Friday, April 29, 2011

Congress Commits to E-Data Formats


    One of the core technological improvements needed in our legal system is better organization of legislation (see #6).  Legislation forms the foundation of most of our legal rights and remedies, and yet Congress (not to mention the states) continues to publish our laws in inconsistent formats, with at least four different transformations between legislative proposal and final, published statute in the U.S. Code.
    A small but dedicated band of open government geeks has pushed for Congress to publish statutes in an open, structured (XML) format, in a form that can be downloaded in bulk.  And now the leadership of the House has taken up the call. This, from the Sunlight Foundation's blog--
    Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor today sent a letter to the Clerk of the House calling for better access to the House's electronic data:
    ...At the start of the 112th Congress, the House adopted a Rules Package that identified electronic documents as a priority for the institution. Towards that end, we are asking all House stakeholders to work together on publicly releasing the House’s legislative data in machine-readable formats. The Rules of the House, adopted on the opening day of this Congress, directed the Committee on House Administration to establish and maintain electronic data standards for the House and its committees. We have asked that this standard be developed in conjunction with your office for the purpose of transitioning the House to more open data formats, such as XML. We believe that this legislative data, using standardized machine-readable formats, should be publicly available on House websites. The Clerk’s office should work to ensure the consistent public availability and utility of the House’s legislative data.
     

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Legal Technologies that Scream for Improvement

When anyone with a technical background-- in my case computational neuroscience --enters the legal profession, it's like Dorothy going back to Kansas.  There is no more Technicolor: everything becomes gray and somewhat dated.  It's like a time-warp.

Now, some of this is natural and a result of the position that law has in society, as a gatekeeper and protector of existing traditions.  But much of it is simply frustrating and, I think, one of the reasons that so many lawyers are unhappy in the profession.  What makes it more frustrating is the potential that law provides for creating structures that "play well" with computers: like computer programming, it is an all-text medium, where units are (or should be) logically related and interlinked.  Just as a programmer can write unit tests for computer programs, lawyers should be able to use technology to provide more rigorous legal analysis and to make legal processes more efficient.

As a starting point to tackle what can be done about the gap between potential and actual legal technology, I'll list some of the major areas that cry out for improvement:

1. Access to Basic Legal Information

Legal information is fragmented and generally not well organized in electronic form.  All primary legal information is legally in the public domain, but in practice may be hard to find or in a form that makes it impossible to search electronically.  While lawyers at large law firms have an advantage, with access to expensive databases of legal information curated by thousands of staff attorneys at the legal publishers (Westlaw, Lexis, etc.), the fragmentation of data always leaves a fear that the information is incomplete. And even as primary legal materials become available, Professor Richard Leiter and others have pointed out that lawyers will continue to rely on the commentary of their peers and other secondary sources in order to make sense of the law. A "Free Access to Law" movement has gained momentum, especially in the UK, as the tools to "crowdsource" or automate collection of primary legal information have matured. But we're still far from the goal of open and accessible legal information.

2. Research, Writing and Collaboration Tools

Lawyers primarily rely on Microsoft Word to write their documents, and often transmit them by Adobe pdf to the court and other parties.  These proprietary formats are used largely for layout and, in the case of pdf, security.  But they also make it far more difficult to apply standard computer science tools to create and analyze documents, which means that lawyers end up doing a lot of things by hand that programmers let their editing environments do for them automatically.  Programmers take these tools for granted and don't understand what's the big deal about building such tools for lawyers; when I ask them imagine writing their code in MS Word, they get it.

3. Legal Analysis Tools

In principle, law is well structured to apply semantic analysis techniques, to determine important legal precedents, and even to automate tasks like determining whether a given statute or regulation is current. This area again, is one where the computational tools were developed long ago, but where legal information is not produced in a clean or consistent format, making such analysis many times more complicated.

4. Mentorship in the Legal Profession

It may seem strange to list mentorship among the areas that need technical improvement.  However, major job losses in the major firms and changes in their hiring patterns mean that more lawyers are starting out on their own.  While many will leave the legal profession entirely, this also creates the potential for more "virtual" law firms.  Technological platforms for collaboration and mentorship will need to develop in order to support this change.

5. Consistency in Court Procedure and Data Formats

The Federal courts are all required to publish their legal opinions online.  But a brief survey of their websites shows that each (while looking like a '90s throwback) organizes the information of the court differently, offers different formats and, in general, needs to be dealt with individually.  This is even more true at the state level, creating a fragmented system of information that can, currently, only be approached with the large budgets of the major publishing companies.  The potential for automation is obvious, and there are open source projects (e.g. here) to collect and publish Federal court opinions, but the lack of format consistency is a major barrier.

6. Consistency in Legislation

A similar inconsistency is found in the publication of legislative information.  Distributed, open source efforts, such as the Sunlight-Foundation-sponsored Fifty State Project are trying to tackle this at the state level, and others, such as Cornell's Legal Information Institute, are working with Congressional offices to help structure and hopefully standardize Federal legislative information.

These are just a taste of the fundamental challenges to bringing order to legal information and legal practice.  Other areas, such as writing and analyzing contracts, could also use major overhaul. One common thread is the poor quality of much of the legal data that is being produced.  The best place to create structure in legal data is when it is first produced: when a law, regulation, memo, brief or opinion is drafted.  The best technological tools can only do so much with data that is a mess: GIGO. More work, clearly, needs to go into creating cleaner, more structured legal information.  Two complementary pieces are needed to make this happen: use of plain language in drafting, and the use of drafting tools (e.g. this) that impose some structure on legal information from the outset.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The State of Legal Technology

I was recently prompted to answer a question on Quora about the state of legal technology. My answer: fragmented and outdated. That answer included a few examples and raised two other questions: why is so much of legal technology anachronistic, and what can be done about it?

I've set up this space, in part, to provide more detailed thoughts on these three questions. My friend and Tabulaw advisor, Sungmoon Cho, whose blog is very popular in Korea, has been an inspiration to do so in the form of a blog.

I founded Tabulaw to tackle some of the problems with current legal technologies, which limit access to legal information and make the legal system inefficient. In developing and marketing Tabulaw's products, I've gained greater insight into some of the cultural and institutional barriers to improved legal technology. I've also been introduced to many of the technologies that hackers have developed to make their own work more efficient, or at least more fun, and am convinced the next generation of lawyers will be using many similar tools, as well.

I am not the first to notice the lack of technical sophistication in law, or the major transformations that technology could bring to the profession. Richard Susskind's End of Lawyers, for example, identifies many of the structural problems with today's legal profession and the ways that technology may impact its future.  Other insightful thinkers, including Jonathan Zittrain at Harvard and Ed Felten at Princeton, have painted a picture of how technology could (or should?) transform the practice of law.

I hope that this blog can add to these perspectives and provide another bridge between the technical and legal communities.