May 3, 2011 – The University of Houston Law Center has launched a unique program designed to bring together a spectrum of specializations united by a heavy reliance on computation and the law. The program was highlighted April 22 in a day-long workshop that drew a diverse, international group of scholars whose work in areas ranging from statistics to law and political science is solidly based on computation. The Law Center’s new Program on Law and Computation will essentially deal with the many ways in which computers and software technologies change the way law is perceived and studied. New systems of communicating and storing information not only change personal interaction, but how social and legal policy is formulated and implemented. While many scholars are doing this type of research, and other law schools offer courses in individual disciplines, the Law Center plans to concentrate efforts and become the primary center for studying these changes by providing a platform for scholars from around the world.
The inaugural workshop was hosted by Professor Seth J. Chandler, director of the new program. He is the author of more than 100 interactive and open source demonstrations on a variety of subjects, mostly legal, that have been viewed more than 100,000 times.
After the computers were packed up, Chandler sat down and answered a few questions about the new academic field and the outlook for its future:
1) What is the idea behind the new computation program?
The idea is to bring together a number of technologies that aid in the understanding and exposition of law. These technologies include statistics, finance, decision theory, game theory, networks, computational linguistics, data mining, artificial intelligence, visualization and others whose capabilities have been liberated by modern developments in computation.
2) How does the program fit the needs of a new generation of students and lawyers and into the educational program for the school?
Many smart people go to law school precisely because they don't like mathematics and are indifferent about computers. This program isn't for them. But there is a growing minority of law students raised on pervasive computation and who have backgrounds in engineering, science, computer science and other fields for whom the apparent absence of mathematical rigor and computation in law school comes as a disappointment. This program attempts to harness their energy, enthusiasm, background and interest to show how they most definitely do not have to put their former loves aside as they study a new field but how computation and law can work synergistically. Indeed, as the economics of law practice comes under greater pressure and the ability to produce "mass-customized" legal services becomes more highly valued, the skills mastered within the program should prove of ever greater value. in my opinion, the school's administration has shown considerable foresight in seeding this program with the resources it needs to be a sustaining form of education.
3) How is it a new type of scholarship?
While there will be new scholarship done within each of the fields encompassed by the program, none of the fields are themselves new. The scholarly developments will come from extension of the techniques studied within the program to new legal domains and new data as well as the pipelining of techniques --- statistical studies of networks, for example -- to yield new insights.
4) Is program unique among law schools? How so?
There are a few small scale programs developing across the legal academy that contain pieces of our program. Some may emphasize statistics. Others may focus on artificial intelligence. There are none, however, that attempt to unify these ideas by finding commonality in their emphasis on extensive and advanced computation in achieving their most powerful results. I will consider it an indicia of success when the work done in Houston persuades others to develop their own similar programs. I truly expect a world not too many years distant when having a computation program is as common as it is today to have an IP program.
5) What is significance, what are goals of Inaugural workshop? How many attendees and from what backgrounds? What indications are you getting that there is interest among legal community in this topic?
The inaugural workshop was intended to bring together an international and diverse group of scholars whose work, though in different disciplines -- statistics, law, political science-- was united by heavy reliance on computation. I also wanted to emphasize the importance of proselytization. I believe we are on to something and I want to make sure the participants feel part of a community and have the means to communicate their discoveries most effectively. We had about a dozen participants and about 30 people attending. Much to my surprise, even a new website and a Facebook page generated requests from across the United States for further information on the conference and requests, which we will honor, to put on the web as much as we can of what the conference generated.