Further Considerations on "The End of Lawyers"

In a previous post on Susskind’s The End of Lawyers, I briefly outlined some of the technologies Susskind discusses, then pointed out several fundamental technologies which he does not discuss in depth, but which I believe will have significant impact on the legal profession.
One topic which I did not discuss in that post was why the legal profession is so slow to adopt legal technology. Susskin points out several:

      Billable hours — the legal profession makes money by the hour, which is a disincentive to make legal processes more efficient.
      Conservativism and status — the legal profession has a long and distinguished position which changes slowly.
      Government funding — while governments may recognise the value of legal technologies, investing in them is another matter (though see the recent e-Government awards in the previous post).
      Information availability — only recently have legal documents (legislation, cases, other government information) been made publically and electronically available.

I think (and believe my colleagues in AI and Law would agree) that these are very significant contributing factors in the slow adoption of legal technolgoies by legal professionals, firms, and governments. But, there are others, and I believe that by identifying them, we can then make progress to addressing the problems that they raise.
To help us clarify the issues, we can compare and contrast the legal profession to another very ancient and prestigious profession — medicine. However, doctors, medical organisations, and medical researchers have adopted and advanced technologies very rapidly and on a large scale, yet the technologies are, at their core, similar to those available to legal professions. Therefore, technologically, there is little reason why the legal profession has not also adopted the technologies or more aggressively sought to adapt them.
While there are systems to support reasoning by doctors and medical records filing and retrieval, let me focus on two technologies which are equally available, fundamental, and influential to legal and medical professions — information extraction and ontologies.
In the medical field, there are are large corpora of textual information that must extract relevant information. The corpora are and have been publicly available for some time. There are academic and industry groups that have and develop software systems to extract the information (e.g. National Centre for Text Mining and Linguamatics, among others). Through links, one can find conferences, other groups, and government organisations; the interest is deep, widespread, and of high value. Moreover, medical ontologies are very far advanced such as the Systematised Nomenclature of Medicine Clinical Terms and the Foundational Model of Anatomy among others.
In the legal field, the corpora of textual information is only just beginning to be available. There has been some research on information extraction in the legal field. There has been some work on legal ontologies (e.g. LKIF, which was an EU project that I participated in).
In both areas — information extraction and ontologies — the medical field far outstrips the legal field. Why?
I think the differences are not so much those outlined above; one could argue that medical and legal fields have had, at least historically, similar constraints — the medical field has just overcome them. The most obvious apparent difference is that research medicine has been and continues to be advanced with scientific and technological means. Other research fields — biology, chemistry, statistics, anatomy — made relevant contributions. Moreover, the medical field has large research bodies that are well-funded (e.g. The Wellcome Trust). Finally, the culture of medical research and application of findings is such that information is disseminated, criticised, and verified. Let us put these into four points:

  • Scientific and technological approach
  • Contributions from other fields
  • Research bodies
  • Culture of research

In these respects, the legal field is very different to the medical field. Science and technology have not, until very recently, been relevant in terms of how the law is practiced. While there have been some contributions from other fields (e.g. sociology or psychology), the impact is relatively low. There are research bodies, but they not of the scale or influence of that in medicine. And the disposition of the legal community has been to closely hold information.
I believe that there is single (though very complex) underlying reason for the difference — the object of study. In medicine, the objects of study are physical, whether in chemistry, biology, anatomy, etc; these objects are and have been amenable to scientific study and technological manipulation. In contrast, in law, the object of study is non-physical; one might be tempted to say it is the law itself, but we can be more concrete and say it is the language in which the law is expressed, for at least language is something tangible and available for study.
Thus, the scientific study of language — Linguistics — is relevant. However, Linguistics as a scientific endeavour is relatively young (50 to 100 years, depending on one’s point of view). The technological means to study language can be dated to the advent of the digital computer which could process language in terms of strings of characters. Widespread, advanced approaches to computational linguistics for information extraction is even more recent — 10 to 20 years. Very large corpora and the motives to analyse them arose with the internet. And not only must we understand the language of the law, but we must also understand the legal concepts as they are expressed in law. Here, the study of deontic reasoning, while advanced, is “only” some 20 years old and has found few applications (see my 2008 PhD thesis Wyner 2008 PhD Thesis).
Language is the root of the issue; it can help explain some of the key differences in the application of technology to the legal field In our view, as the linguistic and logical analyses of the language of the law advance, so too will applications, research bodies, and results. However, it is somewhat early days and, in comparison to the medical field, there is much yet to be done.
Copyright © 2009 Adam Wyner

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