A Human-Centered taxonomy of legal problems

Margaret Hagan
Jun 6, 2018 · 3 min read

This summer, the Legal Design Lab is kicking off a big project to make artificial intelligence for legal help, as well as better mark up of legal websites to improve the quality of legal help on the Internet. This is in partnership with the Suffolk Lit Lab.

Laying out the big sections of existing Legal Issue Taxonomies

At the heart of this project is a more user centered, and holistic taxonomy that covers the legal issues (and queries) that people have.

Right now, most legal issue taxonomies are created by lawyers or legal website admins, to better present the resources they have so that people can find them. Or, to better encode the tasks they’re working on, for reporting or billing purposes.

The goal of the project is to make these professional taxonomies more streamlined — but then to also make them fit the mental models, issues, and phrases that regular people use. If we are going to be using the taxonomy entries to tag up people’s Reddit or legal forum posts, we should be making a taxonomy that works for the lay point of view.

Sussing out our main Parents in the Taxonomy. Where to put the elusive but huge world of Benefits?

I’ve kicked off this taxonomy creation/refinement by gathering three existing legal issue taxonomies, from very kind legal aid groups and — at the largest scale — the National Subject Matter Index. (The NSMI was the most deliberately funded and well-hosted legal issue ontology — so ideally our team can propose some edits and overhauls of it, so that all of the effort that went into it will not be abandoned.)

Which of these groups can get collapsed into a Parent?

I have been reading these ontology terms, printing them, rearranging them, and playing with labels for them. I’ve also been trying to apply them to people’s Legal Advice board posts on Reddit.

Surprise: a large number of the legal advice questions that I’ve reviewed from Reddit do not actually show up in the legal aid/NSMI taxonomies. There’s lots of reworking to do! These missing issues include many, many stories around:

  • bullying and harassment
  • annoying neighbors, annoying neighbor dogs, and annoying strangers (even annoying grocery stores)
  • accidents of all kinds (there are many, many accidents happening to Reddit users — snowmobiles, wet cement, power washing, and more)
  • privacy concerns about information online and off
  • IP, licensing, and use of others’ creations

Somehow these categories of problems haven’t yet made it into legal aid-produced issue taxonomies (likely since they are not priorities, or funders don’t support this type of legal aid work). But there seems a significant demand for legal help (at least from users of Reddit).

Today I spent the day marinating in all the current taxonomies’ terms and layers, to try to come out with a more coherent draft of a radically refined NSMI.

My Holding Box of Issues that Didn’t Quite Fit a Parent

My goal is to get a working version of the Legal Help Issues taxonomy set up (knowing that we’ll likely spot more new issues as we encounter more people’s stories). We need a first version, which has an essential list of core parent categories and sub-issues. As we begin training our machines learning models to spot legal issues, we have a good taxonomy that we are basing our labels on.

Legal Design and Innovation

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