“What Kind of Law do You Want to Practice?”
Now that my friends all know I’m in law school, the question I get asked most in social gatherings is “What kind of law do you want to practice?” Until recently, I would mumble something about intellectual property and the Internet, and wait for the inevitably encouraging yet noncommittal “oh cool.” My problem is that my goals don’t line up with those of any practicing lawyers I know. Cogently expressing them required a look to other disciplines. So it was while speaking with a friend in app design that I had a realization: I want to be a UX designer for the law.
Law, presently, has a decidedly crappy user experience. If law was a website, users would be bouncing off of the landing page in seconds, abandoning law.us for competitors norms.org or vigilantism.com in a few swift clicks. This is a particularly embarrassing situation given that law was supposed to be the original crowdsourced content–for the people by the people. Today, law is like a version of Wikipedia that (1) lacks search, (2) has a different layout for every article, and (3) requires eight years of training and $200,000 or more before you can click “edit.”
We can do better; I want to help. Accordingly I’ve sought classes in legal theory. These classes have reinforced my convictions: law works best when people understand it. Lon Fuller and Friedrich Hayek have taught me that universal, public, comprehensible laws are best because they respect the dignity of citizens and allow them to efficiently plan their affairs, economic and social, without fear of unexpected coercion. As Robert Bolt wrote in his play A Man for All Seasons, “The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely.” As a UX designer then, the challenge is lighting that causeway: making law more public, more understandable, and more reflective of existing norms in communities.
The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely.Robert Bolt
Projects for a Better UX
Currently, I have three projects in line with my goal of enhancing law’s UX. First, under the guidance of professor Jane Anderson, I’m researching how new technologies of physical labeling–like QR codes and NFC-chips–can help the custodians of traditional knowledge achieve greater control over the products and embodiments of that knowledge. Utilizing a QR code or similar label would allow the producers of traditional knowledge goods to carefully label their products, setting out clear, specific, and personal desires with regard to use and restrictions.
Second, under the guidance of professor Jeremy Waldron, I’m analyzing self-regulation and self-governance in online communities to see how well these emergent systems guard and maintain fundamental human dignity. In particular, I contrast Wikipedia.org with Yelp.com, two very different models of peer-production and community regulation.
Finally, as a personal project, I’m developing a website that will, ambitiously, crowdsource dispute resolution. I call it justiceby.us. Settlement has supplanted many traditional legal processes, in part, surely, because it has greater ease of use and lower cost. I cannot, however, accept private settlement as an ideal solution to law’s UX design problem. Settlements are usually confidential and do not carry precedential authority. Lacking this notice and precedent, they do not offer private citizens a better picture of their rights or responsibilities, and they do not generate a common thread of legal reasoning. My site will seek to promote private settlement while also generating public statements of the law as it evolves from settlement to settlement. Justiceby.us will develop a corpus of privately settled principles that can guide future arbiters as well as potential parties to future disputes.
But law is not an area amenable to change. This can be a good thing in a Burkean conservative sense, sometimes the old ways are the best ways and changes upset careful balances of which we may not even be aware. On the other hand, the law can be highly path dependent and legislation, specifically, is vulnerable to manipulation from the rent-seeking of entrenched interests. Like it or not, the legal profession is one of those entrenched interests. Most firms have nothing to gain from a simplification of the law; they stand only to lose billable hours, or the pretense of billable hours, which comes from lay ignorance and fear of complexity. I’ve no illusions that my proposals, especially justiceby.us, are perhaps foolishly grand, and in many circles unpopular. Nonetheless, I want to try.
If you like my ideas and have coding experience, tech start-up experience, or arbitration and mediation experience please contact me. Together we can try to make law usable.