We now think of law as text--the "law on the books." These are the statutes, regulations, and court opinions to which lawyers look for guidance on how to counsel clients and for sources of authority to cite in legal arguments and briefs. Law also includes contracts, which we think of as long sets of words written down to be consulted later--typically only when the relationship among the contracted parties turns sour.
As others have observed, the modern legal profession arose from the technology of print. The existence of libraries of legal materials required professionals to help lay clients read and understand increasingly complex rules and precedents. In The Electronic Media and the Transformation of Law (Oxford University Press, 1991), M. Ethan Katsh speculates that new electronic technologies would change the law in various ways. His speculations are only now becoming right--in ways that not even he predicted.
Migration of law to electronic texts does change things. It increases access to the law for both lawyers and laymen. It allows searches across an ever larger corpus of information. It allows new forms of persuasion that combine text with diagrams, pictures, and videos, as my fellow New York Law School professor Richard K. Sherwin observes in Visualizing Law in the Age of the Digital Baroque (Routledge, 2011).
More importantly, these technologies will incorporate not just laws, but also legal expertise, into software that is customizable to individual situations. Just as our Internet experience will be enhanced by the Semantic Web, our experience with legal matters will be facilitated by semantic electronic legal texts, or what I call "conversational law."
People need clear answers regarding what rules apply to them and to particular actions they have engaged in or are contemplating. Most people need a lawyer to help them read and apply the text of a statute to their own situation--but few can afford the billable hourly rates that lawyers have to charge when they provide personalized advice.
Someday, a particular statute will take an entirely different form. An expert system based on the statute will ask you questions about your specific situation and then provide answers concerning whether and how the law applies to you. The conversational law version of a statute will engage in dialogue with you, asking only the questions that are relevant in light of previous answers. Governments that create such systems as a means of interacting more efficiently with citizens will have to adhere to the advice that these systems provide.
CODING THE LAW
An enhanced version of the conversational statute, written by a legal expert, will build on cases that have interpreted the statute. The system will then offer advice about how an individual's proposed actions might be adjusted to assure compliance with, or avoid violation of, the statutory rules.
A legal-expert system will be created and maintained by a lawyer, but it can be used at any time by many more customers than could possibly consult with that lawyer in person. It can produce profits cient to compensate the lawyer for creating the work, even if the fee charged to an individual is quite modest. If a government lawyer develops the system, its situation-specific guidance may be viewed as authoritative and binding on the agency as well as the user.
A case (court opinion) could also be rendered as a conversational expert system. The expert system would interview you to determine whether a precedent has relevance to your situation. Indeed, a meta--expert system might mediate a conversation regarding an entire body of case law. Rather than reading a large number of cases to determine what they might imply, or hiring a lawyer to do that, you would rely on the software code to do the legal research and write the memo or brief that is needed.
This is not a case of "big data," where patterns emerge magically from a pile of bits. …