why should you care?

november 2020

We're doing this because we believe that 

  • better ways to articulate legal work (and law-related things more generally) can help many people in many ways; 
  • historically, the tendency of such projects has been to go deep into the technicalities of special legal regimes;
  • we believe there is practical benefit in going wider rather than deeper, and in making a greater effort to join up legal stuff with the rest of the world;
  • we also believe that this is best done as a collaborative, open project rather than as a proprietary one.

The details of the benefits which can be achieved will depend on where you're standing.

But here are five examples for starters.

First, let's take law firms and other legal services providers - a lot of the initial energy and engagement in this project has, in fact, come from that world.

Being able to describe product lines and work along the three axes we've started with (places, contexts and work) has benefits for

  • Legal operations and client service - pricing, project management, process improvement, efficiency
  • Staffing and training - figuring out when people across the firm have (or need) experience in a particular area
  • Knowledge - sharing and finding information and templates more effectively
  • Marketing and sales - describing what the firm does consistently
  • Joining up internally - across countries and throughout the cycle (marketing > sales > executing work > capturing knowledge and improving)
  • Communication and management more generally - it's harder to do these well if you don't have clear, consistent ways to describe things

We've spoken to lots of people who understand the importance of this; without discounting the self-selection factor, we've yet to speak with anyone who is close to satisfied with their firm's approach to this topic.

The most common concerns articulated to us from within law firms are

  • Such projects have tended to become bogged down in conceptual debate for its own sake - 'angels on pinheads' as one person memorably put it. We take that very seriously and have adopted a conceptualisation strategy intended to help constrain this problem. 
  • A concern about the garbage in / out problem, bearing in mind the clunky methods used in law firms since time immemorial to categorise matters (suffice to say, we think there are answers to this - natural language processing has its limits, but for the kind of classification we have in mind, our intuition is that there is obvious scope).

While there are, of course, different opinions, we have seen a broad recognition, among people who've thought about the issues, that better is possible and that it's desirable to tackle relatively large categories of relevance across countries and contexts.

Secondly, let's think about in-house legal departments of major businesses. These typically recognise the need to classify work for internal reporting, comparing apples with apples, risk management, staffing and other purposes.

Some have sufficient power to impose some classification rules on the law firms and external providers that they use, but our impression (more data required) is that this often ends up being 'too difficult' or poorly implemented.

As in law firms, legal department classifications sometimes appear to run into maintenance issues as the scope of a legal department's work mutates - years of intermittent patching can result in a mess.

There is also, at best, significant cost, nuisance and potential for error involved in law firms having to operate different classification schemes for their own and different clients' purposes.

Thirdly, how about individuals and small businesses encountering legal issues? We believe that a simple, international scheme would be of massive benefit in enabling them to navigate the confusing morass of technicality.

Fourthly, a few words about technology companies doing things in the legal world. In fact, nos was initially prompted by the wish of such a business to develop a way to categorise legal work, followed by the realisation that it would be better to approach the topic collaboratively. We believe there are numerous uses to which technology companies of many types can put nos.

Finally, a brief word about the academic and legal publishing worlds. This project isn't really focused on those needs - there are many legal conceptual schemes already in place, and the problems we're addressing are rather different. That said, we'd be happy to discuss and to look at ways of linking things up.

Does the world really need another set of legal standards?

There have been many standardisation efforts over the years. Our efforts are intended to be complementary and, as we develop material, we want to work positively with other projects to produce better things.

There are several reasons we think this is worth doing.

First, our approach seems distinctive - focusing on universal needs addressed by law and on the kinds of work lawyers tend to do across countries, rather than starting from within the legal conceptualisms or practices of a particular local legal system. We also have a distinctive strategy for constraining complicating tendencies.

Our overally approach can be summed up as 'wide but shallow' rather than 'deep but narrow'.

That said, there are some great projects out there taking a different approach - we believe there is a place for all of this, and hope that we can join up constructively.

Secondly, there must be thousands of legal classification efforts out there, but most are proprietary and limited to a particular organisation. Those which are published (e.g. by commercial law publishers) are mostly not licensed to use freely. However, we believe that absolute freedom of reuse of a standard like this without restriction (e.g. bans on remixing or republishing) or complicating consequences (e.g. copyleft) is desirable. That's one of our foundational principles.

Thirdly, any group (including ours) doing something in this area can risk becoming an echo chamber. We certainly don't have all the answers and our drafts will inevitably contain some misjudgements and other things on which judgement can reasonably differ. Suffice to say that we think an element of overlap and constructive challenge can be healthy. This is not a space for monopolisation.

What's in a name?