Joshua Walker: Using Data to Improve the Legal System
Joshua Walker has quite a story. A graduate of Harvard and the University of Chicago Law School, he spent more than 15 years as an intellectual property attorney. He‘s the co-founder and executive director of CodeX, the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, and the author of On Legal AI, a pioneering effort to map the territory between AI and the law. He also was the Executive Director of Stanford IP Litigation Clearinghouse, later known as Lex Machina, a legal analytics firm that now is part of LexisNexis.
Even though he uses the acronym “AI” in the title of his book, Joshua is the first to admit that it’s about as slippery a term as ever existed. “Even the top people in the world don’t really know how to define it,” he tells me. “And because of the way the term is being used now, it means essentially ‘software.’ It’s a marketing theme.”
That causes several problems, Joshua says. For one thing, when an important concept becomes what’s essentially a meme, it ceases to have any meaning. Enthusiasm for AI spiraled out of control during the 1980s, and when expectations inevitably were not met, interest and funding waned to such an extent that the post-buzz period was nicknamed “AI winter.”
Joshua prefers a different construct: “AI is math applied to data. That’s something we can grapple with, and that doesn’t terrify people. One reason people like the terms machine learning or neural networks is that they’re more specific. They’re statistical methods of leveraging data.
“Natural language processing used to be a dirty word because it didn’t really work. Now it’s doing a lot, in chatbots and so on, and now companies almost have to be using it. But none of these applications involve replacing humans with robots.”
Having thought long and hard about the intersection of AI and law, Joshua has concluded that they are essentially the same pursuit. “What do lawyers and computer scientists do?” he asks. “Essentially, they’re doing classification and procedures.
“If you’re a tax lawyer, you’re trying to classify this bit of revenue and this bit of expense as X or Y or Z. It’s a straight-up classification problem, and there are consequences if you get it wrong. Computer scientists are also trying to classify data. ‘Is this a cat or a dog?’ These are fundamental problems that we want to automate. Then we have algorithms, and algorithms are tools for resolving disputes. Well, what’s that like in the law? It’s a lawsuit. That’s a means of resolving disputes.”
Joshua even credits a lawyer, Gottfied Wilhelm Leibniz, who created some of the earliest notions that would drive modern computing. A polymath, Liebniz at one point became interested in the possibility of using some form of a mechanical calculator to resolve disputes between nations, and thus avoiding wars. “What was his method of doing that? It was called ‘binary,’” Joshua says. “He didn’t invent it alone, but he popularized the notion of using binary as a means of mechanically resolving disputes. That alone makes him one of the main drivers of computer science.”
Still, despite the close intellectual connections between lawyers and computer scientists, the law has not fully leveraged technology–unlike nearly any other field of endeavor one can think of. But today, he says: “You cannot not use data if you are going to be competitive as a litigator.”
That is what led Joshua to found Lex Machina in 2008. He realized that good data could remedy a variety of ills in the legal profession. It could make litigation more efficient, or even help avoid it by proving the case for one side or the other before it goes to court. It makes the legal system run more smoothly, giving people more access to justice. And it can even weed out unethical lawyers.
“We have a system where you pass the bar exam and take an ethics exam and you’re done,” he says. “It’s a perimeter system. What we need is a sentinel system, where if an attorney is doing terrible things there is data to make that visible.”
Joshua sees AI as potentially transforming the law. “Lawyers tend to look at AI and say, ‘Oh, this is terrible. It’s going to shrink the profession,’” he says. “But we’re shrinking the profession by burying our heads in the sand. We need to wake up and help people with software that can guide them through the court system.”