Legal XML Overview


The Legal XML mission is to develop open, non-proprietary standards for legal documents and associated applications.


Legal XML began with 18 members in November 1998. There are currently 651 members, many of whom actively participate in Workgroups to develop or promote standards. There are 516 Participants and 135 Observers.

Demographically, Legal XML members are made up of approximately 50% private companies, 25% government, and 25% academic or non-profit organizations. Legal XML members come primarily from the United States, but there is an increasing international presence. About 25% of Legal XML membership are non-U.S. with a large number of Australians, Canadians, and Europeans.


Legal XML is governed by the Legal XML Operating Rules. Decisions are made based on consensus. All members have a voice in the process.

In the past, group consensus has been determined by taking polls. Existing polls have helped determine Legal XML scope and other design principles. Polls also serve as a record of past decisions. All new members are welcome to take existing polls.


Legal XML has both a theoretical and practical scope. Theoretically, every electronic document that can be categorized as "legal" is within the scope of Legal XML. Practically, however, it would be impossible to describe all legal documents in XML all at once or even in a short time. Further, there must be a balance between creating technically competent and extensible standards and meeting short-term market demands. The development process must be modest and iterative. As a result, there is a practical limit to Legal XML's scope.

Theoretically, the Legal XML "domain" can be divided "vertically" and "horizontally" into various "subdomains." For instance, vertical subdomains include, but are not limited to, Court Filings, Transcripts, Judicial Decisions, Public Law (e.g., legislation, bills, statutes), Private Law (e.g., contracts, wills), and Publications (e.g., legal books, law journals). Horizontal subdomains include Citations, General Vocabulary (e.g., names, addresses), and Logical Document Structure (e.g., root elements, tables, outlines, paragraphs, signatures, general structural methodology). Horizontal subdomains cut across vertical subdomains. For example, citations will be found in Court Filings, Case Law, Public Law and Private Law documents. There is no need to recreate citation mark-up for each vertical subdomain; instead, the same citation markup can be used in all subdomains. Among other things, Legal XML seeks to harmonize and coordinate the various horizontal and vertical subdomains within the larger legal community.

Practically, Legal XML scope is determined pragmatically. If there is a group of individuals willing to work to develop legal XML in any particular subdomain, then that subdomain is within the practical scope of Legal XML. That is, if a group of people exist who are willing to do the work that falls within Legal XML's theoretical scope, then Legal XML will help to facilitate and support the work.


Although Legal XML is still young and developing, there is a set of policies and a culture that is developing that guides the group and informs its methodology. The following methodologies exist or are developing in Legal XML:

Form Partnerships
Workgroups Led by Chairs
Overinclusive and Optional
Agree to Disagree Through Identifiable Extensions and Change Management
Two Interoperable Implementations
Form Partnerships

As a new organization, Legal XML does not have sufficient clout to adequately promote its standards in a political sense. On the other hand, Legal XML is quickly becoming a forum where people with both legal and technical expertise can interact and develop standards. Accordingly, Legal XML membership has sought to form partnerships with existing organization that have both political clout and subject matter expertise. Legal XML has partnered, formerly and informally, with organization such as the Joint Technology Committee of COSCA/NACM, the National Court Reporters Association, SEARCH, the California Administrative Office of the Courts, and, recently, LEXML (Europe).

Workgroups Led by Chairs

Legal XML is divided into Workgroups, such as Court Filing and Transcripts. Workgroups develop specifications that define the technical XML standards. One or two chairs lead Workgroups. There are two workgroups, LEGAL and HORIZONTAL, that attempt to harmonize work done by other workgroups so that all standards are consistent. A TECHNICAL workgroup works on difficult technical issues. A USERS workgroup exists where non-technical members can ask questions and define requirements. There is also a CHAIRS mailing list, comprised only of chairs, and an ADMINISTRATION mailing list, where important leadership and administrative decisions are made.

See the Workgroup Webpage for a listing of all Workgroups and Chairs.

Agreement Where Possible

To date, the most active workgroups have been COURTFILING and TRANSCRIPTS. The COURTFILING Workgroup is the first and only workgroup to publish a "proposed" standard. Although there have been debates on a number of topics, both on the workgroup mailing list and at meetings, the workgroup has done an excellent job of agreeing where possible. When agreement has not been possible, the group has taken an "overinclusive and optional" approach.

Overinclusive and Optional

There are sometimes cases where one person or a small constituency wants or needs, for example, "A", "B" and "C", but another constituency wants or needs "C", "D", and "E". In these cases, the group has generally included elements to meet everyone needs, but made the extra elements optional. In this way, all the necessary elements are included in the standard, but there is no requirement to use certain elements.

Being overinclusive and optional is advantageous because it provides a basis for agreement and helps workgroups move forward quickly. The disadvantage of "optionality" is that the standard becomes complex and less standard. To solve this problem, at least in the case of the court filing standard, the workgroup has agreed in principle to develop an ancillary "policy" standard that will automate the process of determining court policy with respect to optional elements. For instance, if element "A" in the court filing specification is has three optional values, "X", "Y", and "Z" then a court could specify in the ancillary court policy XML a specific choice. Because court policy is itself specified in XML, software applications can automatically determine policy (by fetching it on the Internet).

Agree to Disagree Through Identifiable Extensions and Change Management

XML technology is extensible in many ways in that it allows for identifiable extensions to a core set of elements. Where agreement cannot be achieved or where there has not been enough time to comprehensively define a set of elements for all imaginable information (keep in mind the theoretical versus practical scope explanation), Legal XML has developed a policy of agreeing to disagree. For example, in the Court Filing proposed standard, there are "safe harbor" zones in the DTD where it is technically possible to use any element, even if it is not a standard element. In other places, there are ways in which even non-XML content can be included in a court filing. However, non-standard content may only appear in places where the workgroup has agreed it may appear. Thus, there is a standard way to deviate from the standard.

At the time of this writing, Legal XML's change management policy is not fully developed, simply because the group needs more candidate standards and more implementation experience. Some Legal XML members are working on ways to provide for rational change management and version control. Such change management will allow standards to evolve and develop so that small amounts of work can be done over time.

Two Interoperable Implementations

As of this writing, Legal XML has not yet produced a final, "recommended" standard. Legal XML has, however, published its first "proposed" standard. (See "Document Categories," below, for an explanation of "proposed" and "recommended" standards.) Although this may change, it appears that Legal XML members are committed to requiring "two interoperable" implementations of any "proposed" standard before a standard will be considered "final" and "recommended."


The "Legal XML" idea is not new or original and, in fact, has a dated history. In 1974 Charles F. Goldfarb, a lawyer, invented Standard Generalized Markup Language ('SGML'). SGML became an international standard in 1986 (ISO 8879). In 1987, Alan Asay, a brilliant lawyer and technologist, created civil and criminal SGML document type definitions ('DTDs') for the Utah state courts. (Alan Asay also wrote Utah's original Digital Signature Act, the first of its kind in the world.) These two visionaries and inventors planted the original Legal XML seeds.

Over ten years later, in February 1998, the World Wide Web Consortium ('W3C') recommended eXtensible Markup Language ('XML') as a standard. XML is a subset of SGML. XML has eighty percent (80%) of SGML's power and is backwards compatible, but is easier to use than SGML.

In February 1998, twenty five lawyers, court administrators, and technologists participated in a virtual electronic court filing seminar hosted by Counsel Connect. During the seminar, John Messing suggested that XML be used as a basis for a standard legal document format for court filings. John attributed the idea to Winchel 'Todd' Vincent, with whom he had had previous conversations on the subject. Todd got the idea from doing research, which included reading articles by Alan Asay.

Some people in the forum had never heard of XML. Some joked that it must be some sort of new religion. Some thought that XML was simply another hyped Internet technology that would likely have a short life and early death. Nevertheless, eleven people joined together to form the "Legal XML Workgroup." The Utah Electronic Law Partnership ('UELP'), headed by Brent Isrealsen, hosted the original Legal XML Workgroup. Unfortunately, the Workgroup never did any real work. The idea, simply, was not ripe. Legal XML did not yet have a following.

Georgia State University's Electronic Court Filing Project, led by Todd Vincent, was an original member of the UELP Legal XML Workgroup. Throughout the spring and summer of 1998, Todd promoted the idea of Legal XML standards. In late 1998, Gabe Wachob at FindLaw and Todd at Georgia State partnered in an effort to revive the Legal XML Workgroup. Georgia State created and hosted a "developers" mailing list for people who were interested in developing Legal XML DTDs and related standards. A short time later, FindLaw created and hosted a "general" discussion mailing list for people who were interested in standards, but who were not interested in reading the technical details.

Independently, during the summer of 1998, Rich Himes, New Mexico Federal District Court, another brilliant technologist and a colleague of Alan Asay, was developing eXtensible Court Interface (XCI). XCI is java-based software that uses XML to transmit documents and data into a court. XCI has now become OXCI, for "Open XML Court Interface," an open source software effort. OXCI is not organizationally related to Legal XML, although most of the people in OXCI participate in Legal XML and OXCI uses Legal XML court filing proposed standard.

During the summer of 1998, Nick Finke was also doing important work at the University of Cincinnati's Center for Electronic Text in the Law. In the summer of 1998, Nick and Todd met in Cincinnati to discuss Legal XML.

The Georgia State Legal XML developers mailing list began in November 1998 with seventeen members. Rich Himes, Nick Finke, and John Messing were among the original members. By March 1999, membership had grown to forty-five. Traffic on the mailing list contained many great ideas, but there was little structure or organization. It was clear that the group needed a charter to define its mission and scope, among other things. The group created a draft charter and defined its scope broadly to include not only court filings, but also public law (such as bills and statutes) and private law (contracts).

By the summer of 1999, the developers list had grown to around sixty people. By this time, active members were creating and donating markup and stylesheets. Rolly Chambers, one of the group's few real live lawyers and avid technologist, made significant and outstanding contributions. Other members were not contributing, however, but were taking advantage of the shared knowledge. It became clear that if the group's mission was to create open, non-proprietary standards, an intellectual property policy needed to be developed. To enforce the intellectual property policy, there needed to be enforceable legal agreements among members. At the same time, the volume of intellectual property being donated to the list required some formal process for submitting, organizing, and vetting ideas. There was also a growing need for a face-to-face meeting, administration, and sponsorship. In short, the group needed governance and structure. It needed legally enforceable Operating Rules.

On the political front, James Keane, an active member of the American Bar Association and, at that time, an independent consultant, organized the first of several "XFiles!" meetings. The March 1999 ABA Techshow XFiles meeting was the first time that interested, high-level industry players sat in the same room to discuss the issue of XML standards. Competing interests and ideas were evident and there was tension as a result, but the meeting was a huge success.

On September 15th, 1999, the first day of the National Center for State Courts CTC6 Conference in Los Angeles, CA, John Grecean, New Mexico State Courts and head of the Joint Technology Committee, a joint committee of COSCA and NACM, announced JTC's intention to develop XML standards for court filing.

Two days later, on September 17th, 1999, Legal XML held its first face-to-face meeting. Jim McMillan, National Center for State Courts, sponsored the meeting, which immediately followed CTC6 in Los Angeles. DRAFT Operating Rules had been written in anticipation of the meeting. The purpose of the first face-to-face meeting was to vet the DRAFT Operating Rules and give technical presentations.

Attendance at the first Legal XML face-to-face meeting was overwhelming. Forty-two (42) newcomers attended the meeting, including John Grecean and other members of JTC. Seventeen (17) existing members attended the meeting. Among the attendees, there were also two representatives from the American Bar Associations' Standing Committee on Technology and Information Systems (SCOTIS). There were also four Australians, Allison Stanfield, Jo Sherman, Eddie O'Brien, and Chris Priestley. (Allison Stanfield was the first female Legal XML member as well as the first Australian Legal XML member.) Debate at the meeting was lively. There was controversy over the DRAFT Operating Rules and its intellectual property policy. The newcomers, especially, were not familiar with the idea of General Public License or "copyleft." There was a cry from government attendees that all intellectual property ought to be released into the public domain.

Fifty new members joined the Legal XML mailing lists immediately after the face-to-face meeting. An intense debate ensued over the Legal XML intellectual property policy. One of the primary issues was whether the JTC XML Court Filing effort should join with Legal XML to develop a standard together. JTC representatives, who were primarily government employees, were concerned about the appropriateness of retaining intellectual property rights in the standard rather than publishing the work into the public domain.

In October 1999, Georgia State University Research Foundation, Inc. agreed to become the Legal XML "Intellectual Property Steward." This meant that Legal XML was no longer simply a group of people on mailing lists, but was backed by a legally recognized entity. This also allowed members, for the first time, to contract with the Research Foundation and bind themselves to the Legal XML Operating Rules and Intellectual Property Policy. The Foundation now holds intellectual property on behalf of Legal XML members and then licenses the intellectual property to the public perpetually, for free under the General Public License.

On November 4th, 1999, the JTC held its first Court XML meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sixty people attended the meeting. At that meeting, John Greacen announced that JTC would work with Legal XML to develop XML standards for court filing. John Greacen would lead the JTC effort and would act at Chair of the Legal XML Court Filing workgroup. This was a major breakthrough for Legal XML because it was the first partnership between an existing organization with subject matter expertise and Legal XML. At this meeting, it was also decided that there would be several phases of the Court XML standard. In December 2000, JTC officially decided to partner with Legal XML.

In January 2000, the Legal XML Transcripts Workgroup, headed by Davin Fifield and Eddie O'Brien (both Australian), met in New York. Nine people attended, including David Wacht from the National Court Reporters Association. The Court Filing Workgroup also met in January in Phoenix, AZ.

In early March 2000, Legal XML held its second face-to-face meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. Forty-nine people attended the meeting. Several workgroups met face-to-face, including Court Filing, Transcripts, Contracts, and Public Law. Among the attendees were many of Legal XML's workgroup chairs, including Donald Bergeron and Rolly Chambers (LEGAL), William Jennings (HORIZONTAL), John Greacen and Robin Gibson (COURTFILING), Mohyeddin Abdulaziz (APPEALS), Eddie O'Brien and Davin Fifield (TRANSCRIPTS), Dan Greenwood and John McClure (CONTRACTS), Nick Finke (PUBLICLAW), and Toby Brown (COMMUNICATIONS). At this meeting, members decided to form an Organizing Committee that would help to continue the development of Legal XML as an independent non-profit organization.

On March 22nd, 2000, the Court Filing Workgroup published a first draft of a proposed standard, authored by Marty Halvorson and Rich Himes.

On March 31st, 2000, the first Legal XML Organizing Committee meeting took place in Chicago Illinois at the ABA Techshow. Jim Keane hosted the meeting. Thirty-five people attended the meeting, although only twenty-five people were invited. At the Organizing Committee meeting, members decided to form three subworkgroups. Attendees agreed to draft and publish recommendations on several topics by May 1st, 2000. Attendees agreed to meet again in Los Angeles, on or around June 20th, in conjunction with LegalTech for further face-to-face discussion.

The Court Filing Workgroup met again in May in St. Louis, MO and in June in Dallas, TX.

The Organizing Committee met for a second time in June 2000. There was broad consensus that Legal XML should become a non-profit organization and charge a membership fee.

The Integrated Justice Workgroup, chaired and organized by David Roberts, held its first meeting in June, 2000 in Dallas, TX. Approximately twenty people attended the meeting.

In July 2000, Murk Muller hosted the first German Legal XML ( face-to-face meeting in Berlin, Germany. Approximately fifteen people attended the meeting, including Axel Horns, one of the first forty-five Legal XML members and the first German Legal XML member. At the meeting, members decided to partner with Legal XML in an attempt to explore the development of language independent international standards.

Upcoming meetings include Integrated Justice, August 18, 2000, Atlanta, GA; Lexml (Germany), September 22nd, Saarbruecken, Germany; Australia Workgroup, October 2000, Melbourne, Australia; Court Filing Workgroup, October 16-17, 2000, Sante Fe, NM and a full Legal XML face-to-face meeting either in November 2000 at Massachussets Institute of Technology.

What is XML?

As the name suggests, Legal XML is focused on creating legal standards using a technology called "XML." "XML" (eXtensible Markup Language) is a technical standard developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). XML is used to create "document formats" using custom "tags" and "stylesheets." XML tags look similar to HTML (Hyptertext Markup Language) tags. Legal XML seeks to standardize one or more sets of legal tags (i.e., names for the underlying data), but does not seek to standardize stylesheets (i.e., the appearance of the data).

Now and in the future, XML document formats will replace HTML as the most favorite web technology because HTML is a "dumb" document format. Indeed, a significant disadvantage of using HTML is that it has a predefined set of tags that do not have a meaningful relationship to the content within them. For instance, the following HTML "mark-up" would look colorful in a web browser:

<FONT Color='Red">I agree to give you a peppercorn in exchange for your services.</FONT>

However, the HTML <FONT> tag does not provide meaningful information to a reader, a search engine, or any other information system. More meaningful mark-up would look like this:

<CONTRACT Color='Red">I agree to give you a peppercorn in exchange for your services.</CONTRACT>

Unfortunately, custom tags such as <CONTRACT> are not allowed in HTML. This is where XML comes to the rescue by allowing developers to create their own tags. The ability to customize tags makes XML a very powerful tool.

Need for Standard "Legal" XML

The ability to create custom XML tags has great potential for organizing and making sense of the vast quantities of information that are being dumped onto the Internet daily. Vertical industries, such as legal, healthcare, and banking, to name but a few, have the most to gain from a customizable, web-based information architecture. Unfortunately, the potential power of custom tags also has a great potential for chaos.

The reason there could be chaos is this: if several creative people were to independently create legal tags, the likely result would be many different tags for the same information. For example, <CourtFiling>, <COURT_FILING>, <filing>, are all different and incompatible tags in XML, but they convey the same or similar meaning to a legal mind. Incompatible tags means different software applications cannot "talk" to each other.

The solution to this potential "Tower of Babel" is to create XML standards for the legal industry. Accordingly, "Legal XML," the organization, seeks to bring legal and technical minds together in one forum to create a compatible set of open, non-proprietary, standard tags.

Intellectual Property Policy

To assure that Legal XML standards remain open and non-proprietary (i.e., free to the public, yet standard), the group has adopted an intellectual property policy modeled from the intellectual property policies of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium. (The IETF and the W3C are the most famous and successful Internet standards bodies. Without technical standards from these groups, communication over the Internet would not be possible.)

The IETF, W3C, and Legal XML intellectual property policies are based on the notion of General Public License ("GPL") or "Copyleft." Under a GPL, an organization's members cooperatively develop intellectual property (the standards) with other members, some of whom may be fierce competitors. The organization retains intellectual property rights to the jointly developed standard. Retaining intellectual property rights helps to assure that the standard is not changed. At the same time, however, the organization grants a perpetual license to the public to use the standard for free. In this way, the organization's work is free and open yet remains standard.

General Design Principles

In the first Legal XML poll, members agreed that Legal XML's mission is not to standardize the internal format or functioning of applications (e.g., databases, database elements). Instead, Legal XML's mission is to standardize the interchange format that exists in between applications.  As a general rule, Legal XML will not develop applications.  However, potential applications might include a standard XML interface, such as XCI.

To illustrate:
Application[1] ==> XML Standard ==> Application[2]
Application[2] ==> XML Standard ==> Application[3]
Application[3] ==> XML Standard ==> Application[1]

Tag Names

Since Legal XML is attempting to create standards, the first consideration faced, and decision made, by Legal XML members was on the format of tag names. Legal XML conventions follows:

Element names must be intuitive
Capitalize beginning of separate words
No abbreviations
Good Examples:
Bad Examples:

Other Legal XML Efforts

Other legal XML efforts include UELP, XCI, National Center for State Courts/Lexis, Washington State Bar XML Study Committee, the Joint Technology Committee of COSCA and NACM, National Conference of State Legislatures, and Legal Electronic Data Exchange Standard (LEDES) (time and billing).

Sponsored by FindLaw and Georgia State University Electronic Court Filing Project