Sarah Lawsky studies tax law, computational law, and the intersection of the two. Her recent work focuses on the formalization of tax law, and she is part of a team of computer scientists and lawyers who are creating the domain-specific programming language Catala, which is designed to formalize statutes such as the Internal Revenue Code. She has also created a website that generates multiple-choice practice problems and selected tax code and regulation sections books for free for tax classes. At Northwestern, she teaches a range of tax classes. Before entering academia, she worked as a tax lawyer for large law firms.
Please give us three points to summarize you and your work in legal technology.
- Technology is an amazing tool for making information accessible and understandable, and for increasing transparency of all kinds. My work in legal technology is motivated by the principle that money and privilege shouldn’t be necessary to get access to information, such as information about the law, learning the law, law schools, and the legal academic job market.
- My work in legal tech is also motivated by the fact that coding is powerful, fun, and easy to learn to do badly. Pretty much anything anyone would want to know about computers is out there for free; it’s just a matter of putting in the time to learn it. I love being able to think of a problem, invent a general solution, learn how to implement that solution, and then actually implement it and see it exist in the world.
- Technology is useful in every part of my job as a professor and lawyer—scholarship, pedagogy, and service—because there are patterns, rules, and large sets of data everywhere, and tech is a great way to bring that information together and communicate it clearly.
How did you become involved in legal tech?
Anyone with an interest in tech (or logic, or computation) who becomes a lawyer and wants to be the most effective lawyer possible will probably become involved in legal tech without even trying. For me, when I was a junior associate, a client wanted a deal priced in an unusual way that related to the tax treatment of the deal. Because of the type of business being sold and the structure of the deal, this was a complex calculation, and the desired price changed over time as the underlying facts and valuations changed. I coded a tool that the team used to determine and update the desired price.
What projects have you been focused on recently?
My main scholarly project is studying how tax law is formalized and ways to improve that formalization. My scholarship about the structure of the tax code underpins Catala, https://catala-lang.org/, a domain-specific programming language designed to formalize tax statutes that is being created by a group of computer scientists and lawyers (including me). I’ve coded a website, https://www.lawskypracticeproblems.org/, that generates free multiple-choice practice problems for federal income tax and partnership tax. The latest expansion, at
https://www.lawskypracticeproblems.org/codeandregs, allows people to create free selected tax Code and regulation sections books for classes or professional use, including only the Code and regulation sections they want. I’m also expanding this to include other titles of the U.S. Code.
I collect information each year about entry-level law school hiring and create an annual report about the characteristics of reported hires in that year and over time, at https://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/entry-level-hiring-report/. This a stealth law-and-tech project, in that all the text and pictures for the report are generated from code I’ve written that takes as its input the spreadsheet with information about hires.
I’ve also built some websites that are primarily for my colleagues, including a grading calculator and a curriculum database.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in legal tech today?
One big challenge in legal tech today is balancing the genuinely enormous potential of legal technology with the hype or misrepresentations that exist because people stand to benefit from selling the technology they are hyping, or because they don’t really understand the underlying technology, or both.