Computer Programming and the Law

Paul Ohm, one of the developers of AltLaw, writes about “Computer Programming and the Law: A New Research Agenda” in the Villanova Law Review (Vol. 54, 2009).

Paul Ohm states: ” I propose a new interdisciplinary research agenda called Computer Programming and the Law.  This speciality resides where law intersects computer programming, computer science, and information technology.  Like “Law and Economics” or “Law and Social Sciences,” Computer Programming and the Law has practical and theoretical dimensions; it imports into the law both the techniques used by computer programmers and the theories behind the science…. Compared to what researchers can accomplish today, researcher-programmers will produce the same output for lower cost or a better end product for the same cost.”

He offers some great examples of the power that programming can unleash in the law — from better data gathering and mining to visualization. 

Ohm’s discussion of “Improved Legal Research” really nails the current problem:

“The failure to embrace innovation plagues not only law professors; all lawyers find themselves trapped in technological backwaters due to some simple economic truths: Lawyers tend to be willing to spend too much for second-rate software and remain too easily impressed by low-tech advances.  This deadly combination gives vendors of legal research tools little incentive to invest in expensive research and development….

These reasons account for why the duopoly of Westlaw and Lexis has survived for so long, despite its relatively crude legal research tools.  These companies charge exorbitant rates while virtually ignoring the remarkable advances in search engine technology, because their lawyer-clients demand nothing better.”

Ohm’s prediction for the future is based on his work on Altlaw, and on other innovators such as,, Internet Archive and

He writes:  “We now exchange data and support one another, and I predict that within five years, legal researchers will have several freely accessible, web-based databases containing all federal and state case law, with better search engines and faster performance than the for-pay services.  Either we will be freed from the walled gardens of Westlaw and Lexis, or the duopolists will be forced to innovate to compete.”

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