Mobile Phones and Geolocation Data

Yesterday the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts became the latest court to weigh in on the question:

Do mobile phone users have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the geolocation data transmitted by their phones?

In Commonwealth v. Augustine, the SJC joined the minority of courts to have ruled that we do have a reasonable expectation of privacy in this information and, as a result, the government must get a warrant to obtain records disclosing cell site location information.

You can follow this issue and add your own citations and arguments for free on Mootus by clicking below.


What Mootus Is and Isn’t

Earlier this week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a piece by Kim Lyons titled, “Crowdsourcing Gains Traction As A Resource in Legal Practice.” She reported on some of the work by Mootus and the folks at Casetext to adapt the principles and techniques of crowdsourcing to legal research.

This morning, I came across some Twitter activity originating from a short blurb in the London-based Global Legal Post titled, “Lawyers Innovate to Adapt Crowdsourcing to Legal Advice.” As best I can tell, the blurb is a poor attempt to paraphrase the Post-Gazette story, which the blurb cites as its “source.” Unfortunately, some of the tweets commenting on the blurb expressed approval at the incorrect notion – suggested by the title – that we’re somehow adapting crowdsourcing to legal advice.

That, to me, is a problem that goes beyond the careless imprecision of a publication like the Global Legal Post. It mischaracterizes Mootus and our strongly held views about the roles of lawyers and technology.

Mootus Is A Resource For Collaborative, Authority-Based Legal Analysis

Our goal at Mootus is to create a structured online environment for people to discuss, analyze and argue the merits of a legal issue using citations to primary legal authorities. We designed Mootus to be a useful resource for lawyers, first and foremost. We purposefully chose to emphasize objectively verifiable authorities over unverifiable, subjectively held opinions, because that is what lawyers and courts do, particularly in litigation.

Our hope is that Mootus will (1) promote higher quality, more efficient legal work through various forms of online collaboration, including crowdsourcing, and (2) provide an engaging venue for lawyers to develop specific skills like primary law research and analysis, which new and aspiring lawyers generally do not get enough exposure to in law school.

Like any startup, we’re still figuring things out, and we plan to continue experimenting with new approaches. Success is not remotely assured. But it is very important to us – and to me, in particular, as a lawyer with great faith in the legal profession – that our aims not be misunderstood.

Mootus Is Not a Platform for Crowdsourced Legal Advice

Mootus does not “adapt crowdsourcing to legal advice,” as the Global Legal Post suggested. Nor will we ever. That’s simply not the kind of innovation we’re after. Ultimately, what we’re focused on is the way lawyers do their work, not the way clients obtain legal advice. While many focus on the potential for technology to change the way legal services are marketed or delivered to clients, we’re interested in the great, untapped potential of technology to help lawyers improve the quality and the efficiency of their work.

- Adam

Spreadsheets for Lawyers – It’s Not All About Efficiency

The Law Firm “Tech Audit”

Casey Flaherty is an attorney at KIA Motors best known for his law firm “tech audit,” which confirmed that associates at law firms don’t know much about the basic software applications – like Excel, Word and Adobe – they sometimes use to perform billable work.

This audit has garnered quite a bit of attention, and some well-considered criticism. Most of the debate, however, focuses on questions of efficiency and cost-saving — how much time it takes lawyers to do things poorly, how much wasted expense results, whether lawyers should be off-loading such “administrative” tasks to others, etc.


Technology Is About Quality Too

Efficiency matters to me, big time. I think it’s a core professional obligation for all lawyers. That said, all the talk of efficiency risks obscuring the fact that technological competence* also impacts the quality of a lawyer’s work.

Spreadsheets in Practice – Real-World Examples

As a commercial litigator and white collar defense lawyer, I used spreadsheets in some fashion in almost every case, and my basic comfort with Excel yielded some big results.

For example, I once defended a company against claims by a distributor who alleged that faulty products caused him to lose tens of millions of dollars. During discovery, the distributor hit us with dozens of tattered boxes of musty order forms and cancellation notices. In a short period of time, I took a few sample records and built a basic spreadsheet model that would allow us to use the records to test the plaintiff’s causation allegations and damages calculations. When the results looked promising, I handed it off to a paralegal and scanning vendor who completed and refined the analysis. The result was a powerful worst-case damages model in the low six-digits instead of in the mid eight-digits.

Another time, I litigated a case that turned on the adequacy of bank practices. Again, working with a paralegal and discovery vendor, I put together a very basic spreadsheet model that allowed us to analyze reams of bank records for patterns that fit our theory of the case. I didn’t do the scanning or the data entry, but my familiarity with Excel allowed me to experiment with multiple models and to appreciate how the data could be used to support our case. The resulting analysis became the basis for my cross-examination of an expert witness and played a big role in the court’s decision awarding our adversary nothing on a $25million-plus claim.

In another instance, I worked on an arbitration in which the sellers of a tech startup, who stood to benefit if earnout triggers were hit, challenged my client’s efforts to develop and market the underlying technology following the acquisition. Just a little facility with Excel allowed us to analyze sales records, customer profiles and other data to help rebut the plaintiffs’ allegations.

As a last example, early in my career, I used Excel to create a very detailed chronology of events and documents in a complex SEC securities fraud investigation. This was the simplest possible use of Excel – no formulas, no fancy data tables or graphs – just a straight-up chronology. But it became a critical resource to the entire team (which was good for me professionally) and ultimately yielded some key insights that helped us persuade the SEC not to take action against our client.

A Little Understanding Can Offer a Big Advantage

In dozens of  other matters throughout my 10-year career, a little comfort with spreadsheets went a long way in identifying flaws in opposing experts’ methodologies, ferreting out important patterns or trends that affected the merits of a case, or conveying complicated information to a fact-finder, client or witness.

There was nothing unique or brilliant about any of this work, and I wouldn’t claim any special expertise at all. In fact, these examples involved an embarrassingly basic understanding of Excel, which I combined with my expert grasp on the legal and factual circumstances of each case.

But the ability and willingness to integrate a tool like Excel into my work gave me an advantage. Many other lawyers couldn’t or wouldn’t work with – let alone build – a spreadsheet, even a simple one. And that gave me an edge, which I was happy to put to good effect for my clients and, ultimately, for my career.

Ignoring Technology Means Doing Lower Quality Work

The corollary to these observations, at least to my way of thinking, is that ignoring or avoiding basic technology leads to lower quality work. The refusal to learn how to use technology like spreadsheets means you’re not serving your clients with the level of competence they deserve. Arguably, the ABA’s revision to Model Rule 1.1, which has been adopted by at least some states, suggests the same thing.

So if you’re a law student or new lawyer, or even a law school thinking about adding technology skills training to your curriculum, don’t view the legal technology conversation only through the prism of efficiency. That’s just part of the equation.


* I appreciate that, outside the legal world, basic familiarity with Excel (or Word or Adobe) would not be mistaken for technological competence. We’ll save that for another post.

(image CC courtesy Jon Newman)

Crowdsourcing the 23andMe Class Action Suit


Just days after of the FDA’s warning letter to 23andMe, we now have a follow-on class action suit filed on behalf of a proposed class of all persons who bought one of 23andMe’s products.

Here’s a link to the press release / blog about the lawsuit by the plaintiff’s attorney, Mark Ankcorn, and here is the complaint.

Because this is a very interesting case, we’ve decided to feature it on our blog so we can monitor the legal arguments and learn about the legal issues the case will present.

Check out our page on the case – Casey v. 23andMe – and dive into the issues on Mootus.

(image CC courtesy Flickr user JohnGoode)

Law Students: Make the Most of Your “Downtime”

I just came across a terrific post from Philip Guzman, titled: Law School: Success and Careers.

This is such good advice that I wanted to share with our readers and followers. I know how hard exam time is, and how awesome the post-exam break is. Without a doubt, you have to take some time away from law school to relax, connect with family and friends and recharge your batteries.


But in this day and age, long periods of inactivity are career killers. Law students need to jump at every opportunity to hone their skills, reputation and knowledge, and to build professional relationships. Employers pay attention when they see signs that a candidate is proactive and self-reliant. Guzman offers some excellent suggestions, and I’d of course add Mootus to the list as well.

(image CC courtesy Flickr user Maxmroz)