CURIOUS MINDS: Talking to Prof. Dan Katz about Complex Systems in Law

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Curious Minds

We continue our new column, “Curious Minds” created and written by Rose Ors to tap into the minds of legal innovators, disrupters, and out-of-the-box thinkers and learn what influences and inspires their work. In this installment, Rose speaks with law professor Daniel Martin Katz, of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law, VP of Elevate Services, and Co-Founder of @LexPredict about what influences him and what to think about complex systems.

Rose Ors: Who are the thinkers outside of the legal industry that have influenced your work?

Dan Katz: During graduate school, I spent three years working at the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan. This was a formative intellectual experience that continues to shape my world view to this day. There is John Holland, a professor of electrical engineering, computer science, and psychology at the University of Michigan. He was a pioneer in what became known as genetic algorithms as well as the scientific study of complexity.

Then there is economist and complexity theorist W. Brian Arthur. He is one of the pioneers of the science of complexity and past Professor of Economics and Population Studies at Stanford University. He currently is a Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. Also, Duncan Watts, a Principal Research Scientist at Yahoo Research and network-science scholar. His paper, Collective Dynamics of Small-World Networks, co-authored by Steven Strogatz, helped launch the modern field of network science. There are many others I might also name, including my thesis advisors.

Rose Ors: Can you give us a lay person’s definition of complex systems?

Dan Katz: Simple definitions are tricky, but systems are complex systems when they are not reducible to simple equilibrium models as would typically be used in fields such as economics. You can think of the field as an effort to more concretely formalize the physics underlying something we observe in real life — patterns in human mobility, trading behavior in finance, the emergence of social norms.

curious minds

Daniel Katz

Rose Ors: How has your study of complex systems influenced your work in the legal space?

Dan Katz: My work is focused on how to solve complexity at scale in the law. That is one of the big ideas — if not “the” big idea — in legal innovation. When the practice of law was a low complexity endeavor, you did not need to leverage technology, process maps, or design thinking. A single human cognitive machine — a legal-trained mind — could process information and generally navigate law’s complexity.

Later, it became necessary for law to embrace a class of analog legal tech, giving rise to the West Key Number System and the Shepard citation system — systems aimed to reduce the complexity of the law.

Today, the law is a far more complex system with a range of complex interactions and a mountain or mountain range worth of information to process. I came to legal technology and innovation with a simple idea: How can we make the complex simpler and, in turn, change the economics of the legal production function, or even make the law itself simpler.

Rose Ors: What is legal complexity?

Dan Katz: Law has a serious complexity challenge. The field of legal complexity is the scientific characterization of how complex the law is and, in my view, should also be committed to the engineering and design task of reducing that complexity.

The response to the growth of complexity in the law has generally been to throw in larger and larger numbers of human experts to process that complexity. In law, the use of design thinking, technology, process improvement, and other allied disciplines are economic substitutes for the pure human labor approach.

Rose Ors: For those of us new to the field of complex systems what books are good starting points?

Dan Katz: Complex systems scientist Melanie Mitchell’s book, In Complexity: A Guided Tour, explores the relationship between complexity and evolution, artificial intelligence, computation, genetics, and information processing. In Six Degrees, the Science of a Connected Age, Duncan Watts explains what he calls “the new science of networks” — the book is a history of how the science has evolved. I would also recommend, Nate Silver’s, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t. Silver explores the world of predictions and explains how the best forecasters use theoretical probability to forecast outcomes from hurricanes to the stock market.

Rose Ors: Where do you get your most creative ideas?

Dan Katz: I approach my work in an interdisciplinary way. I spend a lot of time at the intersection of law, finance, and technology. Looking at a legal problem through these various lenses is where I get my ideas on how to solve them. That said, the solutions to problems we face at the intersection of these disciplines can be found by looking outside them. So, for example, an area of great interest and utility in my work are principles from finance and risk management.

Rose Ors: What is a big-picture question facing the legal industry?

Dan Katz: We are undergoing a significant transition in the market for legal services; how we respond to the transition is arguably the most critical question facing law schools, law students, law firms, and in-house legal departments. The questions depend on where you reside in the ecosystem.

If you sit in the enterprise space, for example, a question often asked is what tech solution(s) will simplify complex tasks. Take contract review — today, there is no single tech solution. What is possible are innovative delivery models that use a mix of people, technology, and process.

Historically, law been a service business. Over the past decade, it has been evolving into a product business made possible by technological innovation. As there are not robot lawyers on the immediate horizon, the question is how to optimize a set of bundled product-service solutions.


This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.