three initial facets

november 2020

November 2021 note: the following article is unchanged from the form published in November 2020, except for the addition of some hyperlinks to more detailed pieces on certain points. Since November 2020, we've decided to focus on Legal places and Legal work for our February 2022 release, since the most engaged organisations (commercial law firms) cover most of their Legal contexts needs via sectoral taxonomies. Work on Legal contexts is expected to recommence subsequently, with an appropriate range of stakeholders.


To date, our work has focused on three topics:

  • legal places: almost all laws of practical significance are tied to places in some way - a definitive list of places of legal significance and their relationship to each other is useful

  • legal contexts: what persons or things does this law or legal work affect or involve? This facet is all about legal impact on the world and on people's, businesses' and other groups' needs

  • legal work: for various practical reasons, it's useful to have ways to describe the legal work that’s being done, separated from place and context

Why cut it this way?

The need for a fully open (i.e. reusable, remixable, republishable...) set of legally-relevant places, conveniently linked up the other data, is widely felt. Most of our work here has involved pulling together existing open datasets though we have added data to them in some respects (described in a separate article).

The boundary between the other two facets (legal work and legal contexts) is more debateable. In anticipation of one possible objection, there are certainly edge cases (e.g. in relation to finance). However, we think (based on discussion so far) that the division is robust and useful for several reasons

  • both are practically relevant, and significantly different in their practical implications

  • both focus on things of wide practical impact rather than on the internal theoretical conceptualisations or habits of a particular legal system

  • the approach naturally allows for flexible combinations across the two facets - most legal work can be described intuitively in this way

We considered more conservative options such as

  • a facet for laws and regulations 

  • a facet based on how large 'anglosphere' law firms tend to organise themselves internally or present themselves to potential clients 

However, we think these approaches aren't as useful as the one we've adopted. 

That said, the approach we've taken is flexible - it allows for recombination of elements into packages that make sense for a particular organisation - many people will never want or need to go into the building blocks. The ability to present the concepts flexibily to different groups with different needs and habits of thought is a really important consideration.

All that said, our minds remain open. Our purpose is not to convince or sell a particular approach but rather to suggest a strategy and to facilitate a focused discussion on an approach which is of most practical relevance, albeit with some deliberate constraints designed to avoid the conceptual inflation to which the legal mind can be prone.

There is a separate article on each of the three facets, but this article introduces some general themes.

Simple and extensible

Ce qui est simple est toujours faux. Ce qui ne l’est pas est inutilisable
Something simple is always false. Something which isn’t is unusable.
Paul Valéry, Mauvaises pensées et autres (1941-2)

Legal categorisation has a tendency to dive into detail, with risks for 

  • usability
  • usefulness (for many purposes, the detail just isn't necessary)
  • relevance between countries
  • accuracy of classification (more distinctions, more scope for error)
  • maintainability over time.

We have aimed to emphasise simplicity, accepting that this has some trade-offs.

The three concepts constraint

It's easy to talk about simplicity: we've sought to go further by adopting the self-constraint that, for legal work and legal contexts, we only permit three concepts at each level, at least for the first three levels: 'You only have three, so choose wisely.'

That gives 27 (= 3 x 3 x 3) concepts at the third ('leaf node') level of each facet.

Hence the triangle visualisations.

We're open-minded on various aspects of this

  • Whether a constraint is appropriate at all. We've already decided not to apply it to the legal places facet, as the topic is more easily defined in other ways. However, the more debateable nature of legal work and legal contexts seems to us to require something more. The same question will arise when we apply our attention to other topics as well.

  • Whether three is the right number rather than e.g. two or four. But so far it has seemed a good choice.

  • Whether the constraint should be maintained or relaxed at lower levels. So far, it seems likely to depend on context. For example, one of our leaf node concepts is 'sectors': it is likely to make sense to plug one of the established public (e.g. ISIC, NACE, SIC 2007, NAICS) or proprietary (e.g. ICB, TRBC) sectoral taxonomies into that directly rather than trying to come up with something new. They all have their weaknesses, partly related to the changing nature of economic activity, but picking one of them is almost certainly a sensible choice rather than reinventing that wheel.


Our intention is that, below the leaf nodes of our taxonomies, more specialist taxonomies (including national, specialist and organisation-specific ones) can take over. Our work is intended to provide a high level framework rather than being an (inevitably over-reaching and hubristic) effort to taxonomise the world of law.

We envisage that we will from time to time consider tackling specialist topics if satisfied that there is sufficient community commitment to doing so, but as a general principle our aim is to do relatively few things really well. 

Putting it to work

In addition to the concepts of simplicity, extensibility and inter-operability already touched upon, we envisage people selecting and combining elements in ways of relevance to them and their organisations.

To take a simple example, if your firm does a lot of Scottish family litigation then you might find it convenient to combine that into a single concept as presented to users, but under the surface it would comprise concepts from legal places (Scotland), legal contexts (family) and legal work (litigation). The data can then be combined and analysed much more effectively as it allows you to link it up with other data relating to other combinations of Scotland, family or litigation.

Similarly, if you don't do a particular kind of work then you could hide that from your users, safe in the knowledge that there is a pre-made set of concepts ready to turn on if and when you do start doing that work.