Open source software has had a dramatic impact on how business and consumers use computers. Could the same be true for law? 

I blogged about the idea of open source law four years ago. Lawyers Open Their File Cabinets for a Web Resource (New York Times, 27 April 2008) reminds me of that idea. The article focuses on JD Supra, which stocks “a free, virtual law library by persuading lawyers to do something highly unusual: to post examples of their legal work online for use by one and all, no strings attached. Many of the documents are articles and newsletters that can be understood by ordinary mortals who want more background on a legal issue, or who would like to find lawyers with expertise in a particular area.”

JD Surpra moves the market closer to the open source model by providing a sharing platform. Several steps are still needed to get to the web-based collaboration, iterative improvements, and free sharing of a true open source approach. My March 2008 blog post, New Collaborative Web Sites for Legal Market reported on JD Supra, as well as Legal Onramp, which is more geared toward the B2B market.

Inhouse counsel frequently express concern about escalating legal costs. They can’t reduce demand so they need to find cheaper ways to deliver advice. Is an open source approach a realistic cost-saving approach now that the platforms to support it exist? Of course, there are many reasons not to pursue the concept: it’s a bad idea, lawyers have not done it in the past so why should they do it now, the free-rider syndrome, and lack of incentives to share. On that last point, I will leave it to others to ponder why whole communities of software developers happily share work product and lawyers do not. [I think the answer involves more than just confidentiality.]