If you have legal troubles or just need a little advice, you can now log on to the Legal Scholarship Network (LSN) and download away. It’s kind of like visiting Napster, but instead of finding MP3s of Metallica and Rage Against the Machine, you’ll have access to the works of ubiquitous legal quote machine Alan Dershowitz and Harvard law professor and perennial Supreme Court possibility Lawrence Tribe.
Singing law professors? Not exactly. LSN trades in prepublication versions of law review articles, not bootleg musical recordings. And there’s no pirated material; everything is posted with the authors’ permission. In fact, authors usually submit the articles themselves. If an author balks at having his stuff on the site, it’s taken down. Additionally, all content lives on a central database, so nobody’s peeking into anyone else’s hard drive.
But the concept behind LSN is still the same as Napster?making original work available over the Web for free. And Stanford law professor Bernard Black, who runs the service, predicts that online legal scholarship could eventually supplant the hoary old tradition of printed law reviews. “What’ll happen to law reviews? I honestly don’t know,” says Black. “I think the top law reviews may maintain enough of a brand name to survive. The second-tier law reviews may not, unless schools keep subsidizing them as a way to train lawyers and law students.”
Black adds that LSN is an important way to circulate important legal scholarship before it goes stale. Most of the content is abstracts and early versions of papers that have been accepted by law reviews but not yet published. “This lets people outside the top schools keep in touch with the cutting-edge of legal scholarship in a way that’s otherwise hard to do, because [by the time a working paper is published in a law review] it’s already two years out of date,” he says.
Bernard Hibbitts, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, is a big advocate of electronic publishing of legal scholarship. “You’re able to reach a wider audience because not everyone has access to [paid services like] Westlaw and Lexis,” says Hibbitts, who operates a legal-education portal at his university. “I’ve received a lot more feedback from things I’ve posted directly on the Web than from anything I’ve ever published.”
This trend won’t necessarily be limited to the law. There’s no reason to think that the same concept at work here?sharing original thought over the Internet?can’t apply to engineers, software designers, business theorists and even vertical industry CIOs.