On Wednesday January 13, 2010, I had a meeting with Jeremy Tobias-Tarsh, director of Practical Law Company (PLC) and currently in charge of overseeing the company’s three year development plan. We had a very engaging, far-ranging discussion about the company’s interests in technological innovation in the legal domain. His colleagues at the meeting where Brigitte Kaltenbacher, who works on usability tests for searches among the company’s resources, and Sara Stangalini, who works with Brigitte.
The post gives an overview of our discussion — what PLC does, the ambitions for the future, a range of issues and tools to handle them, and some suggestions about moving ahead.
PLC provides know-how for lawyers, meaning written analysis of current legal developments, practice notes (legal situations lawyers face and how the law treats them), standard draft documents, and checklists for managing actions. The services cover a range of legal areas such as arbitration, competition, corporate, construction, employment, finance, pensions, tax, and so on.
Jeremy spoke of an ambition at the company to use Semantic Web technologies on the company’s resources in order to give users faster, more precise, more meaningful and relevant results for searches in the resources — making the company’s content more findable. This might be done by annotating the content of the resources and supporting search with respect to the annotations. (Along these lines, an important advantage is that the company has been using an XML editor (Epic) for its documents for some time, so there is broad and widespread familiarity with what XML offers.)
Similarly, PLC could develop tools which improve the searches among a law firm’s documents. This is especially crucial where searches are done by junior staff with less knowledge of how and where to search. As made clear in discussions of knowledge management in law firms, an important task of senior lawyers in a firm is to train the new and junior lawyers in the details of the practice. While law schools may train law students in legal analysis and the law, the students may be unprepared for how to practice, which may have less to do with the law and more to do with finding and working with the relevant documents.
Any technology which can support junior lawyers in learning their tasks would be an advantage. In addition, any technology which could encode a senior lawyer’s knowledge would be useful to share throughout the firm and to preserve that knowledge where the lawyer is unavailable.
Some Sample Problems and Tools
An instance of such a tool might apply to contracts. PLC and firms have catalogues of preformatted draft documents, each of which may have variants developed over time. This may be seen as a contract base. A junior lawyer may be asked to find among this contract base a contract which is either an exact match for the current circumstances or close enough so that with some modifications it would suit. This can be viewed as an instance of case based reasoning, where the ‘factors’ are the particulars of the contracts and the current contractual setting. So, not only must there be some way to match similarity and difference among the documents, but there ought also to be some systematic way to manage the modifications.
To address this, three technologies could be used. Contracts could be annotated with the factors, then we apply case based reasoning. Alternatively, contracts could be linked to an ontology, so that the properties and relationships among the documents are made explicit. Researchers could search for the relevant documents using the ontology. Along with this, a contract modification tracking system, such as a modified version of which meets the MetaLex standard, could be developed.
Another problem relates to due diligence. Law firms are up against constraints in terms of time and money in satisfying the requirements of due diligence. Firms increasingly are responsible to show due diligence in a wider range of areas. This means that more lawyers must be hired and more billable hours accrued. However, the companies hired by the law firms are reluctant to pay more for due diligence. Consequently, firms have a motivation to find ways to make due diligence more efficient. Moreover, it is not a task that junior lawyers can easily undertake without extensive training. Natural language expert systems might provide a useful technology.
We also had a discussion about policy consultations. PLC helped formed and serves as secretariat for the General Counsel 100 Group, which is comprised of senior legal officers drawn from FTSE 100 companies. The group is a forum for businesses to give input on policy consultations and to share best practices in law, risk management, compliance, and other common interests (see the various public papers on the link). In my EU Framework 7 proposal on argumentation, we explicitly referred to policy consultation as a key area to develop and apply the tool. Broadly speaking, we had a systematic plan to develop a tool which takes as input statements in natural language, then translates them into a logical formalism. Claims pro and con on a particular issue are systematically structured into an ‘argument’ network in order to ‘prove’ outcomes given premises as well as to provide sets of consistent statements for and against a claim. Other argument mapping technologies might be useful here as well.
We also talked about the development of ontologies and whether they can be automatically extracted from textual sources. This is an area where there is a lot of current interest and some significant progress.
Finally, we also touched on how to move ahead. A brainstorming and road-mapping exercisea could be very valuable experience. The exercise would include not only company representatives, but also clients served by PLC. Parties on ‘both sides of the fence’ could discover more about what they know, want, and imagine could be done. In addition, Jeremy suggested that I might be engaged to present some of the ‘main points’ about Semantic Web technologies and the law to some of PLC’s editors and clients.
It was an enjoyable and spirited discussion, which I hope we will find the opportunity in the near future to continue.
By Adam Wyner
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