This blog was originally posted by me as part of the Breadcrumbs blog at MIT's Decentralized Information Group:
Just before the holidays, Tim suggested I blog about "what lawyers expect to see" in the context of our accountability appliances projects. Unfortunately, being half-lawyer, my first response is that maddening answer of all lawyers - "it depends." And, worse, my second answer is - "it depends upon what you mean by 'see'". Having had a couple of weeks to let this percolate, I think I can offer some useful answers.
Conceptually, what does the lawyer expect to see? The practice of law has a fundamental dichotomy. The law is a world of intense structure -- the minutae of sub-sub-sub-parts of legal code, the precise tracking of precedents through hundreds of years of court decisions, and so on. But, the lawyers valued most highly are not those who are most structured. Instead, it is those who are most creative at manipulating the structure -- conjuring compelling arguments for extending a concept or reading existing law with just enough of a different light to convince others that something unexpected supersedes something expected. In our discussions, we have concluded that an accountability appliance we build now should address the former and not the latter.
For example, a lawyer could ask our accountability appliance if a single sub-rule had been complied with: "Whether the federal Centers for Disease Control was allowed to pass John Doe's medical history from its Epidemic Investigations Case Records system to a private hospital under the Privacy Act Routine Use rules for that system?" Or, he could ask a question which requires reasoning over many rules. Asking "Whether the NSA's data mining of telephone records is compliant with the Privacy Act?" would require reasoning over the nearly thirty sub-rules contained within the Privacy Act and would be a significant technical accomplishment. Huge numbers of hours are spent to answer these sorts of questions and the automation of the more linear analysis would make it possible to audit vastly higher numbers of transactions and to do so in a consistent manner.
If the accountability appliance determined that a particular use was non-compliant, the lawyer could not ask the system to find a plausible exception somewhere in all of law. That would require reasoning, prioritizing, and de-conflicting over possibly millions of rules -- presenting challenges from transcribing all the rules into process-able structure and creating reasoning technology that can efficiently process such a volume. Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is the ability to analogize. The great lawyer draws from everything he's ever seen or heard about to assimilate into the new situation to his client's benefit. I believe that some of the greatest potential of the semantic web is in the ability to make comparisons -- I've been thinking about a "what's it like?" engine -- but this sort of conceptual analogizing seems still a ways in the future.
Stay tuned for two additional blogs:
Structurally, what does the lawyer expect to see? The common law (used in the UK, most of its former colonies, including the US federal system, and most of US states) follows a standard structure for communicating. Whether a lawyer is writing a motion or a judge is writing a decision, there is a structure embedded within all of the verbiage. Each well-formed discussion includes five parts: issue, rule, fact, analysis, and conclusion.
Physically, what does the lawyer expect to see? At the simplest level, lawyers are expecting to see things in terms they recognize and without unfamiliar distractions; even the presence of things like curly brackets or metatags will cause most to insist that the output is unreadable. Because there is so much information, visualization tools present opportunities for presentations that will be intuitively understood.
The 1st Lawyer to Programmer/Programmer to Lawyer Dictionary! Compliance, auditing, privacy, and a host of other topics now have lawyers and system developers interacting regularly. As we've worked on DIG, I've noticed how the same words (e.g., rules, binding, fact) have different meanings.