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Managing Systemic Risk in Legal Systems

In an article forthcoming in the Indiana Law Journal, Managing Systemic Risk in Legal Systems, I draw on complexity science, network theory, and the prospects of enhanced legal computation capacities to explore how systemic risk arises and persists in legal systems. The American legal system has proven remarkably robust even in the face vast and often tumultuous political, social, economic, and technological change. Yet our system of law is not unlike other complex social, biological, and physical systems in exhibiting local fragility in the midst of its global robustness. Understanding how this “robust yet fragile” (RYF) dilemma operates in legal systems is important to the extent law is expected to assist in managing systemic risk—the risk of large local or even system-wide failures—in other social systems. Indeed, legal system failures have been blamed as partly responsible for disasters such as the recent financial system crisis and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. If we cannot effectively manage systemic risk within the legal system, however, how can we expect the legal system to manage systemic risk elsewhere?

The Article employs a complexity science model of the RYF dilemma to explore why systemic risk persists in legal systems and how to manage it. Part I defines complexity in the context of the institutions and instruments that make up the legal system. Part II defines the five dimensions of robustness that support functionality of the legal system: (1) reliability; (2) efficiency; (3) scalability; (4) modularity, and (5) evolvability. Part III then defines system fragility, examining the internal and external constraints that impede legal system robustness and the fail-safe system control strategies for managing their effects. With those basic elements of the RYF dilemma model in place, Part IV defines systemic risk, exploring the paradoxical role of increasingly organized complexity brought about by fail-safe strategies as a source of legal system failure. (more…)

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