Law and Computer Science: 2020-2021
Across the globe, legal systems are entering a period of profound transformation brought on by new technologies and alternative business models. Legal innovation backed by new technologies can drive down costs, make the delivery of legal services more productive, and facilitate better access to justice for citizens. As AI and digital technology permeate more of our lives, they increasingly becomes the source of legally significant events. This means that those who study and/or practice law increasingly need to understand the digital context. At the same time, those who study computer science and/or develop software increasingly need to understand potential legal consequences of design choices.
This course, jointly offered by the Law Faculty and the Department of Computer Science, will introduce students from both backgrounds to the terrain at the boundaries of their two disciplines. The overarching theme is understanding law and computer science at their intersection.
Such interdisciplinary understanding requires both lawyers and computer scientists to develop an appreciation of the way in which they typically approach problems, with very different analytic tools. A key pedagogical strategy for the course is to teach law and computer science students together, and in particular for them to collaborate on a groupwork practical exercise. This will accelerate both groups’ acculturation to each others’ analytic perspectives through learning from each other as well as from faculty.
The course will engage with three distinct but complementary sets of questions:
- The overarching, core theme is to explore how computer scientists and lawyers of the future will need to work together. Today, they do not share a common language or have a common understanding of concepts such as “rules” or “fairness”? How can such mutual understanding best be forged?
- Digital technology in legal practice. How is digital technology being deployed in key areas of “legal work” such as contracting and dispute resolution? What commercial imperatives, and legal and technological constraints, operate on this deployment? How are they likely to shape its future trajectory?
- Digital technology and substantive law. How are concepts and analytic methods from computer science pertinent to the application of substantive law? Are there any gaps in existing legal doctrine that will need to be addressed, and if so, how? Do common themes emerge in the challenges that arise and the ways in which they should be addressed?
To foster close interdisciplinary dialogue and ensure balance, the course will be open to only 12 students from each discipline. To meet the demand for this course, the organisers will be ready to open up to 3 more places for each discipline.
Students will participate in 32 hours of lecture-seminars, designed to promote in-depth discussion and dialogue between law and computer science. These will be divided into 16 x 2 hours sessions. With a few exceptions, each sessions will begin with a 30 mins lecture from the perspective of law and a 30 mins lecture from the perspective of computer science. These will be followed by a 60 mins seminar discussion of related ideas, based around group and individual exercises keyed to the lectures. In all but one of these sessions, computer science and law students will be taught together. The sessions will be led by relevant law and computer science lecturers, who will expose the class to relevant issues for the exercises and discussion. The final content for each session will be informed by the particular interests and expertise of the lecturers.
In Michaelmas Term 2020 and Hilary Term 2021, lectures will be held in a virtual classroom on Tuesdays 11am - 1pm. Go to Canvas to access the link to the classroom.
Students are expected to participate live in these sessions and contribute to the discussion. All students will have opportunities to get to know each other and meet the lecturers 15 mins before and after each online lecture.
Note: University members who want to audit the lectures, should contact the course organisers.
The students will undertake a practical project in groups of six, each having both computer scientists and lawyers - ideally in equal numbers. The practical project is explicitly designed to foster cross-disciplinary collaboration and understanding. Completion of the practical will take a total of around 25 hours of work, in addition to attendance at the scheduled practical sessions. Additional guidance and input to the projects will be available from the members of a group of engaged and expert industry mentors who have kindly offered to support the course in this way.
Assessment will be based on a group presentation and a one-page individual report, with the practical as a whole graded individually as S-, S or S+.
Each project group will have a dedicated online workplace where the students will learn and utilise new collaboration and communication techniques and improve their project management skills. Go to Canvas to access the link to the online worklpace.
The practical sessions will take place on Thursdays 9am - 11am in weeks 2, 6, and 8 in both Michaelmas Term 2020 and Hilary Term 2021. The final session in Hilary Term 2021 during which groups will present their projects will last on hour longer, i.e. until 12pm (noon). Go to Canvas to access the link to the online practical sessions.
There will also be an optional workshop on Legal Design and Design Thinking, led by external experts. This will take place on Tuesday 1pm - 3pm in week 4 of Hilary Term 2021.
Students are invited to attend the AI4Law Workshop Series (optional), especially those sessions that may be beneficial for their practical projects. The workshops will normally take place on Zoom on Tuesdays 1pm - 3pm during term time.
Classes and Tutorials
Computer science students will receive 2.5 hours of classes on essay writing. The first session will be in week 8 MT, the second in week 2 HT. Law students will have 4 hours of tutorials, one at the end of MT and the rest in HT. Specific times will be arranged nearer the event based on students' own timetables.
The course will be assessed by means of two 3,000 word essays, written in response to a selection of questions released at the end of Hilary Term. Computer Science and Law students will be given the same paper. One essay will be on topics studied in the part of the course on digital technology in legal practice. The other essay will be on topics studied in the part of the course on digital technology and substantive law.
The principal learning outcome for this course will be that participants will gain the ability to talk to and work with students from the other discipline, in order to produce solutions to the kinds of practical, technical and legal problems that arise in this area. This will be achieved in part through the other learning outcomes, which are as follows:
- A grasp of the ways in which technology is changing the process of being a lawyer, including career structures, business models and legal practice.
- An understanding of the ways in which law has an impact on software development.
- An awareness of the ethical issues surrounding software development and how these can best be handled through both law and computer science.
- An understanding of the impact of technology on particular areas of black letter law and the need for joint solutions to the challenges that arise as a result.
- Improved presentation, writing and critical skills.
- Advanced project management skills and commerical awareness.
Introductory Sessions: divided by a common language?
MT Week 2: Introduction to Key Disciplinary Concepts
- Introduction to Computer Science for Lawyers - Tom Melham
- Introduction to Law for Computer Scientists - Rebecca Williams
Digital Technology in Legal Practice
Digital Technology and Substantive Law
Distributed Ledger Technology
Lecturers for each of the sessions will provide reading lists via the Canvas website for the course.