Jason Morris is first Faculty of Law graduate student to defend his degree remotely

Expert in computational law passes LLM defence via Google Meet

Helen Metella - 14 May 2020

For the first time ever, a graduate student at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law has defended his master’s degree virtually — and fittingly, his thesis is about using technology to make the delivery of legal services more efficient and accessible.

Jason Morris passed his master’s of law defence in computational law unconditionally on May 13, before a committee that convened via Google Meet due to the social distancing rules created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I had the advantage of having used online technology to do hearings and interviews in my legal practice for several months,” said Morris, a sole practitioner who runs Round Table Law from his Sherwood Park home.

There were no technical glitches during his defence, but Morris said that while practising his delivery he had to overcome such engrained lessons in public speaking as “make eye contact with people.” Instead, “you have to look at the camera in the computer and not at your own face on the screen or the faces of the people you are talking to.”

Professor Barbara Billingsley, the chair of Morris’s examination committee and the incoming dean of law, felt quite positive about the online defence experience, which is expected to be repeated several times more times at the Faculty in 2020.

“I’m sure that everyone involved would have preferred to have an in-person meeting (accompanied by the traditional post-exam celebration), but I’m happy to say that we were able to adapt to present circumstances and use remote meeting technology to conduct an examination that was both rigorous and collegial,” she said.

Morris’s LLM thesis is also atypical because it was written for the first interdisciplinary degree granted between the Faculty of Law and the Department of Computer Science. His co-advisors were Professor Cam Hutchison and Professor Randy Goebel, who supervised from the respective Faculties.

His thesis, “Spreadsheets for Legal Reasoning: The Continued Promise of Declarative Logic Programming In Law,” argues that a category of programming language created 40 years ago can automate legal reasoning by analyzing written law concerning contracts, policies and legislation and then apply the analysis to legal questions. The process would be far faster and more efficient than what human beings could do and would make many legal services less expensive and therefore more widely accessible.

As one simple example, Morris said, “imagine you have a client who is a large organization and they have a standard contract they use for all their customers and also a bunch of client data about what their clients are buying.

“They’re considering making a change to the contract and want to know what percentage of their clients would pay more, or less, or stay the same. Trying to figure that out manually is virtually impossible, but if the contract was encoded it would only take a few hours. You could feed data about a client through the existing and revised contracts and put it into a spreadsheet to do an analysis.”

Morris’s research has him already exploring opportunities with the Centre for Computational Law at Singapore Management University, where researchers are launching a program for building precisely the kind of computer program described in his thesis.

As well, Morris’s success this past academic year as a sessional instructor at the Faculty of Law, developing and teaching the upper-year class Coding the Law, may lead to opportunities with Service Canada, which is setting up a new technology accelerator.

Either way, Morris is delighted that the four years of research his LLM demanded was completed in such an appropriate manner.

“I didn’t find anything suboptimal about the experience, and I don’t think any of the committee members did, either.”