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Up-To-Date Code of Federal Regulations and a Look Under Our Hood

LII Under the HoodBack in September, we started a new technical blog, LII Under the Hood, to give you a peek at how the engine driving this web machine works. There, we show you how our team of engineers develops new features, tackles challenges and maintains its sanity in the process. Our publicly documented foray into feature development begins with a pretty exciting project: a new, regularly up-to-date eCFR.

One of the LII’s most-used collections is the Code of Federal Regulations, which is an online version of the official compilation of the regulations published in the Federal Register. Our edition has lots of useful features, but we’ve regularly gotten one big complaint: it’s out of date (our online text is based on the published book, which can be up to a full year behind).

The Office of the Federal Register and the GPO have made available, in bulk, a machine-readable (XML) text of the eCFR, the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. We’re currently incorporating enhanced indentation, standard enumerator formatting and hyperlinks from each regulation to the point in the U.S. Code which provides the basis for its rule-making authority. With the help of beta-testers, we’ll be adding other useful features to the new data format over the coming months. Rest assured: while we’re renovating, “CFR Classic” will continue to be available.

Until then, enjoy unprecedented access to the most current version of the eCFR, and follow its development at LII Under the Hood. Let us know what you think!

Artificial Intelligence and Predicting Tax Evasion

L-R: MIT researchers Jacob Rosen and Erik Hemberg at the Law School for a 2015 Legal Information Institute (LII) lecture: Artificial Intelligence and Predicting Tax Evasion., Co-sponsored by Information Science (INFOSCI).
MIT researcher Jacob Rosen visited Cornell Law School in September 2015.

In September, we welcomed Jacob Rosen to Ithaca, NY to present his award-winning research paper, Non-Compliance Detection Using Co-Evolution of Tax Evasion Risk and Audit Likelihood. The LII enjoyed a day of workshops and lively discussion with Rosen and the paper’s lead author, Erik Hemberg, regarding their work, its implications on tax policy, and how it relates to what we’re doing in the legal tech world. The day culminated in Rosen’s public presentation to over 100 attendees (physical and virtual) from disciplines ranging from law and economics to applied mathematics and computer and information science.

*For those who missed our showcase of their research, since covered by the New York Times and TaxProf Blog, the video of Rosen’s presentation is still available for viewing on our website.*

As the U.S. tax code becomes increasingly complex, particularly in the realm of partnership taxation, various laws are often implemented without considering their effects on the overall tax system. Such laws not only create confusion among well-meaning taxpayers, but can be exploited by highly paid tax professionals in order to create perverse results not anticipated by policy-makers. To get an idea of an impact scale, Rosen and Hemberg’s team cites a May 2014 Government Accountability Office report, which claims that taxpayers underreported more than $91 billion of income annually between 2006 and 2009 through the use of partnerships and other “flow-through entities.” It’s an upward trend that shows little sign of stopping.

By representing partnership taxation in a computational model, Rosen and Hemberg’s research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), teamed with The MITRE Corporation, sought to identify the parts of partnership taxation that likely cause the most confusion and potentially abusive activity. In his presentation, Rosen was careful to delineate the difference between tax evasion and tax non-compliance; while much of this activity seems abusive, because it complies with current tax code–which hasn’t caught up to commercial non-compliance tactics–it technically is legal in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service.

Their paper received the Peter Jackson Award for Best Innovative Application Paper at the 15th International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Law (ICAIL) in June 2015, and has gained traction in the press after visiting Cornell this fall. Rather than go further in-depth here, we recommend either reading the paper, visiting The STEALTH (Simulating Tax Evasion And Law Through Heuristics) Project website or watching Rosen’s presentation, as he is far more capable of communicating their complex research methodology.

Jacob Rosen, S.M. is a Modeling and Simulation Engineer in the MITRE Corporation’s Interdisciplinary Modeling Division, where he develops computational techniques to detect and characterize financial fraud. He earned his Master of Science in the Technology and Policy program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where his research within the Anyscale Learning For All (ALFA) group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) focused on the abstract representation of financial transactions and artificial intelligence techniques. He earned a Bachelor of Science, concentrating in Mathematics and Economics, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Dr. Erik Hemberg, Ph.D is a Translational Fellow in the Innovation Initiative at the MIT, where he also did postdoctoral research in the ALFA group in CSAIL. He performs research regarding scalable machine learning. He is currently involved in research regarding tax evasion and physiological time series prediction. Dr. Hemberg received his Ph.D in Computer Science from University College Dublin, Ireland.

This event was made possible by the Legal Information Institute (LII), the department of  Information Science (IS) Colloquium, the Law School Alumni Association and The MITRE Corporation.

A day in the life: Traffic spike

trafficspikeYou were expecting only a couple of people.  And you have a couple bags of chips, some beer and a few soft drinks; that should be plenty.  Somewhere in the back there’s probably some pretzels and seltzer if things get low.  But then the door opens and people keep pouring in.  The living room fills, the kitchen, even the bedroom.  You squeeze through and look out the window, and the entire street is mobbed with people coming over.  No doubt about it: your supplies have crashed.

We know how you feel.

As our regular readers know, we’ve been working on building up the eCFR, so our systems mastermind, Nic, has been keeping a close eye on our load numbers.  But because we’re building things — hammers everywhere, and piles of plywood, and mind the cord please — when our numbers started to spike one evening a few weeks ago, Nic figured that it was some extra overhead from the feature deployment that was running.  Whatever it was, it was heavy: Nic said it was the only time he’d seen Nginx, the web server, run out of available worker processes.

But it wasn’t our deployment.  Nic looked more closely at the server logs, and it was just an enormous spike in traffic.  Not enough to actually crash the site, but enough that not everyone was able to get the information they were looking for.  Nic kept digging.  It was puzzling: the huge wave of hits came at a very specific time — between 9:20 and 9:40 at night.  They were all from different locations, so it wasn’t a crawler run amok.  What was everyone looking for?  Did someone think we had early Star Wars tickets or something?

Well, the clue was in the specific information people were looking for.  Everyone, it seemed, was suddenly interested in the 14th amendment. Cross checking that against a news twitter stream, and there was the answer.  As it turns out the Republican Presidential debate was that night.  At some point shortly after 9:20, someone mentioned the 14th amendment.  And the next thing you know, we’re out of chips and pretzels.

But of course we at the LII, being hospitable folk, don’t like to run out of munchies.  So we’ve got a plan to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Nic is gearing up to implement demand-driven autoscaling. This will set up an automated monitor which keeps track of our load numbers, and then, if it detects a spike, adds a new machine and balances the workload between them.  Once the traffic slows down, the extra machine can quietly switch back off.

So next time the house fills up, we hope to have an extra tent ready to pitch itself automatically, and a whole tub of munchies in the garage.  Because rest assured, we’re here to welcome you, and no one likes a party without something to snack on.

Introducing LawLibe, a legal reference iOS application powered by the LII

LawLibe: “It’s like having a law library in your pocket.” – Fitz Collings, founder of The Law Pod

Get ready: Accessing U.S. law just got a little bit easier.

This November, we’re proud to announce our collaboration in the newest release of LawLibe, a legal reference iOS application first developed by The Law Pod back in 2010. In its newest incarnation, LawLibe harnesses the power of the LII, putting Federal and State collections into the palm of your hand for quick and easy offline access.

Started as an alternative to lugging paper versions of the Federal Rules to his law classes, Fitz Collings, founder of The Law Pod and a graduate of Cornell University’s College of Arts & Sciences, began developing legal reference web apps back in 2008. Seven years and 130 apps later, his work–combined with our legal collections–will condense into one affordable, mobile reference: LawLibe. Available for free download via the iTunes App Store, users can easily access the preloaded U.S. Constitution without an internet connection. Other legal reference materials like the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations and State Statutes can each be added for less than a dollar. Special features of the app include full-text search, in-text highlighting, visual preferences for ease of use, one-touch section navigation and Advisory Committee Notes.

Fitz came to us with this idea for collaboration this summer. His desire to make the law more accessible, coupled with his appreciation for the work we do to further that cause, sparked an effort which we hope will put the law into more hands. We recently sat down with him to discuss the app development process, his pathway through tech and law, and his perspective on the Legal Information Institute:

(Fitz Collings earned his BA in Biology from Cornell University in 2005, an ALM in Biotechnology from Harvard University in 2008 and a JD from The College of William and Mary Marshall Wythe Law School in 2011. Since 2012, he has practiced intellectual property law and related fields as an associate at Sidley Austin LLP in Washington, DC.)

How and when did you first hear about the Legal Information Institute [LII]? How would you describe what it is?

I first discovered LII during my first year in law school in 2008.  I was taking civil procedure and, in addition to a hefty case book, I also had to use a fairly sizeable copy of the federal rules.  After a couple days of carrying those back and forth to class, I thought there had to be a better way.  So I googled “Federal Rules of Civil Procedure” and the first link that came up was to LII.

I would describe the LII the same way now as that day I first came across it: the most efficient way to find out what the law is.  Because of LII, I never had to bring my federal rules of civil procedure book to class again.  And the experience of being able to quickly pull up and search through the rules on my computer was what got me interested in developing Law Pod.

What is Law Pod, how does it work, and how did it come about?

Law Pod is a collection of legal reference apps for iOS devices.  

It began in the fall of 2008 as a handful of web apps dedicated to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Criminal Procedure, Appellate Procedure, Bankruptcy Procedure, and Evidence.  The goal was to provide a replacement for the paper copies I had to lug to class, so I tried to design the web apps to display and search the content in each of these references at least as quickly as if I were using a book, and ideally much more so.  But a 2008-era iPhone just didn’t run web apps well enough (or at all, if I didn’t have an internet connection) to make it a truly viable replacement.  Fortunately, the iTunes App Store had just opened a few months earlier, so I set out to design a native version for the iPhone that wouldn’t require an internet connection.  

The native versions of the Federal Rules apps launched in the App Store in 2009, and were a huge improvement over the web apps.  Apps for each of the titles of the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations followed, and later apps for New York and Texas state statutes, the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure, and historical legal references.  All told, there are now about 130 such stand-alone Law Pod applications in the App Store.

Our newest app condenses all of that content (and even more state law content) into a single app, called LawLibe. With LawLibe, you can download any or all of the legal references in the Law Pod library directly into the app.  And you can access those references anytime, anywhere.  It’s like having a law library in your pocket, and it will be the focus of our collaboration with LII.

What motivated you to approach us with this idea for collaboration? What do you hope to achieve?

While LII sparked the idea that would become Law Pod, Cornell University has always been very near and dear to my heart. For many years, I’ve been looking for a way to give back to Cornell as a way of saying thank you for everything that it’s given me.  And when I thought back to the spark that LII provided to me at the beginning of my legal career, I saw an opportunity to engage with Cornell again in a meaningful and lasting way.  My hope is that this collaboration with LII will allow me to stay involved with the University that has given me so much and help LII fulfill its mission to make the laws that govern us readily and widely accessible to all.

As a consumer of our materials during your days as a student, and now as a practicing attorney, in what ways do you find the LII useful?

LII offers exactly the amount of information I need as a practicing attorney in a fast and efficient layout, and it’s always up to date.  As a student, or an attorney, or anyone who needs quick, reliable access to the current law, there really isn’t anything more useful.

For what purposes and how often do you primarily use the LII?

I use LII at least once a week, if not once a day.  I generally use it as a starting point for legal research or to confirm the current language of the federal rules.

In your eyes, how does the LII measure up against other legal resources in the market, and in what ways might we better serve our existing and future users?

I think LII provides the most frictionless research experience of any legal resource on the web.  I don’t have to log in or select a source.  I just google “F R Civ P 26,” and LII is there to provide the answer I’m looking for.  I would love to see LII extend that experience to state laws.

You’ve studied biology, biotechnology and law. How did your interest in each subject begin and evolve, and in what ways do you apply your varied education today?

I was interested in both biology and the law in high school, and I had two excellent teachers, Christine Breuker in biology and Jim Bunting in constitutional law, who cultivated that interest.  At the time, though, I thought I would ultimately have to choose between the two.  And I found that decision very difficult to make.  I spent my first two years at Cornell with a focus on government and economics, and then spent the next two years majoring in and ultimately graduating with a degree in biology.  As I later worked to earn my graduate degree, I wrestled with whether to pursue a career in science or to return to the law.  

It wasn’t until I began talking to friends in the legal profession that I learned that patent litigation might allow me to make a career out of the two subjects that I love.  So I followed [my now wife] Nicole to law school to give it a try.  I joined the law firm Sidley Austin in 2012, and I have used both my science and legal education every day since.

Do you identify yourself as primarily a tech guy or as someone working in the field of law?

Fitz Collings, The Law Pod founder and practicing associate at Sidley Austin LLP, first released LawLibe, a legal reference iOS application, in 2010.
Fitz Collings, The Law Pod founder and practicing associate at Sidley Austin LLP, first released LawLibe, a legal reference iOS application, in 2010.

I’m a practicing attorney first and foremost.  What I realized early in my career, though, is that the legal profession can be slow to adopt new tech and, when it eventually does, it doesn’t always improve productivity or efficiency because there can be a gap in understanding between the companies providing the tech and the people consuming it.  I try to use the insights I’ve gained from my own practice to develop applications that are truly useful to people both inside and outside the legal profession.

Are you working on any other technical projects right now?

My entire focus is on LawLibe at the moment.  As we collaborate with LII to pull additional federal content into the app, we will look to expand the library further with more state law references and secondary legal content.  In addition, we will be steadily adding features to the app to make it as useful as possible to the broadest possible audience.

How has the landscape of the legal profession changed since you considered attending law school? Where do you think it is headed, and how well is the industry incorporating innovative technology?

Since 2008, the legal profession seems to have become more streamlined, particularly with regard to use of technology.  Discovery tools like predictive coding and analytics, for example, have vastly improved the process of combing through documents.  And in highly technical fields like patent litigation, in particular, where whole cases can hinge on understanding complex technologies, I tend to see to the most early adopters.  Not all recent technological advances dovetail well with the security and confidentiality demands of the profession, however, so I think it’s generally a good thing that the profession progresses methodically at a safe distance from the bleeding edge of innovation.

How has entrepreneurship played a role in your career, and to whom or which organization(s) would you credit for your development.

I think the hallmark of entrepreneurship is an innovative approach to problem solving.  In my career, I’m often faced with projects that have immoveable deadlines and impossible scale.  A one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work in those situations.  The ability to separate what matters from what doesn’t, formulate a plan, and execute it with complete ownership of the outcome is a skill worth developing in any profession, and the law is no different in that regard.  

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where that developed for me, but I would certainly credit my family.  Nicole has supported my endeavors from the very beginning and has been an indispensible sounding board for new ideas.  My parents always encouraged me to think on my feet and gave me the tools to exercise independent judgment.  And I have long looked to my grandparents, Charles and Marilyn, as role models.  As fruit growers, they are perhaps the quintessential form of entrepreneur.  Anyone who has worked on a farm knows that no day is ever the same—success in that environment depends on a combination of careful planning and the ability to adapt quickly to circumstances beyond control.  Over the seasons I spent working with them at our family orchard in Ohio, they didn’t just teach me how to operate a business, they trusted me to solve problems I’d never encountered before.  Their example and the lessons I learned alongside them have always served me well.

Until our recent connection, how involved have you been with the LII? Why do you think it’s a cause worth supporting?

Although I’ve stayed connected to Cornell since I graduated, this is my first involvement with LII.  The worth of its cause—open access to the law—is so self-evident that it’s easy to overlook.  As an undergraduate, I took a class simply named “Prisons” that was taught by Professor Mary Katzenstein and covered issues that are only now at the forefront of the news, such as mass incarceration and access to representation.  One overarching point that the course taught me was that most people don’t know what the law is, or where to find it, or what to do with it once they’ve found it.  LII does more than just about anyone to make the law instantly available, accessible, and understandable to anyone, and that is a public service whose value cannot be overestimated.