By Ian McGullam
Cornell Law School hired James Grimmelmann as a law professor, but they got a translator in the bargain.
Grimmelmann, who started teaching at Cornell Tech this fall, is bridging the gap between students who dream of becoming “the Notorious R.B.G.” (U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54) and those whose idols are more like Mark Zuckerberg.
These students comprise the inaugural class of the new, one-year “law tech” Master of Laws in Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship program, which is designed to give already-practicing attorneys or recent law graduates the skills and knowledge to succeed in the technology and entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Grimmelmann studies the intersection between computers and the law, and what each side has to teach the other. A former Microsoft programmer, he’s currently exploring ways of looking at copyright law through a computer science lens — in particular, figuring out how to quantify the expression in artistic work, and the similarities between different works. Grimmelmann says tech industry insiders already think about copyright this way: don’t worry about defining aesthetics, just write some code.
“I think it would be very helpful for the legal system to understand how people who write software think about what they do,” he says. “And this is a general principle for my work, which is that computer science is incredibly pragmatic. It’s about getting computers to do things. And that pragmatic approach to deep questions sidesteps the philosophical issues and just says, ‘What can we do?’”
Another facet of Grimmelmann’s work involves teasing out an analogy between computer code and legal texts. “If you think about a statute that says ‘don’t speed,’ it’s like a computer program — it’s a piece of text that does something in the world,” he says.
“Even incredibly complicated programs can have completely determinate behavior. That possibility, of language that doesn’t require controversial on-the-spot discretion, is a kind of a holy grail for lawmakers,” Grimmelmann adds, noting this also raises the question of which features of the legal system can be delegated to machines. “Could you have automatic enforcement of rules against market manipulation that’s simply an algorithm that spots suspicious trades and declares them illegal?” he asks.
Cornell Tech provides the perfect venue for someone wrestling with these liminal questions. “These are law students who are deeply interested in technology,” Grimmelman says.
“[There] are engineering students who are building things that are going to have massive policy implications. This is a really great moment for doing things that aren’t held back by traditional boundaries.” Law students without a strong technical background shouldn’t be intimidated, though — Grimmelman says they’re already well equipped to get up to speed.
“Lawyers learn new areas and new fact patterns all the time for cases,” he says. “Learning tech is no different. It just requires the commitment to do it, and the humility to accept that you have to put in the work.”
This article originally appeared in “Ezra Magazine”