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Attorney Jim Hazard is Working to Open-Source Law (Video) 58

Posted by timothy
from the laws-are-sort-of-a-kind-of-source-code dept.
Jim Hazard is a lawyer who leans geek; since he got his law degree in 1979, he's been the guy in the office who could make sense of things technical more often than others could, and dates his interest in regularizing complex legal documents (and making them a bit *less* complex) back to the era where Wang word processors were being replaced with personal computers. Most documents -- no matter how similar to each other, and how much work was spent in re-creating similar parts -- were "pickled" in proprietary formats that didn't lend themselves to labor-saving generalization and abstraction. That didn't sit well with Jim, and (in the spirit of Larry Lessig's declaration that "law is code," Hazard has been working for years to translate some of the best practices and tools of programmers (like code re-use, version control systems, and hierarchies of variables) to the field of law, in particular to contract formation. (Think about how many contracts you're party to; in modern life, there are probably quite a few.) He calls his endeavor Common Accord, and he'd like to see it bring the benefits of open source to both lawyers and their clients.



Transcript is 24 - 48 hours late

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Attorney Jim Hazard is Working to Open-Source Law (Video)

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    This video makes my front page look like the Compilers have had a go at it.

  • Adverts (Score:5, Funny)

    by hutsell (1228828) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @04:53PM (#44385293) Homepage

    I gave up during the third Ad. Maybe later.

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by kbdd (823155)
      When I saw that the second advert was over a minute, I gave up too.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Doesn't anyone look at these posts in Chrome before they go live? Ugly and unreadable...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 25, 2013 @05:13PM (#44385493)

    According to the Supreme Court of the United States, any law that is not understandable to the average 8th grader is "Unconstitutionally Vague."

    According to Common Law dating back to the Code of Hammurabi, any law that is not freely published for all people to read is null and void.

    As an anarchist, I love things just the way they are!

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @06:14PM (#44386053) Journal

      You may be an 'anarchist'; but you apparently aren't an empiricist...

      Outside the adorably twee world of exposing the contradictions inherent in the system, man! the track record of people actually not being subjected to laws just because they are excessively complex, deeply confusing, unbelievably vague, or thousands of pages long and buried in a filing cabinet somewhere is deeply unimpressive. If you count various zillion-page contracts of adhesion with provisions for one party(and only ever one party) to change them unilateraly as 'law', since they do tend to be enforced on behalf of the people who write them, or the whole kangaroo-court 'binding arbitration' system, the numbers just get a whole lot worse.

      It's cute, sure, but unless you have exactly the resources that would make all but the most incomprehensible or classified laws open to you(eg. nigh unlimited legal resources), it's also irrelevant.

  • by iggymanz (596061) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @05:18PM (#44385547)

    how did an inline image for the flash link get through the slashdot submission process? hell, anything with any kind of multimedia should be blocked, only a simple link with text between tags should be allowed.

    gah! that was awful. let's keep the format clean.

  • Am I the only one who notices TFS has an unmatched "("?

  • That's cute, but isn't is a bit late since we seem to be moving away from the rule of law?

  • by wjcofkc (964165) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @05:28PM (#44385651)
    I have been on slashdot regularly under one ID or another since day one. I even remember chips and dip. I have never been one to complain about the many things that people have complained about regarding slashdot over the years. I always thought it was campy... This is something else. First, what is up with the way this is rendering on the front page? I know I'm not the only one seeing it, per below posts. How can you screw that up? I mean really? Second, when I saw that there was a second ad before the interview, I was dismayed. When I saw the second ad had a runtime of 70 seconds, I said fuck it, stopped the video, and won't be playing it again. Multiple ads before a video, with one of them weighing in at 70 seconds? I know you have to make money, but not even CNN would try and pull that stunt (yet). Third, have you guys been screwing with the code in general lately? I've seen some rendering issues over the last few weeks that require a reload, and sometimes I click to read the comments for a story where I have not yet viewed the comments, only to find myself dumped off in the middle or even end as though it's trying to take me to where I left off on a page yet visited, but rarely at the top. What is going on? Are you about to lose funding and making desperate moves. Please explain yourself, slashdot.
    • by wjcofkc (964165)
      at least you fixed the front page...
    • by Arker (91948)

      So that's what it is eh?

      Causes me no problem on the front page. When I loaded the article I said 'oh, what's this, they are trying to load flash, wtf now? And I was spared seeing this awful bunch of crud that everyone is complaining about because this is not one of the handful of sites I trust to run javascript, let alone flash.

      I'm not surprised though. They've been publishing broken links for years now, and they get away with that, why not the next level?

  • It's a Losing Battle (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Zordak (123132) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @05:41PM (#44385749) Homepage Journal

    Now that I'm semi-solo, I have a Git repository for all my client files. I wrote a bunch of LaTeX class and style files to make beautiful patents, pleadings, and contracts. I write patents in vi (well, Vim) when I can get away with it. But when I was at a big firm, I spent fruitless years trying to convince lawyers that there is a better way than using kludged, recycled Word files, or at least trying to convince them to use Word's style functionality instead of manually reformatting the same flipping document EVERY SINGLE TIME. All in vain. Heck, I'd be happy if I could finally convince other lawyers that underlining is not a legitimate typesetting operation and is an embarrassing holdover from the days of typewriters (along with two spaces after a period).

    One thing I've learned about lawyers it that most old lawyers learned how to do something back in 1978 or so, and believe it is the One Right Way. Those lawyers learned the One Right Way from other lawyers who learned it in the 30s. If I were king of the world, I would force every lawyer in America to get a copy of Butterick's book Typography for Lawyers [typographyforlawyers.com] and Garner's Dictionary of Legal Usage [amazon.com], read them cover to cover, and treat them as though they were the inviolable word of God, handed down in stone from the peak of Mt. Carmel. I am so sick of looking at ugly legal documents.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I'll agree underlining and other typographical crimes are worth hoping for change. But two spaces after the period isn't simply about mechanical limitation, it's about separation between sentences. As a style tool, it's incredibly useful, if divisive.

      There is no non-arbitrary reason to use a single space. There is no non-arbitrary reason to insist on two spaces, either. A single space trades an arguable aesthetic advantage for an arguable functional disadvantage (looking for the holes is one visual cue

      • by Zordak (123132)

        There is no non-arbitrary reason to use a single space.

        Nonsense [typographyforlawyers.com]. Butterick has a very convincing argument. And now that you've seen his graphic, I challenge you to ever look at a document with two spaces without cringing. What's more, manually inserting two of any kind of white space character is ugly and hackish.

        • by jmcvetta (153563)

          I looked at his graphic, and I still prefer two spaces between sentences. :)

        • I challenge you to ever look at a document with two spaces without cringing.

          I had a look, I very much doubt that I would have noticed the double spacing if it hadn't been pointed out.

          Assume that I'm deliberately misleading you.

          Ok, that explains your outrage at double spacing.

    • by WillAdams (45638)

      How are you handling citations?

      While there've been a few developments recently, there still doesn't seem to be a single, comprehensive reference solution which will handle all of the (idiosyncratic) Bluebook style rules.

      William
      (who always just uses \frenchspacing in his .tex documents)

      • by Zordak (123132)

        How are you handling citations?

        While there've been a few developments recently, there still doesn't seem to be a single, comprehensive reference solution which will handle all of the (idiosyncratic) Bluebook style rules.

        William (who always just uses \frenchspacing in his .tex documents)

        I did take a gander at a "bluebook.sty" file where I could do something like \case{} with some parameters or keys, but it was never very useful because it ended up making me type more than just formatting the reference manually. Someday when I'm really ambitious, I may do one that links in to some external program that automatically inserts all the extra information and also creates a link to Westlaw or something (and KeyCites it, while I'm dreaming big). But I'm nowhere near that right now. And since I don

        • by WillAdams (45638)

          There's also camel: http://www.ctan.org/tex-archive/macros/latex/contrib/camel/ [ctan.org]

          I'd love to see someone manage this using biblatex --- I wonder though if the solution isn't to turn the problem around --- type the citation, then after the fact, run a tool which finds all the cites, displays them in an interactive tool and allows one to match things up and extend them w/ links as you described.

    • by hey! (33014)

      It's not just lawyers. I've tried for years to get my writer friends to use some form of version control, but in vain. One of the great benefits of version control is makes it safe to try radical things with your codebase (e.g. novel or story) because even without branching you can simply recall the state of your work at any point in the past.

      I myself used a literate programming tool to generate manuscripts, synopses, excerpts, and even alternate versions, but eventually I gave up because the dominant work

    • by wattersa (629338)

      LaTeX to generate documents is pretty resourceful. How do you manage drafts that need to be exchanged with a client or opposing counsel when they ask for a "track changes" version? What font(s) do you use?

      I hate Word and its auto formatting more than any other program, so I use InDesign. Templates, high precision, access to pro-level graphics placement and text wrapping, preflight, customizable PDF output, and more. I use Courier Final Draft (sinful, I know) because monospace makes it easy to do tables

      • by Zordak (123132)

        LaTeX to generate documents is pretty resourceful. How do you manage drafts that need to be exchanged with a client or opposing counsel when they ask for a "track changes" version? What font(s) do you use?

        Hence the "when I can get away with it." I have some clients that are okay marking up a PDF, and I actually have some clients who are university professors who are okay with just editing a .tex file. One of the things I really like is the way I can keep track of dependent claims in a patent as the claims change. I can do it in Word (kind of), but it's kind of kludgy, and I have to remember to hit "Print Preview" before I send out a document so the numbers auto-update.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    People in power thrive on people's ignorance of the law. Think how many real estate transactions happen with the buyer usually only being told the strictest minimum (lie of omission) and then told "you should have known that" when questions arise after the transaction. An informed populace is a nightmare.
  • The problem is we are graduating a lot of attorneys with $150K+ school debt so they charge $300 an hour for their services. Simply, we have too many attorneys that no one can afford! [chronicle.com]

    I would submit that the stranglehold on the bar exam that the ABA has be loosened and allow accredited online law schools. I know that many believe in the "socratic method", but it doesn't mean a hill of beans if no one can afford it!

    • by bondsbw (888959)

      The problem is we are graduating a lot of attorneys with $150K+ school debt

      Reduce the graduation rate, supply and demand will increase their fees.

      But I do agree with your sentiment, so far as I think law is way too complicated. We have laws that fix laws that fix laws that fix laws that fix laws, all the way back to when the first laws fixed laws. "Refactor" is a concept that needs more use in that field.

      • by eclectro (227083)

        >Reduce the graduation rate, supply and demand will increase their fees.

        Yes, then we have a large number of $500/hr attorneys that no one can afford, except for the wealthiest among us and large corporations. Making the problem worse.

        As I said, one thing that would help is getting the ABA stranglehold of the two day hazing exercise known as the bar exam. I know that most in the legal profession (and yourself) will hate this, but their emperor has no clothes.

  • As a software developer, I agree that lawyers could learn a lot from software development methodology. However, when we start talking about applying software representations to law and making it 'computable', we should remember that a fundamental property of software (at least so far) is that it is brittle. I don't think you want law to be brittle. I don't think you want legal contracts that can be subverted by a buffer overflow (although that definitely would make things interesting).

    Laws as they are often

    • However, when we start talking about applying software representations to law and making it 'computable', we should remember that a fundamental property of software (at least so far) is that it is brittle. I don't think you want law to be brittle. I don't think you want legal contracts that can be subverted by a buffer overflow (although that definitely would make things interesting).

      Legal contracts are routinely subverted through bugs - sorting out those bugs is what the court system spends a good deal of

    • English common law is a set of books written over a period of centuries that would take about 500 man years just to read, let alone debug. In the real world the law is not a set of commandments, it's a guide to what is and isn't acceptable behavior in the society to which it is applied. Old laws are rarely thrown out they just get ignored, however as a non-american it appears the me that it is common practice for US prosecutors to trawl through old laws for no other reason than to get a "credit" on their pe
  • by CanadianMacFan (1900244) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @07:59PM (#44386973)

    When you go to sign a contract you are able to see the terms of the agreement (otherwise it wouldn't be binding). A closed source legal agreement example would be the statements you used to find on boxed software such as "By purchasing this software you agree to the license agreement contained within."

    Linux is open source but you don't expect everyone that runs it to be able to understand the code. That's not the point. Lawyers are like exactly like developers in that they are educated to understand the code of law. The rest of us are users and when we need advice we go to see a "developer".

    I do think it is important to make law understandable to a greater number of people but when you confuse the terminology used to describe your mission. It sounds more like he's trying to use software development methodologies to create legal contracts. I'd hate to be at the conference when the waterfall vs.Agile method debate breaks out between the lawyers.

    • by sysrammer (446839)

      I'd hate to be at the conference when the waterfall vs.Agile method debate breaks out between the lawyers.

      That's an easy one. Which is more billable?

A penny saved is a penny to squander. -- Ambrose Bierce

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