William Morse uses the web to demystify the law

Until a couple of years ago, the law was an aloof and intimidating entity for most non-lawyers. Finding precedents to support one's case was a virtual impossibility for all but attorneys and law students.

Thanks to Emory College and law school graduate William Morse, however, that's all changed. Since joining the law school staff two years ago as head of information technology services, Morse has made it an integral part of his mission to provide legal information in an easily accessible electronic format.

The birth of the Emory web

When Morse was an undergraduate at Emory in the late '80s and early '90s, he got a job in the computing labs. He graduated in 1991 and enrolled in Emory law school that fall. At that time, Morse also became a software consultant with the Information Technology Division (ITD).

"I always tend to expand my role in whatever I'm doing," Morse said. "I worked very closely with [ITD Webmaster] Marie Matthews. One night we went to Georgia Tech and saw the World Wide Web. When I saw that, I knew then and there that it was going to be the future. Before, the Internet had been very text-based and inaccessible. But the web added this multimedia interface that almost anyone could use."

Morse and Matthews decided to take the bull by the horns and bring the web to Emory. "We did the work at home and during off hours," Morse said. "And it eventually caught on." Morse also integrated the web into the familiar Eagle interface. "It's basically a web interface that does all those things the Internet can do. That's the power of the web itself; it's an integrator of all these technologies that people didn't understand or couldn't use before. Now they can because it wraps all those technologies into a nice neat package."

Making the law accessible

When Morse finished law school in 1994, he was faced with a daunting life choice: going into practice with a law firm where he already had a job lined up, or joining the law school staff to initiate a web project. "I made a proposal to the law school to do something fantastic on the web, something that had never been done before," Morse said. "They accepted, and I decided that was what I really wanted to do. How many times in your life do you have an opportunity to do something that's never been done before?"

Already in existence before Morse became a law school staff member was the Electronic Reference Desk, created by Stuart Myerburg, a recent law school graduate at the time who now assists Morse as manager of Internet services for the law school. Morse said that Myerburg put a tremendous amount of public domain information on-line as part of that project.

When Morse was hired, one of his first initiatives was securing sponsorship from Hewlett-Packard that ultimately provided the law school with its own web server and other equipment. NeXT Computer also became a sponsor. Once that infrastructure was in place, Morse began posting court opinions on the law school's web site, beginning with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The site now features the opinions of seven U.S. Circuit Courts. Several editions of the U.S. Constitution are included, as well as documents from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Georgia.

Morse and his colleagues also have conducted Continuing Legal Education courses for alumni in Atlanta and Savannah.

"Alumni use our databases daily," Morse said. "We are quite popular and in some ways have become the victim of our own success. When we started, we had only a couple thousand users a week accessing our main page. Now we easily have 500,000 to 750,000 connections a month."

Ensuring that each of his web projects furthers the goal of making legal information easy to find and use is crucial to Morse. "The law traditionally has been a very aloof thing," he said. "People haven't understood it or had any idea how it worked. They paid high-priced lawyers to do the work, and when the case was finished they still didn't know what happened. They might have won their case, but they had no idea why. I might not be able to put each person through law school, but now they can see on the web the reasonings that judges make."

Emory's law web site, Morse believes, is now the second largest legal information site in the world behind Cornell University. And after two years of negotiation, the law school has been awarded the right to host Georgia Supreme Court opinions on their web site.

As proud as he is of these accomplishments, though, Morse ultimately sees technology as a tool for reaching the original goal he had in mind when he entered law school: to make the law more accessible and non-threatening for everyone. "When you're in law school you have a book that supposedly teaches you about evidence," he said. "But it's just a bunch of cases. That's not very accessible. But when you put subjects on the web dealing with what evidence means and how to use it, and it's written in plain language, that makes it much more accessible. We saw a need and we filled it, and I am very excited about that."

--Dan Treadaway

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