AI’s Mechanical Jurisprudence

Guest post by Nicholas Mignanelli, Research Librarian, Yale Law School

In his 1908 essay, “Mechanical Jurisprudence,” the eminent legal scholar Roscoe Pound warns of the dangers of what he calls “scientific law,” namely a “petrification” that “tends to cut off individual initiative in the future, to stifle independent consideration of new problems and of new phases of old problems, and so to impose the ideas of one generation upon the other.” Today, this century-old critique of legal formalism could be used to describe the pitfalls of so-called “AI-driven” legal research and law practice technologies.

Pound’s early work served as the foundation for legal realism, an intellectual movement that radically transformed American law by exposing the human element in judicial decision-making and introducing the indeterminacy thesis—the idea that “laws (broadly defined to include cases, regulations, statutes, constitutional provisions, and other legal materials) do not determine legal outcomes.” Unfortunately, the insights of the legal realists are lost on the founders of today’s legal tech startups and their promoters, even those within the legal academy. As Upton Sinclair once wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Yet foundational questions abound. Is law determinate? What systemic biases and hidden assumptions are embedded in the corpus of Anglo-American law? What are the implications of turning the corpus of Anglo-American law into a dataset and automating it? Will AI inhibit the legal creativity exemplified by lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg? What will all of this mean for the future of law reform? While we can hardly expect vendors to take time to reflect upon these questions, law librarians, in their roles as legal research professors and legal information scholars, must.

Further Reading

Ronald E. Wheeler, Does WestlawNext Really Change Everything: The Implications of WestlawNext on Legal Research, 103 Law Libr. J. 359 (2011).

Susan Nevelow Mart, The Algorithm as a Human Artifact: Implications for Legal [Re]Search, 109 Law Libr. J. 387 (2017).

Susan Nevelow Mart, Results May Vary, A.B.A. J., Mar. 2018, at 48.

Nicholas Mignanelli, Critical Legal Research: Who Needs It?, 112 Law Libr. J. 327 (2020).

Yasmin Sokkar Harker, Invisible Hands and the Triple (Quadruple?) Helix Dilemma: Helping Students Free Their Minds, 101 B.U. L. Rev. Online 17 (2021).

Nicholas Mignanelli, Prophets for an Algorithmic Age, 101 B.U. Law Rev. 41 (2021).

Stephan Meder, Legal Machines: Of Subsumption Automata, Artificial Intelligence, And the Search for the “Correct” Judgment (Verena Beck trans., 2023).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *