Discussion with Jeremy Tobias-Tarsh of Practical Law Company

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.
About PLC
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.
Due Diligence
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.
Policy Consultations
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.
Moving Ahead
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
Distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0

NSF sponsored workshop: Automated Content Analysis and the Law

I was invited to participate in an NSF ­Sponsored Workshop
 Automated Content Analysis and Law, August 3 and 4 at NSF HQ in Arlington, VA and organised by Georg Vanberg (UNC).
There are two sessions planned. The first session will focus on identifying the theoretical/substantive puzzles in legal and judicial scholarship that might benefit from automated content analysis as well as what data and measurements are required. For the second session, the focus is on the state of automated content analysis/natural language processing, exploring the extent to which current technology is relevant to providing results with respect to issues raised in the first session and what might be needed.
There is an interesting mix of people, with a strong emphasis on legal scholarship bearing on the US Supreme Court and opinion mining. I had an email exchange with Georg, the workshop organiser about this, and we agree that attention ought to turn from the Supreme Court to lower levels of the legal system. I also suggested that participants consider some of the following points which bear on the motives and objectives of these lines of research in terms of who is being served and how the data or conclusions would be used.
Questions for Discussion

  • What sorts of artifacts and technologies (if any) will emerge from the research?
  • How does the research relate to the Semantic Web?
  • What public service does the research provide or support?
  • How does this research relate to:
    • E-discovery
    • Textual legal case based reasoning
    • Legislative XML Markup
    • Other research communities e.g. ICAIL and JURIX


  • Scott Barclay (NSF) – Barclay@uamail.albany.edu
  • Cliff Carrubba (Emory) – ccarrub@emory.edu
  • Skyler Cranmer (UNC) – skylerc@email.unc.edu
  • Barry Friedman (NYU)- friedmab@juris.law.nyu.edu
  • Susan Haire (NSF) – shaire@nsf.gov
  • Lillian Lee (Cornell) – llee@cs.cornell.edu
  • Jimmy Lin (Maryland) – jimmylin@umd.edu
  • Stefanie Lindquist (Texas) – SLindquist@law.utexas.edu
  • Will Lowe (Nottingham) – will.lowe@nottingham.ac.uk
  • Andrew Martin (Wash U) – admartin@wustl.edu
  • Wendy Martinek (NSF) – wemartin@nsf.gov
  • Kevin McGuire (UNC) – kmcguire@unc.edu
  • Wayne McIntosh (Maryland) – wmcintosh@gvpt.umd.edu
  • Burt Monroe (Penn State) – blm24@psu.edu
  • Kevin Quinn (Harvard) – kevin_quinn@harvard.edu
  • Jonathan Slapin (Trinity College) – jonslapin@gmail.com
  • Jeff Staton (Emory) – jkstato@emory.edu
  • Georg Vanberg (UNC) – gvanberg@unc.edu
  • Adam Wyner (University College London) – adam@wyner.info

AI and Law contacts in Boston, MA

On a recent visit to Boston, Massachusetts USA, I had the opportunity to visit the Berkman Center for Internet and Law. It so happened that Kevin Ashley of the University of Pittsburgh was visiting the center for a meeting about legal document assembly. Kevin is a well-known expert in AI and Law, specialising in case based systems for legal reasoning that are geared towards helping law students learn to reason about the law. Kevin and I have met before and have a shared interest in ontologies and case based reasoning. We discussed research trends in legal case based reasoning, funding sources, and lines of collaborative research. I also found out that Richard Susskind, author of The End of Lawyers? was giving a talk at the Berkman center the same day, so I attended that talk, which was a distillation of his recent book. As it turned out Edwina Rissland of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, another key figure in AI and Law (and Kevin’s former thesis advisor), was also at Susskind’s talk and also participating in the legal document assembly meeting. I’d not met her before, so it was a treat to have a brief chat. Finally, I met with Carole Hafner of Northeastern University, another central figure in legal case based reasoning. Carole was particularly helpful in drawing my attention to some of the earlier key articles on these topics by her and by Edwina. I meet with Carole every time I’m in the Boston area to get her views on AI and Law. In all, a very sociable and informative series of discussions.
Copyright © 2009 Adam Wyner

Subject searches and LawCite

The World Legal Information Institute makes available on its website LawCite, which supports searches in a range of global legal databases with respect to:

  • Neutral citation
  • Parties
  • Court
  • Jurisdiction
  • Article title
  • Author
  • Year
  • Cases considered
  • Leglisation and section considered

The results are presented in a table.
Particularly interesting are extraction of parties and cases/legislation considered.
What is not clear is just how this information is indexed in the cases, whether manually or by some automated text analysis.
In addition to LawCite, WorldLII has a variety of categories among which one can search, including subjects, lawyers, parliaments.
The interesting part for me about the nature of the searches as well as the categories is that they express an informal legal ontology.

Discussion with Joe Ury of BAILLI

Yesterday, I had an interesting and informative discussion with Joe Ury, Executive Director of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute:
BAILII primarily makes legal information available over the web. The search terms are with respect to:

  • Citation
  • Case name
  • Word list (conjunctive)
  • Exact phrase (using ” “)
  • Word list (disjunctive)
  • Dates
  • Advance Query with * (morphological variants), ? (single character wildcard), Boolean operators (and, or, not), proximity operators (/n/ for n terms and near (terms less than or equal to 50 terms)
  • Unit processing with paretheses ( )
  • Jurisdiction

The results can highlight terms in the results.
By and large, these are the same sorts of search capabilities found in commerical legal case base systems.
He drew my attention to the various links for other legal institutes in the world which have a similar agenda of providing free access to the law. A world organisation links to all the available legal databases affiliated with the legal information institutes:
World Legal Information Institute
We discussed issues related to building and using the databases, for there are different issues of ownership in the different jurisdictions. Navigating these issues, addressing concerns, and adjusting to local circumstances are, apparently, a primary reason for the preeminence of commercial vendors. These issues may have to do with who claim copyright, how cases can be excluded, the role of legal professionals (from Supreme Court Justices or Law Lords, to transcribers, to councils on law reporting, to the court system, and on down to law students) in determining access. On the other hand, BAILII is funded by a wide consortium of legal professionals, which would appear to provide defacto support of distribution of legal information. This contrasts with the situation in the US, where the government assigned sole distribution of legal information to commercial vendors, and in this regard, the US has far less available publically (though see the efforts at public.resource.org.
These observations led into a wide-ranging discussion about the role of law in civil society along with the best means to distribute legal information. There are pros and cons on every side.
Private Distribution:

  • Provide value added information such as Head Notes or Abstracts
  • Provide a high level of service
  • Allow widely distributed access
  • Have quality control and assurance
  • Preindex cases to faciliate search

Public Distribution:

  • The public’s interest and right to know the operations of the legal system which governs their lives
  • Free access (so wider distribution)
  • Support for novel searches and applications

There are the interests of a range of stakeholders:

  • Public administrations
  • Judicial and legal professionals
  • The public which is served by the application of the law
  • Private firms with significant assets

Access to the law is not unlike access to other fundamental ‘resources’ where public and private interests mingle and compete.
My own view is that the more public the discussions are about the issues, the more productive the outcome will be for all concerned. For example, private interests certainly provide value added goods and services. However, one might argue that novel private interests could grow out of access to at least basic case decisions and legislation. Allowing access to legal information could, perhaps, make the legal system more transparent and efficient, at least to the extent that this is possible. One analogy Joe and I discussed was that allowing access to medical reports to those who wanted it encouraged a greater participation on the part of those being served by the medical system. Yet, it also exposed medical professionals to greater exposure and liability. In turn, this was followed by changes in how service was delivered. Overall, the medical system adapted and improved.
One point is very clear. The movement for free access to legal information is growing. It will be interesting to see how the various stakeholders adapt, compete, and collaborate over the coming years.