I have long advocated open source law. If more lawyers and clients put documents in the public domain, legal costs might drop and consistency rise. At least one start-up is working to make this happen. 

I recently spoke to Veronica Picciafuoco of Docracy, an open source law website. She is Director of Business Development and Community and is a lawyer who keeps an eye on the site’s content. The Docracy about us page states a bold mission:

“Docracy is a social repository of legal documents. Our mission is to make useful legal documents freely available to the public. We also hope to make them easier to find, customize and sign. No more crappy templates behind a paywall that you download hoping everything will be alright. Instead: reputable, transparent sources and social proof to help you find something as close as possible to the perfect document.”

When I first wrote about open source law in 2004, the mechanisms to gather, collect, and vote on, if not vet, documents were primitive. Today, with the social web and Facebook generation, the idea that people share content freely, comment on it, vote on it, and download is almost second nature.

Docracy wants to apply this thinking to legal documents for individuals and small businesses. The company’s start illuminates the need it’s trying to meet. The co-founders, two entrepreneurs developing mobile apps, looked on the web for contract templates they could use. They did not like what they found. So what else to do but start a company to fix the problem?

I asked Veronica why a user should trust a document uploaded to Docracy. She said that people already download legal documents from the web from a range of sources, many perhaps dubious. With Docracy she says, the source of the document is clear, the ability to create branches / versions of it allows improvements, and the number of downloads provides an indication of “social acceptance”. Lawyers likely find that answer lacking but I suspect she is right. Some social vetting is perhaps better than no evidence of usability.

I also asked who will be motivated to upload documents. A general answer is that many people share because they think that’s the right thing to do – look at the open source code movement. As for Docracy specifically, Veronica suggests that some organizations will have incentives to upload vetted documents. Some trade associations and advocacy organizations already provide templates, either for members or the public. They might well want to upload documents to a central source if doing so expands their reach. Docracy, with a concentration of similar documents, likely would achieve higher search engine rankings for document searches, which could benefit the contributing organization reach more of their target audience.

The open source law model should hold much appeal for inhouse counsel. The typical large law department faces many legal issues and transactions that are not competitive differentiators or even all that sensitive. If general counsels were to share documents more freely – across law departments and law firms – they likely would lower their legal costs. I don’t know if Docracy will serve that purpose but it certainly illustrates a path for law departments.