The Hottest Internet Startup of 1960

Some legal research the other day unearthed a hilarious-in-retrospect account of the first online legal research service — a (pre-)internet startup from almost 50 years ago whose success-and-seediness story is eerily similar to those of more recent tech startups:

Law Research Service is a child of the computer age. In 1960, Hoppenfeld, a lawyer with some background in computer technology, perceived that computers could greatly facilitate legal research. He concluded that a practical system could be developed in which thousands upon thousands of court opinions would be fed into a computer, so that when a legal problem was submitted to the machine it would then select and retrieve all the relevant precedents . … [L]awyers would … pay an annual subscription and a small fee per inquiry. … Similar ideas for marrying computers to the law have been put forth but it seems that LRS was the first such legal information retrieval system to be tried commercially.

Sanders suggested a public offering which would raise not only enough money to cover the LRS’s debt … but would permit LRS to expand its computer library to cover decisions of the federal courts as well as those of the New York courts then already on tape.

Globus v. Law Research Service, 418 F.2d 1276 (2d Cir. 1969) (emphases added to the phrases that made me smile). I just wanted to share this as a nifty piece of legal history trivia, not so much comment on it… but I do have two quick points to make in the “more things change, the more they stay the same” department:

(1) The reported case was a now-familiar type of securities fraud lawsuit: alleging shady practices to raise capital for a tech startup.

(2) Between the financing problems and the “small” fee per inquiry business model: Is there something in the genetics of tech startup visionaries that they assume they can provide huge quantities of information to the masses without much means of actually making money?

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8 Responses

  1. Ubertrout says:

    The Law Research Service was involved in an awful lot of litigation it seems (Westlaw lists 26 cases in which it was a party, although many are unpublished), the last few concerning its bankruptcy.

  2. Jack S. says:

    No doubt a bit ahead of his time too. Had Chakrabarty and Diehr already occurred Hoppenfeld might have had one heck of a software/business method to patent and frustrate the Lexis/Westlaw monopoly.

  3. Don’t mock the small fee; at scale, it’s a great business model. Of course, it’s even better if your business model will be self-funding at any scale, but Google and Yahoo were both launched without an obvious proven revenue model. Fractions-of-a-cent-per-search revenue has worked out quite well for them.

  4. Bruce Boyden says:

    I felt the same way about this article from the Times archive a few months ago:

    You can tell from the language that the idioms of the information age and space exploration haven’t taken hold yet. E.g., “[a] correction so that the Mariner would pass the planet close to the planned distance of 10,000 miles was said to be well within the capabilities of the craft’s radio-activated rocket steering-motor.” In other words, they were able to uplink a course correction.

  5. Scott Moss says:

    Bruse — yeah, tech terms change quickly enough that in a few years, nobody even knows the old ones any longer; I was just watching an Ernie and Bert skit on YouTube with my daughter, and Ernie & Bert were talking about their “transistor radio.” I guess old radios used something called “transistors” but I don’t know why folks said that instead of just “radio”. It was jarring to hear Ernie using a term for a piece of electronic equipment whose purpose I don’t know.

  6. Bruce Boyden says:

    I’m just barely old enough to remember common use of the term “transistor radio” (I may even have seen that Sesame Street episode first-run). Prior to transistors, radios had vacuum tubes — which made them huge and bulky, and more importantly they couldn’t be run on batteries. My Dad had a couple. “Transistor radios” were newfangled, smaller devices that you could carry around with you. They were the iPods of their day. It was just another way of saying portable or handheld radio.

  7. Ubertrout says:

    Methinks there’s an interesting article in the early history of computerized legal research systems. A quick search of the NYT archive reveals a story about a proposal to put all the world’s law on a computer in Geneva (July 10, 1967), and two days later an article where someone excitedly announced that by the end of the year U.Pitt. Law would have the entire USC on tape.

    Four years before that, came an article about an “electronic law clerk” – a Univac computer for finding and printing precedents (December 3, 1963).

  8. IWasThere says:

    It may seem hilarious in retrospect, but it wasn’t all “seedy”. It was a great idea, but the company struggled with obtaining the computer services and the terminals [the only way of online, other than telephone, communication in its day] to permit the customer to send queries and receive answers. The securities and fraud cases followed the canceled and breached contracts that made it impossible for LRS, Inc. to expand and grow its service and to continue in business.

    More than a decade later, a lot of lawyers were also laughing at Lexis when it was first rolling out its service.

    Not all technology catches on that quickly.