opportunity in legal search—Google-style, and the case against untwitterable law

What would a judicial opinion or statute look like if there were a cost to the judge or legislator per word?

Ben is on the left. A document he helped to write in Philadelphia is on the right. It’s a short document.

Screenshot: Ben + const

Screenshot: Ben + const #2
So what’s wrong with this picture?

Screenshot: con law + const vertical

Screenshot: con law + const thickness

And this one?

Screenshot:

Screenshot:

That’s from left to right, a 2-semester organic chemistry text, a 1-semester constitutional law text, and the full U.S. constitution.

The middle book is  fat.

Math and business—unlike law—are concerned with economy. No other disciplines use it more:  The higher the math the thinner the book.  The shorter the proof, the better.  Any McKinsey consultant can explain the Middle East conflict at a red light.

Mathematicians can write proofs that enjoy the same clear interpretation all over the world for hundreds of years incorporating a litany of definitions concerned with more abstraction than has ever set foot in any courtroom, but statutes and judicial opinions–using the same language— are never final.

It’s stunning.

Corporations harbor, process and utilize a bewildering amount of information while hardly possessing a book on the premises, let alone a really thick book.

When I asked a professor of constitutional law what a judicial opinion would look like if there were a cost to the judge per word, I never received an answer, but I contend that both would be shorter, and, dare I say, clearer.

And my excess suggestion is likely understated, as these books aren’t really comparable: unlike the others, the above organic chemistry book at left contains a litany of pictures and problems and chapter summaries, hence, only a portion of its pages contain functional explanatory text. Moreover, it actually covers two semesters of study vs. the one semester of study covered by the constitutional law text. The chemistry text is an undergraduate text, unlike the legal text but it’s serious—all U.S. doctors must take it before entering medical school and fewer students pass it than pass Constitutional Law in law school.

Yes, communication happens differently across disciplines. Compellingly, however, there appear relative efficiencies in some arenas:   from hard science here are the papers, one hand-written and one published, which won the Nobel Prize for Watson and Crick. They present the molecular structure for deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) together with a proposed mechanism for its replication.

The most important scientific discovery of the twentieth century was both written and published in detail on one 8 1/2 by 11 inch sheet of paper.

Screenshot:

Screenshot:

Screenshot:
Which takes me back to Google, where I promised to go in an early post.

Any excess I’m citing isn’t confined to legal texts; it’s pervasive in the legal industry. This includes several, noncompetitive as I allege, premium priced legal products of LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters, two suppliers to the field whose market dominance fairly approximates an oligopoly. I’m speaking of their legal search engines.

Thomson Reuters’ forte might well be information capture, rather than retrieval or dissemination. They appear to think better about information than about people who use it or potentially could or would.

An entity like Google thinks better about users of information. Controlling for all else, parties who understand users of information have a competitive advantage over those who don’t.

Hence, I view an opportunity for tremendous value creation in this area. Simply digitizing and placing paper documents online does not effect searchability of a document, particularly when due to a proprietary database the search engine that must be used generates a charge to the user per query—an excellent incentive to employ poor search algorithms—in addition to the time used plus other costs as is the case for the legal search products of LexisNexis and Westlaw. There is an equivalent in the legal practice industry—“billable hours”. Fundamentally, attorneys are paid more the longer they take, the more they talk, and the more indirectly they write. And clearly from the text above, lawyers are groomed to write and talk a lot.

Lawyer-speak is categorically untwitterable. 140 characters are a foreign communicative denomination. Yet the opportunity to downsize legalese is pervasive.

So often judges in their opinions use the phrase “We turn now to the issue of…” to mark the shifting of their adjudicatory focus. Mathematicians, ruthlessly efficiently, refuse to even bother with the two words and whopping six letters, “For all”, in their proofs, writing instead the beautiful symbol V. Judges need a symbol for, “We turn now to the issue of”.

Jack Welch led value creation at GE to the tune of roughly $400 billion over his tenure. The number of sentences he has uttered or written containing more than 8 words can be counted on your fingers. Compared to judges, is he lacking in ideas?

Currently proposed healthcare reform legislation exceeds a thousand pages—but only by about 300 pages—an improvement over the last attempt under President Clinton that was roughly 1600 pages. Our whole constitution can still fit in your wallet.

Here are the reasons that a Google-like entity is best situated to create value in legal search:

  • Google legal search would actually work—in particular, it would exceed both non proprietary internet and legal hard bound search.
  • Because it would work, Google legal search would be cheaper and require less overhead: currently, legal search engines are supported in the following ways:  official cheat sheets; quick reference cards; on-site personal representatives; classes; glossy published manuals, and 24-hour live attorney chat.  This level of support on the back end underscores how the legal search products—designed merely to turn pages of text electronically— all fail on the front end.
  • Google enjoys brand recognition with all new trainees in law, unlike LexisNexis and Westlaw, neither of which are familiar to these groups at the training or career outset.
  • Google has deep pockets and can traverse entry barriers.
  • Making legal search more affordable for practitioners and federal and state governments is entirely consistent with Google’s culture and brand.
  • Better search would reduce printing and energy consumption in the legal industry. It would lower the primary overhead of smaller players giving them access to affordable search and therefore, a more level playing field with larger legal groups.
  • It would reduce costs to state and local governments to conduct daily affairs and hence benefit taxpayers.

Such entry would introduce a new level of competition to the industry and fundamentally evolve its competitive landscape.  It would spark an overdue affront to the word fat that has become normative in all things legal.

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