May 21, 2024

Computer Programming and the Law: A New Research Agenda

By my best estimate, at least twenty different law professors on the tenure track at American law schools once held a job as a professional computer programmer. I am proud to say that two of us work at my law school.

Most of these hyphenate lawprof-coders rarely write any code today, and this is a shame. There are many good reasons why the world would be a better place if we began to integrate computer programming into legal scholarship (and more generally, into law and policy).

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post for a lawprof blog exploring this idea. I promised a follow-up post, but never delivered. A year later, I expanded the idea into an essay, which the good people at the Villanova Law Review agreed to publish sometime later this year. With this post, I am releasing a slightly-outdated draft of the essay for the first time to the public. You can download it at SSRN.

In the abstract, I say:

This essay proposes a new interdisciplinary research agenda called Computer Programming and the Law. By harnessing the power of computer programming, legal scholars can develop better tools, data, and insights for advancing their research interests. This essay presents the case for this new research agenda, highlights some examples of those who have begun to blaze the trail, and includes code samples to demonstrate the power and potential of developing software for legal scholarship. The code samples in this essay can be run like a piece of software—thanks to a technique known as literate programming—making this the world’s first law review article that is also a working computer program.

If you have any interest in the intersection of technology and policy (in other words, if you read this blog), please read the essay and let me know what you think. Unlike many law review articles, this one is short. And how bad could it be? It contains 350 lines of perl! (Wait, don’t answer that!)


  1. Bravo! Thanks for getting this field rolling!

    But you write:
    “For the benefit of the law review editors, I have cut and pasted the literate program into a Microsoft Word document. Accordingly, the noweb tools will not work directly on this document. Instead, all of the text from this document must be placed in a proper noweb document first.”

    and I don’t see any reference to the actual literate program. Can you post a link to the source? Especially because copy/paste from the PDF runs into the sort of Microsoft “smart quote” brain damage that drives many of us mad….

    And I look forward to the day when law review editors start publishing information in an open format directly suitable for data processing, as Robinson et al. describe for government web sites:

  2. Yes yes yes!

    The law is software for people.

  3. You might be interested in a new joint program at the University of Toronto.

  4. Anonymous says

    you should not be able to patent math

  5. I followed the link (“the essay“) and found an abstract. A “Download” link led to an almost identical abstract with the line “Click Location Below to Start Download”, and a number of links below and to one side, none very promising. I tried a couple and got nowhere. Couldn’t you just post a link to the essay?

    I certainly think that law could benefit from some of the better features of programming, such as checksums, digital signatures, and references. (Must we read through hundreds of pages of boilerplate in every contract? Must we endure the horrible abuses of the English language commited by lawyers trying to get the benefits of math without the math?) But we should be wary of unintended consequences: I hear that the proliferation of software for preparing income tax returns has encouraged lawmakers to let the tax code become even more complex and illogical.

    • I’m sorry about that. There is Download link in the line above the title. If you click it, a little javascript unrolls to reveal a button (although it’s not so obvious it’s a button) that says “SSRN” with “New York, USA” below–intuitive I know. Click that button and the download will begin.

      If you can’t download it, shoot me an email, and I’ll send it to you.

      Sorry about that.

  6. Anonymous says

    Waiting anxiously for your next installment of YANAL!