Coding legal arguments

Cite this Article
Larry Ribstein, Coding legal arguments, Truth on the Market (September 11, 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).