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Semantic Lawyering: How the Semantic Web Will Transform the Practice of Law (Part 3)

(Check out Part 1 and Part 2, if you missed them.)

A machine-readable version of the law?

David Siegel, an entrepreneur and early blogger, recently published a book entitled Pull, The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business, the first “business” book about the Semantic Web. Siegel devotes one chapter to exploring the possible impact of the Semantic Web on the law and lawyers. An enthusiastic backer of the new technology, Siegel sees huge potential for the Semantic Web to transform the work of lawyers. He believes that work on legal taxonomies and formalized rules may result in “a set of semantic rules that can then serve as the machine-readable version of the law.”[1] This is the kind of structured legal data that would make the intelligent legal queries outlined above possible. It raises the question of the future utility of lawyers in a world where much of what they now do can be performed by computer applications. Why go to a lawyer if you can get an authoritative, complete and up-to-date statement of the law online? If the law can be fully specified as a formalized set of machine-readable rules, would we even need lawyers and judges, or could they be replaced with computers and Semantic engineers of the law?

A note of caution

I ought to sound a note of caution at this point. The idea of reformulating all of the rules of law as a formal system, with precise classifications of entities and rules governing their interactions, has been tried before. Most students of the law will, at some point in their studies, come across discussions of the German Civil Code (the BGB), which was drafted over a century ago with precisely that aim in mind. It failed. The law has proven too malleable, too changeable, and too subjective a system to codify with mathematical rigor. There is little reason to believe that the Semantic Web will succeed where others have failed, at least in the foreseeable future. Few fields of human activity are as centrally focused on interpretation of often conflicting texts, and as acutely concerned with the ambiguity of human language, as the law. Though the law may be a body of rules, those rules are not of the clear-cut variety that easily lend themselves to formalization.

How smart does “smart” need to be?

That does not mean, however, that the taxonomies and rules of the Semantic Web are useless when it comes to the law. Difficult exercises of interpretation may be required in deciding “hard cases” and creative thinking may be needed in handling more complex, high-level legal issues, but much of the daily practice of the law is far less complex or ambiguous. Is a high level of legal expertise really required in producing a first draft of simple terms and conditions or a memo setting out routine advice? The parameters of these kinds of tasks should be relatively easy to formalize. And even if the semantic formalization of the law were less than perfect, a system that understands the structure of legal queries and can achieve near-optimum retrieval could vastly increase the efficiency of legal researchers. [Unknown A1]

Again, taxonomies and rules need not be all-encompassing to be useful. The Semantic Web is not the latest incarnation of pie-in-the-sky artificial intelligence. At the heart of the SemanticWeb is the task of developing dictionaries of concepts and rules to make data smarter, and that is a task that can be done piecemeal. Making data smarter does not have to mean encoding all of the subtleties of human language into the data. If an area of legal practice is concerned with a reasonably small set of clearly defined rules, much of the relevant law may be susceptible to being translated into machine-readable standards. Consider an area of regulatory compliance such as food labeling, which involves rules prescribing particular information formats and content, lists of words that must, can, or cannot be used under certain conditions, and similarly well-defined rules. Translating most of these into a “machine readable version of the law” that could serve as the basis for automated compliance-checking systems hardly seems unrealistic. What about other, less straightforward areas of the law? Even where the area evades complete formalization, as will often be the case, semantic applications may significantly enhance the productivity of fee-earners by dealing with routine, low-skill work while leaving the subtler points of law to the flesh-and-blood professional. So, what kinds of application might achieve these efficiency gains?

(Coming soon: Part 4 – Smart documents and semantic contracts)

[1] David Siegel, The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business, p. 187.

About the Author

Brian Harley

Brian is an LLM at Columbia Law School.
  • Robert Richards

    Thank you for this very helpful series of posts. Readers might also be interested in Dr. Núria Casellas’s recent post about the Legal Semantic Web entitled “Semantic Enhancement of Legal Information… Are We Up for the Challenge?” ; Dr. Adam Wyner’s recent post at describing the legal semantic web: ; and this list of law-related Linked Data projects: .

  • Harley on Semantic Lawyering « Legal Informatics Blog

    [...] an LLM student at Columbia Law School, is publishing a series of posts (see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) entitled Semantic Lawyering: How the Semantic Web Will Transform the Practice of Law, on the blog [...]

  • LaVern Pritchard

    Semantic applications for lawyers is a much broader and more immediate subject than building a Semantic Web of legal texts. The latter requires standard setting and cooperation levels one doesn’t yet often see in the legal world. Semantic modeling and mapping of the legal domain from the lawyer’s point of view, not the text’s point of view, is a different thing entirely. There are ways to model and map all sorts of things and to continuously improve and interconnect the whole to the point where a lawyer using such a system is a more effective lawyer.

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