Monday, December 14, 2015
In the era of Google Maps, instant language translation, and digital music libraries, law students still spend countless hours flipping pages to find the right subclause or definition in a statute. This process can and should be automated.
Computerized calculations have liberated STEM students from tedious, repetitive tasks so that they can focus on the more intellectually simulating and creative aspects of math, science and engineering. Word processing software has freed us all from applying whiteout and waiting for it to dry and from manually retyping manuscripts to correct a few errors. This has enabled us to focus on our ideas and not the mechanics of fixing them permanently on paper.
Law is an inherently conservative field, focused on precedent, tradition, and risk avoidance. But when the case for change is compelling, we are prepared to try new tools.
I’ve been thinking about the problems of statutory interpretation for years and how automation could streamline the process. I’m very excited to announce a new electronic statutory supplement, LawEdge. (Full disclosure: I helped develop it).
LawEdge aims to do for statutory interpretation what the calculator did for mathematics.
The U.S. Code includes thousands of defined terms. A reader must understand what each of the defined terms means to understand the meaning of each provision containing those defined terms.
Unfortunately, defined terms are not always clearly labeled. Even when defined terms are labeled as defined terms, understanding one provision may require flipping back and forth to several other locations in the code. This process can be slow and cumbersome with paper statutes. Even electronic statutes often will not take users to the precise location in the code where a definition appears, but will instead take readers to a the section containing the definition, forcing readers to search for the definition.
LawEdge makes working with defined terms simple and easy. Defined terms are clearly labeled. Clicking on a defined term generates a popup window showing its meaning. Definitions are also hyperlinked to their meaning.
Definitions are context-specific and do not apply to all sections of the code. For example, the definition of “property” in Section 317(a) of the Internal Revenue Code does not apply to Section 351 of the same title. LawEdge recognizes context and links definitions appropriately.
LawEdge is easy to navigate. For example, suppose that you wish to read § 21(b)(2)(B). With a paper statutory supplement, you could flip to section 21, then look for subsection (b), then read down to paragraph (2) and finally find subparagraph (B). The entire process might take 30 seconds, and along the way you might accidentally look at the wrong provision. With LawEdge, this process is nearly instantaneous and error free. You would simply type s21b2b in the search bar. This feature works all the way down to the subclause level.
Browsing a statute is also easier and more intuitive. Structural components are color coded to be more recognizable.
The underlying technology is algorithmic, which means it is easy to update and support as the U.S. Code changes.
LawEdge has all of the benefits of paper—notes, highlights, bookmarks, offline access—and many advantages only available electronically. It can be used on exams with the latest version of ExamSoft, which offers on option to only block internet access but not the hard drive.
If you’re interested in trying it for your class, please feel free to contact me for an evaluation copy.