skip navigation
US Law Code

c.c. BY-SA 3.0.

If you think that law isn’t written for lawyers, try reading some.  It can even start looking normal after a while (say about the length of time it takes to get through law degree).  But research on the main street impact of legal language suggests that for most people, the law is likely to be either incomprehensible or very hard to read.

This problem is a focus of a research project which a team of us at ANU and Cornell LII have been addressing over the past months (Eric McCreath (Australian National University, Research School of Computer Science), Wayne Weibel (Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Insitute), Nic Ceynowa (LII), Sara Frug (LII), Tom Bruce (LII) and myself (ANU)).  With the generous help of thousands of LII users, as part of a citizen science project, we’ve been collecting data on the readability of law as well as demographic data about the users of law.

If you are concerned about access to law, and many are, the current situation is not really good enough.  Whether you tend to ‘human rights’, ‘democratic values’, ‘economic efficiency’, ‘rule of law’ or are just wanting to make sure your hapless minions follow your every command, you’ll be able to think of a good reason why the law should be more accessible (readable) than it is.

Of course the problem has been around for a very long time, and plain language is a standing goal of many legislative drafting offices.  Reform efforts have been underway since the middle ages.  Certainly legal language has improved considerably, particularly as a result of 19th and 20th century reforms with that goal in mind.  Still, the law can’t be said to be readily accessible to the general public, in the sense of its readability.

What has changed that makes the problem more urgent today is that the general public can now at least get to the law.  That’s the revolution that’s been achieved by online publishers of the law, including the Free Access to Law Movement and official and commercial law publishers.  As the UK’s First Parliamentary Counsel observed last year:

Legislation affects us all. And increasingly, legislation is being searched for, read and used by a broad range of people. It is no longer confined to professional libraries; websites like have made it accessible to everyone. So the digital age has made it easier for people to find the law of the land; but once they have found it, they may be baffled. The law is regarded by its users as intricate and intimidating.

In 2010, the Plain Writing Act was adopted by the US Congress with the aim of improving government writing. Sad to say, the Act itself is no model of plain language. Section, sub-section and paragraph roll on, line after line, provision after convoluted provision. In substance they say not much more than: write clearly so that the public can understand and use what you write.  Didn’t anyone see the irony?  Then again, reality check, most legislation is never read by the people who vote to make it law. Just to make sure the drawbridge was well and truly up, if you read through to the fine print at the end there is an important rider.  What happens if no one can understand what the law is supposed to mean? Well, nothing a judge can do about it.  Great aspiration, but …

A sea change could be on the way, though. The Good Law initiative is one great example of efforts to address the complexity and readability of legislation. What is significant is that how we are thinking about legal rules is changing.  Official publishers of the law are beginning to talk about the law as if it’s data.  The UK National Archives Office has even published an API — Application Programmers Interface (basically a ‘how to’ for developers who want to use the “data”).So now we’re thinking of law as data.  And we’re going to unleash computer scientists on it, to do whatever their imaginations can come up with. Bommarito and Katz‘ work on the legal code as a mathematical network is a great example of the virtually infinite possibilities.

Our own research uses the potential of computational technologies in another way. Online legal sites are not just ‘documents’.  They are places where people are actively interacting with the law. We used crowd-sourcing to engage with this audience, asking them to rate law on readability characteristics as well as exploring the demographics of who uses the law. Our aim was to develop a labelled dataset that could be used as input to machine learning. “Labelled data” is machine learning gold — hard to get, but if you can you get it, you can use it to make predictions about what human judges would say. In our case we are trying to predict whether a legal sentence will be readable or not.

In the process we learned quite a bit about the audience using the law, and about which law they use. Scouring the Google Analytics data, it became obvious that the law is not equally read. We may all be equal before the law, but the law is not equal before us. Just 37 sections of the US Code account for almost 10% of the page visits to US code pages (there are about 65,000). So a tiny fraction of the Code is being read all the time.  On the other hand there are huge swathes of the Code that hardly ever see the light of a back illuminated screen. This is not trivial news. Computer scientists love lists. Prioritised lists get their own special lectures for first year CS students — and here we have a prioritized list. You want to know what law is at the top of your priority list — the users will tell you. If you’re concerned with cleaning up the law code or making it easier to understand, there’s useful stuff here.

Ranking of sections by frequency of readership (on a logarithmic scale)

Ranking of sections by frequency of readership (on a logarithmic scale)

It will be no surprise that we found that law is harder for just about every part of the community than legal professionals.  What was surprising was that legal professionals (including law students), turn out to be a minority of those interested enough to respond, on the LII site at least.

These were just a few of the demographic insights we were able to draw.

On the machine learning front, we were able to show that machine learning can improve on traditional readability metrics  in predicting language difficulty (they’ve long been regarded as suspect in application to legal texts anyway). That said, it’s early days and we would like to extend the research we have done so far. There is a lot of potential for future research applying computational techniques to the readability of law.  A co-authored publication further describing the research introduced in this article will be presented at this year’s Law Via the Internet Conference being held at the end of September.

But while we’re thinking about it, there are other ways to think about `access’ to law.  What if instead of writing the law, it was visualized?  You know — like in pictures.  Before you storm off in contempt, note this: research is validating that pictures can improve user experience — for example in the contract space, where what your clients think of your contract can impact on your bottom line.

It’s radical enough unleashing computer scientists on legal rules. What might the law look like if we try thinking like designers?   ‘User experience’ of legal rules? That one didn’t come up in law school.  We’re in some surreally different world at this point. Designers create artefacts for people to use which are optimised for functionality, beauty and other characteristics –- not things that are meant to tell people what to do. ‘User experience’ is their kind of thinking.

As readers of Vox Pop will know, the idea of legal design is starting to get traction. Helena Haapio and Stefania Passera’s great article on legal design covers some of the field. An article they jointly published last year points out some of the benefits of visualization. Earlier this year, we worked on a joint paper exploring the feasibility of automating legal visualization. We were able to demonstrate the automation of visualization of clauses, such as a contract term clause, a liquidated damages clause or a payment clause. Visit our proof of concept site, where you can play with visualizing different options.

OK. So perhaps some of the above reads like we’re on the up-slope of the hype curve. But that of course is the fun. For those of us who’ve spent many years in the law, looking at the law from a different professional paradigm can help us see things that didn’t stand out before. It certainly enjoyable and brings a breath of fresh air to the law.

Michael CurtottiMichael Curtotti is undertaking a PhD in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.  His co-authored publications on legal informatics include: A Right to Access Implies a Right to Know:  An Open Online Platform for Readability ResearchEnhancing the Visualization of Law and A corpus of Australian contract language: description, profiling and analysis.  He holds a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of New South Wales, and a Masters of International Law from the Australian National University.  He works part-time as a legal adviser to the ANU Students Association and the ANU Post-graduate & research students Association, providing free legal services to ANU students.


Other related posts on VoxPopuLII on this topic include Law in the Last-Mile: The Potential of Mobile Integration into Legal Services by Sean Martin McDonald, Incomprehension Compounded by Mistranslation – The Imperatives of Access to Legal Information in South Africa by Eve Gray and Accessible Law by Nick Holmes

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

Much to the dismay of several family members, I majored in anthropology in college. For those of you not up on your social sciences or Greek roots, anthropology is the study of all aspects of human existence, from the human genome, to cultures, to evolutionary history, to our primate cousins, and many things in between. Much to every one’s surprise, however, I couldn’t have picked a more useful major to help me navigate the ever-changing landscape of modern librarianship and legal information.

Besides analytical thinking and general research skills, my anthropology classes taught me how to make connections between seemingly divergent ideas, to dispassionately observe human interactions, and to respect differing cultures. Although they were not directly related to my career goals, I loved my primatology courses the most. Observing primate social networks allows one to distill the essence of a relationship without the confusing trappings of cultural artifacts. As an added bonus, monkeys are really cute.

LorisMy favorite non-human primate is not a monkey, actually. It’s the genus Nycticebus, more commonly known as the Slow Loris. They are absolutely adorable! Lorises are nocturnal, tree dwelling lower primates. They split off from the human evolutionary chain about 50 million years ago and haven’t evolved much since then. They don’t have many natural predators, but when they do need to defend themselves they rely on poisonous saliva or by curling up in a ball and hiding. Due to the lack of predators and their widely varied diet, they tend to move very slowly and cautiously through the trees.

You’re probably thinking to yourself right about now, “Well, this is nice and moderately interesting, but why is she writing about lorises in an legal information blog?” Well, if an overly cautious, slow moving, non-evolving primate that responds to threats by a poison tongue or hiding and pretending the threat isn’t there didn’t remind you of anything, well then I guess you haven’t spent much time around librarians.

What’s Wrong with Librarians?

Oh, everyone calm down. Put away your pitchforks. While no one loves to play “Poke the Bunhead with a Stick” more than I, that is not the point of this essay. Rather, I am here to answer the question, “What is wrong with librarians?” As a librarian who spends a significant amount of time discussing legal information issues with non-librarians, I am often asked this very question. Many times with some colorful adjectives thrown in for good measure.

Here’s the short answer: There’s nothing WRONG with librarians.

Libraries and librarians have different cultures and missions than other players in the information business, and thus place what may seem to be an unreasonable emphasis on certain attributes of an information delivery mechanism, or require characteristics of it that may seem unnecessary. Frankly, we think you’re pretty weird too. However, automatically labeling beliefs and actions different than yours as “wrong” creates unnecessary divisions between groups that must collaborate. Everyone – librarians, computer scientists, legal publishers, government bureaucrats, etc. – needs to work towards a greater cultural understanding of the other players so that mutually beneficial and important projects – for instance, – are not lost to petty infighting and simple misunderstandings that devolve into huge clashes.

Now for a slightly longer answer…

Libraries, as a cultural institution, have existed for millennia. Through that time their collections transitioned from clay tablets to papyrus scrolls to codices to printed books. It is only relatively recently – about one percent of the time of their existence – that libraries have been confronted with digital media. This means that library culture primarily evolved during a time span in which information containers were tangible objects. Furthermore, during this time libraries’ mission has been mainly to preserve and protect the information for the long-term good of the civilization, even at the cost of preventing contemporary users from accessing it. Finally, libraries have existed for the most part without competition in either resource collection or distribution.

Law librarians, in addition to the library enculturation, have often received legal training. If you’ve not had the pleasure, suffice it to say that respect for the rule of law, adherence to social order, and an obsession with order, ritual, and formality are just a few of the many benefits that one receives from an American legal education. (Other benefits include nightmares about Contract Law finals, an inability to watch courtroom dramas without pointing out the inaccuracies of the script, and a competitive streak that would put most Olympic athletes to shame.) The informally educated are very similarly situated.

So, here we have a group of people used to being in control of tangible objects that they would rather preserve than use. Additionally, these people put the legal system and its laws up on a pedestal and rigidly cling to its structure and hierarchy. Is it any wonder, then, that the idea of accepting an electronic version of a law hosted by a private organization without a stamp of government approval sends them into a bit of a tizzy?

Let’s go back to our furry friend the loris.

As I said, the lorises move slowly. Glacially, even. I mean, I’m talking sloooooooow. Why is that? Well, they don’t have a physical impediment keeping them that way. Nor should it be assumed that they are lazy or have some other character defect (as if one could assign character defects to wild animals.) As a matter of fact, when they choose to catch live prey they can move quite quickly. They operate this way because when one is creeping along small jungle branches high in the air in the middle of the night and not running from any particular predator, it pays off to take one’s time and be cautious.

Similarly, librarians don’t cling to print materials out of some romantic notion of the superiority of books, nor do they make repeated demands for stable, authenticated archives of electronic materials just to make you crazy. When one is tasked with the preservation of information – on behalf not just of those looking for it ten years from now, but also of those looking hundreds if not thousands of years from now – and no one else is really in the information distribution or storage business, it pays to take one’s time and be cautious when determining what container to put that information in, especially when what you’ve been doing for the past 1,000 or so years has been working for you.

You Say You Want an Evolution…

A major factor in the loris’s being able to move slowly is that it has few predators or competitors for resources. At least until recently, that is. A primate by the name of Homo sapiens has hunted the loris right onto the endangered species list.

Like the loris, libraries are no longer the sole occupiers of their niche spot in the environment . . . and what a rapidly changing environment it is. No longer are libraries the sole gatekeepers and preservers of information. Information is also coming from new providers and in different containers than what libraries have been used to.

While I said above that they are not “wrong,” that does not mean that libraries and librarians couldn’t do some things better. Librarians, as a species, are very risk-averse. If I had to guess, I’d say it had something to do with being the only information gatekeepers for so long. Now, generally, there’s nothing wrong with being a little cautious, especially when there’re no do-overs (as is the case with lost information.)

But with librarians this risk aversion has grown like a cancer and now manifests itself as a fear of failure. This fear has become so ingrained in the culture that innovation and progress are inhibited. Contrast that with the tech sector – home to many future library partners – where trial and error are encouraged and participants have a freedom to fail. It behooves librarians to embrace this culture of innovation and develop a respect for failure lest they become completely stagnant and, as a result, obsolete.

Unlike the loris, libraries are operated by sapient beings that can adapt to changes in their environments. Libraries need to choose to acknowledge these changes and model some – but not all – of their behaviors after newer and perhaps more successful members of the ecosystem. As it stands now, librarian participation in a multidisciplinary project is often regarded as more of a hindrance than a help.  If librarians don’t change, they will eventually stop being invited to the conversation.   Ideally these other ecosystem members will be patient with the process of evolution and appreciate the qualities the libraries posses and the values that librarians bring to a discussion.

One way to develop this mutual respect is to interact professionally and demonstrate one’s knowledge, skills, and willingness to collaborate. Unfortunately, up until now most interaction between librarians and other information industry members has arisen out of conflict – librarians wagging their fingers, telling someone that they’re wrong or complaining that librarians are being persecuted by the mean old vendors. Another important factor in gaining professional respect is the ability to give and receive constructive criticism without resorting to petty snipes or retreating to salve wounded egos.

Get in the Goddamn Wagon

A few weeks ago, I was sent a link to Peter Brantley‘s blog post, “Get in the Goddamn Wagon,” an inspiring call to action for newer librarians to become involved in future planning for libraries. It’s a good read and worth a look, but I bring it up here for two perhaps non-obvious reasons. One, it’s notable for who sent it to me – none other than Thomas R. Bruce, Director of the Legal Information Institute.

Tom has been a valuable friend and mentor to me. He is not, however, a librarian. Still, because I know he respects me while perhaps not always understanding the reasons behind my actions – and vice versa – we have been able to forge a cooperative professional relationship. Because of this mutual respect, when he offers a suggestion on how libraries might change, I listen and consider his suggestion instead of automatically discounting it because he’s not a librarian.

The other reason that I mention that blog post is that it introduced me to the William Faulkner quote, “Them that’s going,” he said, “get in the goddamn wagon. Them that ain’t, get out of the goddamn way.” I wish I could say, “Librarians . . . computer scientists . . . legal publishers . . . let’s all hold hands now and sing kum-bay-yah!” However, while I am hopeful that cultural differences between these groups can be diminished and a feeling of amity develops between them, I am realistic.

So instead I say, “Get in the goddamn wagon or get out of the goddamn way.” I imagine at times the ride will be about as comfortable and collegial as a bunch of children crammed in a station wagon for a family vacation road trip. There is no ultimate “Mother” authority to keep us all in line with the threat of turning around, however. For these collaborative efforts to be successful, no constituency or person gets to be “in charge” all the time. It doesn’t matter how many millions of dollars in grant money one has, or how many thousands of members in one’s organization; everyone’s expertise needs to be used and respected. It won’t be easy and it won’t feel natural, but we all must make a conscious effort to work together.

How will this happen? We could start with meetings on neutral ground (physical or virtual) designed for the express purpose of ironing out differences between the camps. (Perhaps a Festivus airing of grievances?) Ideally, though, I’d love for it to happen more organically. More multi-disciplinary organizations, conferences, and publishing platforms (like Vox PopuLII) need to be created so that we can learn from each other. Until such time that these exist, more trips into the other camp need to be made – attend their conferences, publish in their discipline’s journals: anything that will start to put human faces on the monolithic titles such as “librarian” or “publisher” so that we can get past the distrust and the disputes and move on to the more important work.

The projects that we can (and should) be collaborating on are new and different and will completely change the way people access their law. As such, they will be met with resistance and suspicion and push-back from commercial vendors and government agents. Presenting a united front and creating a system that benefits from all of our areas of expertise from the beginning will go a long way towards legitimizing our cause. We have one chance to make a first impression, one opportunity to make free law an accepted resource in this generation. Don’t mess it up.

[Editor's Note: For other ideas respecting collaboration between law librarians and members of the legal informatics community, please see our earlier post, A Law Librarian Looks at Legal Informatics Scholarship.]

Photo credits:
Loris: 1887 Engraving of Slow Loris
Librarian: Of unknown origin
Librarian in stacks: The Bookworm by Carl Spitzweg
Horror and Agony, from Darwin’s Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals
Wagon: Harris & Ewing, Wagon and US Capitol (altered by author)

Sarah Glassmeyer is the Faculty Services and Outreach Librarian at the Valparaiso University School of Law in Valparaiso, Indiana. When she’s not putting the fear of God and court clerks into first year law students, she writes about the intersection of legal information, libraries and the Internet at SarahGlasmeyer(dot)com.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor-in-chief is Robert Richards.