Coding legal arguments

Larry Ribstein —  11 September 2011

The NYT writes about computerized journalism:

The company’s (Narrative Science) software takes data, like that from sports statistics, company financial reports and housing starts and sales, and turns it into articles. * * *

The Big Ten Network, a joint venture of the Big Ten Conference and Fox Networks, began using the technology in the spring of 2010 for short recaps of baseball and softball games. * * *

The Narrative Science software can make inferences based on the historical data it collects and the sequence and outcomes of past games. To generate story “angles,” explains Mr. Hammond of Narrative Science, the software learns concepts for articles like “individual effort,” “team effort,” “come from behind,” “back and forth,” “season high,” “player’s streak” and “rankings for team.” Then the software decides what element is most important for that game, and it becomes the lead of the article, he said. The data also determines vocabulary selection. A lopsided score may well be termed a “rout” rather than a “win.” * * *

The article says the company plans to move “further up the ladder of quality” and “open new horizons for computer journalism.”  Hammond, a co-director of the Northwestern lab that produced the software, predicts somebody will win a Pulitzer within five years for writing the code for a news story.

The NYT’s reporter asks (fearfully?) whether ”robot journalists’ [will] replace flesh-and-blood journalists in newsrooms?”  Clearly my close study of Gretchen Morgenson has equipped me to write the code for her weekly screed.

Which of course leads me to law. Yesterday I wrote about computers predicting future court decisions.  I concluded, however, that lawyers will still have to create the law that is being predicted “by making arguments and human judgments.”

But if computers can write journalism, why shouldn’t they be able to write briefs?  Both types of writing have the sort of predictability that enables production by even primitive artificial intelligence.   You could even say this type of predictability is what makes for a “profession” that can be taught and learned in schools and through apprenticeship.  (Which suggests that computers won’t replace bloggers.)

So now defending lawyers from computers requires retreating further uphill to someplace computers can’t climb.  Computers can write briefs, but they can’t decide what issues need to be briefed or legal strategy.

Even so, as I concluded yesterday, “future lawyers will have to learn to work alongside computers.”  I speculate in my article, Practicing Theory, on the implications of this new world for legal education.  It certainly won’t involve training for the sort of “real life law practice” that present-day lawyers think is so important but that computers will soon render obsolete.

The NYT story noted that Narrative Science resulted from a collaboration between the journalism and computer science schools at Northwestern. It would be nice if law schools explored similar collaborations.  Unfortunately, as I discuss in my article, they are saddled by regulation that doesn’t inhibit experimentation in other professions.

So while we may yet see productive partnerships between journalists and computer scientists, I wonder whether lawyers, stubbornly resisting the future, will simply find themselves on the cutting room floor (to borrow from another industry’s old technology).

Larry Ribstein


Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

13 responses to Coding legal arguments


    why shouldn’t they [computers] be able to write briefs?

    computers work in direct proportion to the bias of the judiciary, as the more biased the more predictable. a few more Roberts and Scalias and the computers will face the same problems as lawyers (who needs them when minds are already closed)


    I actually have been wondering about this for a paper I’m writing about the Intermountain tax case. My question is a little different. I know computer science people think about measuring the complexity of programs. A rule is like a program. One issue at Intermountain boils down to a choice between two or three rules for taxpayers:

    Keep all your records for three years.


    Keep all your records for three years except for one topic, which is capitals gains, and keep those records for six years.


    Keep all your records for three years except for one topic, which is capitals gains, and keep those records for six years, and maybe except for Schedule C, E, and other income items (but not deduction items), depending on how courts react to a government victory in Intermountain.

    Rules 2 and 3 are clearly more complicated. But how can we quantify how much more complicated they are? (Rule 3, of course, is where a real tax lawyer— and one who knows IRS politics— would be helpful.)


    Economic factors are driving the gate keepers to various professions down. Law school costs, increasing hostility of legislatures, and the undercreep of paralegals performing as IT specialist, are all going to increase the pressure to automate as much as possible. I could see a future where an IT or CS degree with a minor in law would be what the big firms would look for. This would require universities to start undergraduate courses in law subjects besides business law of course.


    I’m looking forward to the electronic resume of “I. B. M. Watson” coming in to news organizations….


    See IBM’s “Watson” project … the playing of Jeopardy was just a proof of concept. TV ads now show Watson sifting through and making medical diagnostic recommendations. The ads stop short of saying the computer makes the diagnosis — the ads show a concerned human doctor simply reviewing the recommenations.

    But the technology is rapidly approaching where articles could be read. But it’s based on the concept of having a source of information to work with initially. And that’s where reporters will remain — and in fact that’s where reporters should return to. They have shirked that role of late. But get back to the real face-to-face investigative journalism and they can be the source of that initial information.

    Legal briefs? I think that’s a ripe target for Watson-like technology.

    Financial reports … ditto.

    The sticky thing to work through is the liability for inaccuracies. You can’t sue a computer for malpractice. You can sue the owner of that computer, though. And there’s where the reluctance to turn over full control will come from.

    (Computer technology can fly and land airplanes … it could also very likely drive trucks down the interstate. But in the event of a crash … then what? Liability issues continue to be the central sticking point.)


    I think the basic issue is that once AI fully understands language (I think this is called natural language processing) and the concepts behind it, the junior associate position will be eliminated. We would still, presumably, need senior attorneys to take depositions, argue motions in court, and formulate an overall litigation strategy. But there would be a lot less need for minions to do the legal research and writing.

    It doesn’t look like we’re close to that yet though. The articles written by Narrative Science are simplistic and based mostly on easy-to-code numbers; legal analysis is a lot fuzzier and more conceptual. And from my basic understanding of IBM’s QA software–the stuff that was featured in Jepoardy–it may soon be capable of answering basic legal questions, but it does not appear to be close to using more sophisticated legal analysis or to actually writing briefs.

    I’m sure it will be possible at some point–10 years? 15? 30? Techies will presumably be better than us at figuring out the exact number.

    (Also, presumably, once computers are able to write legal briefs, they will also be able to draft financial statements, diagnose most medical conditions, analyze business proposals, etc. So most of the current professional services jobs will be eliminated, with the remaining employees being the ones who have to interface with other people.)


    You win! This article scared me enough that I finally broke down and read “law’s information revolution”.


    Let’s take it a step further and computerize humans as well. The type of world you seem to relish about will operate well with just computers and markets. Humans and their irrational emotions won’t be around but at least things will be efficient.


      At least a computer would do a better job of reading my work than you have.


        It is impractical for me to read all of your work, though the blog is very interesting. I just pointed out that your post seems to suggest that you make the normative assumption that removing a human element is in of itself a good thing. My post just took that to its logical extreme.


    I expect that this computerized technique also can work quite well for Blog Posts.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Larry Ribstein on Deregulating Lawyers Whether They Like it or Not « Truth on the Market - September 19, 2011

    […] Announcing the TOTM Symposium on Unlocking the Law: Deregulating the Legal ProfessionJohn on Coding legal argumentsLegal Scholarship Blog: Online Symposium: Unlocking the Law on Announcing the TOTM Symposium on […]

  2. Instapundit » Blog Archive » CODING LEGAL ARGUMENTS: If computers can do journalism, why not law?… - September 12, 2011

    […] CODING LEGAL ARGUMENTS: If computers can do journalism, why not law? […]