiving up to 4.2 million hits a month.

All rise! VersusLaw founder and CEO Joe Acton brought this session of ShopTalk to order and let us get on his case.

Seattle24x7: What percentage of VersusLaw users are non-lawyers who are trying to navigate America’s complex legal system?
Acton: A little less than 30% of our users are non-lawyers. It could be a small Mom and Pop business that has been contacted by a regulatory agency, for instance, your gas station is in violation of some environmental laws. Well, before Mom and Pop go and spend a lot of money on legal advice, they want to know what the law is and where they stand. After doing some research themselves, they can go into the lawyer and be that much more knowledgeable. We have law enforcement, doctors, claims agents, you name it, they do research here. They’re looking for statutes, they’re looking for regulations, fishing regulations, hunting regulations, you name it. It’s not just lawyers that are looking for legal information.

How have you developed your interface to be more accessible for the layperson?
We just spent nine months redesigning and reconstructing both our site and our search engine. In-as-much, as we’ve been doing this on the Internet since August of 1995, we had a lot of user information to work with. We understood how our users conducted searches, what they were looking for, the kinds of mistakes they were making and the kinds of mistakes we were encouraging them to make through some of our systems. In January of 2002, we logged 2.1 million hits to our site. By January of 2003, it was up to 4.2 million. Just exactly double. The amount of usage that the system is getting as a result of the enhancements that we’ve made is astonishing.

Are you “pushing” out information, such as special email or alerts, in addition to pulling viewers in?
We have three levels of subscription. We have a basic Standard level. The second level is Premium and the third level is Professional. At the Premium and Professional Level, we have what we call AdvanceLinks. That’s a service that allows subscribers to be notified if any of the cases that are being tracked by AdvanceLinks come in. We currently track twelve different categories of cases. We’ll send notification by email each time cases have arrived that match their search criteria. They’ll use the link in the email to come back into the system.

Seattle24x7: Publishing has been a historic partner of the legal profession. From that standpoint, you have inherited an extraordinary legacy in terms of the size and scope of the sheer body of knowledge that exists?
Acton: West Publishing is the granddaddy of all legal publishers in the United States. They started putting together the first reporting services in 1854, but had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the electronic world. Lexis was really the market innovator, coming out with their electronic publishing service for lawyers in 1974. Once we began some sixteen years after Lexis, in the early 1990’s, the terrain was very different.

Seattle24x7: Somewhere along the way, the personal computer arrived…
You have to remember that in the early-to-mid-eighties, a computer system of any consequence was terrifically expensive and only the most successful and well entrenched law firms or businesses could afford them. When we came along computers were just beginning to be affordable and as those computers became more cost-efficient, our services began to grow. We aimed our services not at the large law firms that were already served by West and Lexis, but increasingly at the small law firms who not only couldn’t afford computers initially, but couldn’t afford West and Lexis.

Seattle24x7: You introduced a more efficient way to obtain what amounts to the same information?
Acton: Our content is focused on what is called primary material — case law, statutes, rules and regulations, constitutions, things that we get directly from the source. West and Lexis also provide a lot of information that comes from secondary sources – other publishers, other treatises, etc., that large law firms and large government entities may want to have access to. Small law firms don’t need that information nor can they afford the attributed cost associated with it.

Seattle24x7: Do you have other competitors besides West and Lexis?
Acton: There are no services that compete with us head-to-head in terms of what we do. There are some competitive vehicles. A competitive vehicle might be a county law library, where a lawyer will go and labor away at night pawing through books. But, in terms of other entities that do what we do there’s no one who does it at this breadth and scope. We cover all fifty states, and all federal circuits. We download from over 250 sources each day, we continuously collect materials from 2 a.m. in the morning until 9 p.m. at night and continuously update our databases. We are well known in the industry as being first-to-market with our cases. It’s something that we take very seriously. We’ve got people here literally seven days a week, 18-20 hours a day.

Seattle24x7: How are you reaching the practicing attorney, directly, or through trade associations?
Acton: We maintain a retail site where we are serving the actual retail end-user, but some of the state Bar Associations are a business development opportunity. The Bars are coming to the conclusion that they have to offer their members value-added, more than simply being among the value-added member products and vehicles they offer, ours is an excellent choice because it gives the lawyers that which they need on literally a daily basis which is access to primary materials. In some cases, we have affiliate relationships with the Bars on an individual basis where there is some pass-through based on what they’re providing.

Seattle24x7: You also have begun to serve the Washington State Prison Law library?
Acton: That’s correct, we currently service three of those locations. And we are waiting to hear back from the state in terms of the ability to equip nine other institutions. One of the precepts that is required in prisons is access to the courts. That’s required by the U.S. Supreme Court. And in most prisons, the way they deal with that is to have racks of books that are lying around. They are very expensive to maintain both in terms of the space they occupy and the addition of new books each year.

What we have proposed instead, throughout the United States, although we’ve begun here in Washington, is to replace those books with an electronic library. Inside Washington, the first three institutions here have done that with great success. We were cited by Governor Locke’s office for saving the taxpayers $10,000 per location.

The actual users are indeed the inmates. Occasionally someone might grouse about jailhouse lawyers, but the fact of the matter is that when you think about prisoners, they’ve got the same problems that anybody else has except they’re in jail. They may be getting a divorce, maybe their house is being foreclosed on, their car is being repossessed. There’s any number of issues that people have to deal with while they’re incarcerated and in most instances that’s what these facilities are being used for. They’re not necessarily being used to clutter up the courts with frivolous lawsuits.

Seattle24x7: It must give you a strong sense of personal satisfaction to be bringing this information to those in need? One would hope that every citizen would have the ability to read and understand the laws that govern their behavior and their livelihood in society, but how many people actually do?
Acton: My wife and I have always believed strongly in public service. We were both in the Peace Corps. My wife was a nurse. I’ve been a police officer. One of the things that we feel strongly about is the ability for people to understand, if you will, what’s called their primary conduct.

People have got to be able to understand and manage their own destiny. As society becomes more complex, it really robs a person’s ability to direct their own lives. They need to have more consultants, and more advisors. If they want to start a business, it’s no longer just the ability to have a good idea. You’ve got to have lawyers, accountants, and insurance agents. If there’s anything we have done here, it is to try and level the playing field of the information business.

Seattle24x7: How soon before legal information becomes readily accessible from the courtroom?
Acton: The bellwether of that occurred last month when Intel announced wireless chips in laptops. If I can make a prediction it would be that within the year, you’ll have litigants sitting in a courtroom and one of their attorneys or consultants will have a laptop that is pulling down the most current information. It’s going to be the battle of the laptops. Once they go live in the courtroom you’re going to see big changes.

Seattle24x7: Having access to case law and court rules is essential to exercising your rights and understanding the actual law that applies to your case.
Acton: You’re right. There is absolutely nothing that a court can do with information that hasn’t been presented to it.

Seattle24x7: Through it all, VersusLaw has weathered the Internet’s early storms and survived as a self-funded operation at the same time?
Acton: There’s the old adage that if you can be good or lucky, pick lucky. I think about one of the best things that was ever said about us back in 1996. Someone in the financial community parroted an old saying that the Actons throw nickels around like they were manhole covers. We always took our fiscal responsibility as a matter of pride because we’ve provided jobs, we’ve had people who have raised their kids, bought houses and cars. We’ve been doing this for 18 years.

During the dot-com boom we had one guy from a well known venture capital fund tell us they would put $20-$30 million dollars in but we had to guaranty them that the valuation here would increase ten to twenty fold in one year, and that we could acquire 20 million seats. I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t know of any enterprise that’s going to get you 20 million seats of anything in the next year.’ The other thing they wanted us to do is spend 80% of those funds on marketing. I couldn’t imagine a greater waste of money than to spend 80% of 20 million dollars on marketing. One of thing you can’t do is spend yourself rich. You’ve got to have a product and you’ve got to have customers.

Seattle24x7: That sounds like a very wise ruling indeed. [24×7]

Larry Sivitz is the Managing Editor of Seattle24x7.