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Nearly all conversations about the Internet these days mention the nearly endless possibilities the Web provides its users. It is rare that you ever see or hear discussions of the Web’s limitations. Ironically, the technology that fueled the Web’s global explosion — HTML — is one of its most significant limitations. HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) is simply a set of codes embedded in an ordinary text file that tell a browser how to display the file: what size the type should be, what color the background should be, where graphics should be displayed, etc. The HTML markup language contains no information about the nature of the content that is being displayed on a Web page, however. In HTML, a stanza of poetry is the same as a clause in a contract or a chapter in a book. In addition, HTML provides only one way of expressing the relationship of the material in the document — a hierarchical “outline” system of titles and subtitles. The lack of a system of content-description is apparent when using a search engine on the Web to locate relevant information. A search for, say, the term “privacy law” will return that term anywhere in a document, and in any kind of document (a news story, a brief, a legal opinion, a statute). And, if you wish to use an HTML document for a purpose other than merely displaying in a browser, typically the HTML codes must be extracted, leaving the contents of the document as an ordinary text file, which will require further processing or formatting to be useful in another application. XML, the “new” markup language (it’s been in development since 1996), is the answer to these limitations of HTML. XML stands for Extensible Markup Language. XML uses the same type of coding as HTML (codes embedded in an ordinary text file), but the XML codes, instead of merely providing information about how data should be displayed in a browser, provide information about the nature of the data in the document. The XML markup language, although relatively new, has a highly developed antecedent in the SGML markup language that has been in use in business and industry for years. SGML is a workhorse technology, widely used in publishing applications. SGML is a complex language that permits the storage of documents as “structured data.” The SGML language can store information in specific formats such as spreadsheets, address books and technical drawings. XML is a subset of SGML that was specifically designed for use on the Internet. It is a simpler and more flexible markup language, with the added benefit over HTML of permitting users to define their own sets of codes to describe document content (that’s what “extensible” means). A primary purpose of XML is to facilitate the exchange of information stored in SGML format in Web-based applications. But it is by no means limited to use with existing SGML databases. It is important to note here that HTML, XML and SGML are all open standards, not proprietary formats. This means that they are developed in an open, cooperative process and that applications that adhere to the standards achieve a degree of interoperability. Thus, information created in SGML is accessible with numerous proprietary database applications. Similarly, HTML documents are readable by any browser that adheres to the HTML standard. XML is being developed in the same fashion, to be usable with any proprietary application that conforms to the XML standard. The key to XML’s promise for Web applications is the ability for users to define a set of codes that describe the contents of a particular kind of document. For example, a user-defined set of codes can describe the names of the parties in a pleading, the docket number, the filing date, the paragraphs in the complaint and numerous other aspects of this kind of legal document. Similarly, a user-defined set of codes can describe the information in a contract or a judicial opinion. What does XML mean for lawyers? From the perspective of the lawyer as a user of applications, the proliferation of XML will mean increasing ability for lawyers to exchange documents seamlessly, not only among themselves, but also from and to the courts and other governmental authorities that are moving to Web-based applications. Legal XML is rapidly gaining acceptance as the language of choice in the legal community for this purpose. As stated above, the key to XML is the development of a set of user-defined codes that describe the structure of documents. If users of applications don’t use the same codes, the documents that are exchanged won’t be interoperable in a predictable manner. Many industries are forming groups to develop code sets, and the legal community is no exception. In 1998, a nonprofit group called Legal XML consisting of volunteer members from the private sector, government and academia was created to develop open, nonproprietary technical standards for the use of XML in legal documents. The group’s Web site is accessible at http://www.legalxml.org. The Legal XML group is divided into several work groups each with the task of creating codes for different types of legal materials such as contracts, statutory material, citations and legal publications. The broad-based membership of Legal XML holds promise for the development of widely accepted global XML standards for legal documents. Participants include representatives of U.S. and foreign court systems, legislatures and executive branch agencies. Examples of what will become available in the future as XML becomes more widely used in the legal community are beginning to emerge. At the beginning of April, a leading provider of Web-based legal support services introduced a product that is designed to assist law firms in complying with the requirements for electronic filing of legal documents using XML. The Web site is accessible at http://www.atcourt.com. The development of Legal XML standards can be expected to accelerate this and other developments in the ongoing process of moving legal transactions to the Web. Tyler Prochnow is an attorney with Lathrop & Gage, in Kansas City, Mo.

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