Hofstra Lab Uses Computers to Evaluate Court Rulings

How can computers be taught to read and identify the logic behind legal decisions? That is what law students at the Law, Logic and Technology (LLT) Lab at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University are studying, hoping to make analyzing court rulings easier for future attorneys.

Under the guidance of Vern Walker, a professor and director of the LLT Lab, students working in the Lab’s Vaccine/Injury Project Corpus are examining the reasoning behind legal decisions awarding or denying compensation for health problems allegedly due to vaccinations. Students evaluate how special masters, who decide vaccine cases in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, connect the evidence in each case to the findings of fact. By identifying key words, sentence patterns and the steps humans take to extract useful information from decisions, the lab hopes to help the artificial intelligence community automate some parts of the process one day.

“As we add to our database, a lawyer with a vaccine case could go to the database and say ‘I have this special master—-how has she decided cases like this one in the past and what kind of evidence has she found persuasive,” Mr. Walker said in an interview.

Software that analyzes decisions can make the judicial system more transparent, accurate and efficient, he said.

The research is the subject of an article, “A Framework for the Extraction and Modeling of Fact-Finding Reasoning From Legal Decisions: Lessons From the Vaccine/Injury Project Corpus,” published in the November 2011 issue of Artificial Intelligence and Law, a peer-reviewed journal. It was co-authored by Mr. Walker and 2011 law school graduates Nathaniel Carie, Courtney C. DeWitt and Eric Lesh.

“Every time students do a single case, it generates data for the lab but it also teaches them how to prove things, so it is very practical experience for them,” Mr. Walker said, noting that 13 second- and third-year law students work as researchers at the lab.

Brooklyn Students Contribute to Escrow Dispute Resolution

A partnership between Brooklyn Law School and the state Attorney General’s Office to resolve real estate escrow disputes has put itself out of business.

In 2008, the number of these disputes jumped from about a dozen a year to a few hundred annually due to the housing crisis. Ira Goldenberg, a partner at real estate firm Goldenberg & Selker and an adjunct professor at the law school, volunteered students to help chip away at the backlog.

With his law school colleague Debra Bechtel, Mr. Goldenberg launched the Advanced Condominium and Cooperative Clinic/Externship, placing four or five students in the attorney general’s Real Estate Finance Bureau each semester. Under the guidance of Assistant Attorney General Judy Kaufman, students investigated two or three cases a semester, performing legal research and writing decisions.

“I thought this was a great opportunity for law students to do something in the real world,” Mr. Goldenberg said in an interview. “They get to deal with attorneys and litigants and it’s tremendous legal writing experience.”

Though the clinic has been successful, Mr. Goldenberg said it will close by the end of the year.

“I like to think the students did such a great job that they helped put themselves out of business,” he said, adding that the “deluge” of cases from the economic downturn has been mostly resolved.

Mr. Goldenberg also noted that the Attorney General’s Office is changing regulations so escrow disputes will be handled by the courts.

Study Faults Transparency of Website Job Information

Law schools on the whole have not done a great job of providing comprehensive job placement data for the class of 2010, Law School Transparency reported on Jan. 17.

The group looked at the websites of 197 American Bar Association-accredited law schools in early January to assess the amount and quality of the job placement data provided. More than a quarter of those schools—54—offered no meaningful information, including 22 that offered no information at all and 32 that used “consumer-disorienting behavior”—for example, citing figures for the kinds of workplaces in which graduates found jobs but nothing about the types of jobs, the organization reported.

“Our findings play into a larger dialogue about law schools and their continued secrecy against a backdrop of stories about admissions fraud, class action lawsuits, and ever rising education costs,” the organization wrote. “These findings raise a red flag as to whether schools are capable of making needed changes to the current, unsustainable law school model without being compelled to through government oversight or other external forces.”

Law School Transparency— founded by two Vanderbilt University Law students to push legal academia to produce better consumer information—developed 19 criteria to evaluate how well schools provide job placement data. They included how easily website users could access job placement information and whether every graduate was accounted for among the ranks of employed, unemployed, full-time graduate students and unknown.

Among the findings:

• More than half the schools surveyed—51 percent—did not disclose the number of graduates who responded to the school’s job survey. Low response rates by graduates who have yet to secure jobs have been blamed for inaccurately high employment and salary rates.

• Seventeen percent of the schools stated on their websites the number of graduates in the class of 2010 holding part-time and full-time jobs. Ten percent disclosed the number in school-funded jobs.

• Salary information was available on the websites of 49 percent of the schools surveyed, but 78 percent of those schools gave information “in ways that mislead the reader.” For example, schools often did not report the number of graduates counted in arriving at salary averages, or provided an average but no information about the wider distribution of salaries.

The organization called the results “simultaneously shocking and predictable.”

“The post-graduation employment information schools provide is surprisingly shallow in light of the pressures they face, including congressional scrutiny, the very real threat of class action lawsuits, and the deluge of media attention,” the report said. “But a lack of honest disclosure has also come to be what’s expected of American law schools—the result of a crisis of confidence.”

A growing number of law schools have beefed up the job information they provide online. The University of Chicago Law School received considerable attention in December when it increased the amount of data available to prospective students. But even then, the report noted, the school did not disclose the number of jobs funded by the school itself, or whether graduates were in full-time, part-time, long-term, or short-term jobs.

Law School Transparency has asked law schools to provide it with the annual employment report provided by the National Association for Law Placement; the organization hopes to create a comprehensive database offering prospective students an apples-to-apples comparison between schools.

Executive Director Kyle McEntee said 16 schools provided those reports for the class of 2010, and he hoped the report would prompt additional schools to turn over that information.

“Ultimately, a database with information from all the schools is the goal,” he said.

Albany Law Launches Blog on Government Reform

The Government Law Center at Albany Law School has launched a new blog, “Government Reform,” dedicated to the legal aspects of state and local government reform.

Written by law school professors and attorneys, the blog (governmentreform.wordpress.com) is part of the school’s national government reform program, which provides information and analysis on laws, practices and proposed reforms. Recent posts relate to social impact bonds, public private partnership, mandate relief and tax caps.

“This blog provides a vehicle to share our ongoing research in another format that is digestible and inviting to the public,” Patricia Salkin, director of the government law center, said in a statement.