IP Intensive: Stranger in a Strange Land – Or, How a Semester at CodeX made me Comfortable With “Think [Like a Lawyer, but] Different”January 12, 2016 by Mark Harris Evans
Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.
– Robert Heinlein, “Stranger in a Strange Land”, 1961
Let’s start with a fact pattern. Say that you have a background in building software, and believe in innovation. Now, imagine that you see a massive problem with the badly designed or badly implemented and the millions of people who have been dis-empowered by it. What would you do?
If your answer is “go to law school,” know that I made the same mistake.
Just like on exams, the obvious choice is often a trap. After two years of studying the law, I was disaffected and ready to quit to do something that added more value to society, like becoming a barista. It was pretty obvious to me what happens when you combine a particular mode of reasoning with an existing complex system and operate solely within the context of that reasoning methodology. The emergent behavior that would lead to disempowerment was kind of obvious, and I was finding it very difficult to justify spending ridiculous amounts of money to be a part of it.
But then I had the chance to spend a semester at Codex, The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, and now I have hope.
Law is an information technology. Facts and rules (information) are processed to generate decisions and opinions. Legal Informatics is the study of the structure and processing of information applied to legal problems. Just as the digital revolution has empowered participation in the creation of culture, applying digital technology to the processing of legal information has the potential to empower the disempowered, and revive the concept of a just society.
The best place to start when you are passionate about innovation and information technology is Silicon Valley.
The digital revolution has not been perfect, and there are legitimate criticisms of the political philosophy that lies under Silicon Valley. But one of the key insights of Information Technology is the ability to learn, to make changes, and to measure outcomes. The very culture of the valley is intensely optimistic, and the focus is not on wealth generation, but on value generation. As Alan Kay put it: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
At CodeX I have met dozens of entrepreneurs who are passionate about fixing the bugs in the legal system. They are building tools to lower costs, reduce complexity, and help give the doctrine of the “irributtable presumption of knowledge” of the law some legitimacy. I have met recovering lawyers, aspiring engineers, and dedicated designers that are comfortable with borrowing ideas from outside the law and applying them to thinking about the law. I have found every person I’ve met here an inspiration.
To fix the problem, you must grok the problem.
I came to CodeX with a naïve assumption that I could fix a legal problem simply and quickly, and wanted to jump right in. As a programmer, I used to call this “coding before thinking”, “hacking”, and “a band-aid solution”. But as I began to research, I quickly realized that I was approaching the problem from the wrong perspective, and rather than build another kluge, I fell back on my programmer’s intuition by applying methods of debugging and system theory.
My semester at CodeX allowed me to explore the academic literature, learning both of the causes of the legal empowerment problems and the criticisms of legal informatics. I learned about how credence goods and complexity contribute to winner-take-all markets, and create market failures through pricing theory. I was able to identify particular niches created by systemic failures that created real opportunities to empower people through simple applications of existing technology. I am currently working on a paper that outlines this research, and contemplating ways of building such solutions.
In the valley I also had the chance to stretch mental muscles that had been atrophying. I wrote code for a piece of software to manage information about new legal tech start-ups, read academic papers on machine learning, and attended lectures on cyber-security, privacy, and applications for corpus linguistics techniques. I learned a new (programming) language, and started contributing again to Open Source software. Embedded in the culture of entrepreneurship and value creation allowed me to feel more like myself than I have in a long time.
The semester that I spent at CodeX was by far the high point of my law-school career — and not only because of the near-religious significance of the Bay Area. I was left with a renewed sense of purpose and hope, both for my future in law and for the future of the law in general.
TL;DR: I am far more comfortable being a stranger in the strange land, now that I know I’m not alone.
Mark Harris Evans is a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School and was enrolled in Osgoode’s Intellectual Property Law Intensive Program. As part of the program requirements, students were asked to write a reflective blog on their internship experience.