GitHub for Lawyers

Media + Practice + Tech
July 30, 2013
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Many thanks to Hacker News and its readers for ushering this piece into the top-ten on January 20, 2017 — and for yielding this site 19,000 page views in a 24-hour period. Read more on that here.

Git was designed for code. Law is the original code1, and if anything proves that the Internal Revenue Code does. If you know even the littlest bit about how a bill becomes a law, and what mark up looks like, and perhaps have some programming background, using Git as a version control system (VCS) for legal drafting will make sense to you, particularly if you’re interested in steering law more towards the benefits of an open source community — a thought that’s only beginning to curl in the minds of even young jurists.

Git is an open source and lightweight system for managing and monitoring versions of writings. Other software can do this for you too, sometimes automatically (OS X is a basic example), but Git has superior advantages for controlling branches and, through GitHub, allowing networks to draft and merge asynchronously while substantially documenting and preserving the record.

Manually and locally controlling Git through Terminal provides the most flexibility for managing projects. But GitHub also has an app for Mac that takes much of the technical lexicon out of play and puts it into push button simplicity. Review setup options here.

The VCS-for-law discussion is not new, but it’s not over either. A group of lawyers is congealing on GitHub. Twitter posted a patent agreement there. (And in early 2014 Medium posted its terms of service and privacy policy there.)

I’ve put up a copyright license. You can fork the raw doc for other purposes and watch the original morph over time as others do the same thing. Or you can open issues with the original and make modifications to retool it. All on the record without much concern for data loss or the fact that several people might be editing at the same time. You can even branch a particular clause for work while leaving the bulk of the document intact, merging both parts when the clause is done going through rounds of changes. The system can handle conflicts with minor help from you, too. Check out Series Seed for another example of legal drafting on GitHub.

Or perhaps you’ll get ambitious, decide not to wait on your legislator for the next proposal, and ask your community to join you in a bill-drafting effort.

Code is poetry. Legal code, too.

[1] MIT (Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) / Harvard University (HLS, Berkman Center for Internet & Society) bearing this philosophy out in 2014.

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