The Law Lab is a multidisciplinary research initiative and collaborative network of university, nonprofit and industry partners. The Law Lab mission is to investigate and harness the varied forces — evolutionary, social, psychological, neurological and economic — that shape the role of law and social norms as they enable cooperation, governance and entrepreneurial innovation. Through open observational and experimental web-based platforms and open source software, the Law Lab is developing new digital institutions to foster innovation and research tools to deepen our understanding of trust, transparency and human cooperation. We bring a laboratory approach to legal scholarship and social science research, and build a body of knowledge, expertise and software technologies that will fundamentally transform law and entrepreneurial practice.
Our work is organized in lifecycles:
Law plays a critical role in supporting — and constraining — innovation, human cooperation and entrepreneurial activity. However, unlike other industries, the legal sector has underinvested in digital technologies as a means to augment its core functions. Whereas business and manufacturing structures are routinely collapsed, reconfigured and outsourced, it is the very manner in which legal processes are performed that endows them with their authority, predictability and legitimacy. Black robes can make a difference. . .
Across the world, however, traditional legal institutions are being stressed to their breaking point. Mature and nascent democracies alike inadequately support legal processes, leading to failures of participation, representation and efficiency, not to mention backlogs in hearings, trials, appeals and rulings. Remarkably absent are 21st century legal infrastructures that can support complex and global 21st century societies. Digital legal institutions are a part of the solution to these challenges.
To re-imagine law within the digital space, we must go beyond thinking of governance in terms of static civic institutions. Form should not be confused with function; that is, the physical occurrence of a legal process should not be equated with its goals—by requiring that a contract be physically registered, for example, or a dispute resolved in a court room. In designing legal procedures to match 21st century societies, we must identify where and when digital means can substitute for physical means. The objective should not only be enhanced productivity and efficiency, but greater transparency and accountability.
Legal processes can be reconceived as social mechanisms that can be expressed digitally, in order to facilitate innovation and experimentation, and yield new models for understanding legal norms and practice. Through empirically-driven research and observational tools, we can identify the key values and structures of motivation that undergird the “peer production” successes of the online environment — including enhanced communications; values of cooperation and empathy; group identity and participation; shared normative understandings of what is right — and leverage them towards the creation of new legal processes, norms and institutions.
Private economic law is also a fruitful area for this investigation. Doctrinal areas such as contract, property and business organization allow private actors to design their own operational space and activities. The digital world offers unprecedented opportunities for legal and institutional processes to be just as generative as the open architectures of the Web. Our work will provide a digital toolkit to the designers of private corporations, enabling new forms of experimentation and innovation.
We need to understand better how social and legal mechanisms work in practice and what kinds of mechanisms would be most effective. By rendering legal processes into open and testable digital platforms, we can enhance innovation, while fostering new levels of capability and transparency not imaginable in a physically-constrained legal infrastructure. That could mean more effective and accountable democracies, more just outcomes, more timely and effective regulations, and less expenditure on costly and ineffective oversight processes.