The Stanford Consensus: Notes from FutureLaw

§ May 2nd, 2013 § Filed under Conference, Firm Opinion § 1 Comment

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So, FutureLaw 2013 was last week. We over here at RR&H are thrilled about how it all turned out, and can’t thank everyone who came out to speak or to participate in the discussion enough. It exceeded all our expectations about what we wanted to get out of the event, and couldn’t have done it without everyone’s support.

Video is on the way: the good people over at Stanford have let me know that all the sessions will be available online in about two weeks (we’ll post here when it all goes live). In the meanwhile, a good number of people have been asking how it all went, so I figured it would be worth putting some thoughts together here for your reading pleasure.

First off, and I think this was evident to everyone in the room last Friday — big things are happening. The New and Emerging Legal Infrastructures Conference (NELIC), which was the conference that RR&H ran in 2011 on similar topics, was simply no comparison. If conferences are any indication, FutureLaw was a clear sign that the legal technology community has become far more robust in just the past two years. First, the community is significantly bigger – NELIC attracted about ~90 registered attendees, FutureLaw in comparison brought together close to ~250 attendees both in-state and from around the world. Second, the energy is much higher — attendees at FutureLaw were more often than not entrepreneurs themselves, and came packing their own ideas about the future of the law to the table. Third, a broader set of talents are part of the conversation than ever before – in addition to bringing together nerdy lawyer-technologist types, FutureLaw featured a broader set of practitioners, funders, and others than NELIC did two years ago.

But, as RR&H friend Dan Katz hammered home in his flamethrowing (and awesome) keynote closer the future is not self-executing. While there’s a ton of energy around disruptive technologies in the legal industry, there are still global challenges facing the space that will determine whether what is being worked on has the long-standing impact on the law that it seems everyone (insert: us, lawyers, the public at large) wants to see.

To that end, FutureLaw was remarkable in how much consensus there was around a few key systemwide challenges. While (as with any complex issue) there obviously remains a great deal of difference of opinion about how best to achieve these ends, a set of themes kept coming up over and over again in the panel discussions and informal conversations swirling around the conference that day. FutureLaw focused on what we build next, and I venture to say that there is some emergent agreement about what the community should set its eyes towards.

I’ve been dubbing this informal list in my head as The Stanford Consensus, a kind of working document of critical objectives that people in legal technology are working towards. They are important partially because they represent infrastructure – common resources that should be built in order for the community to thrive and for us to take things to the next level. That agenda (in no particular order), and some remarks, after the jump.

I. Standardized Metrics of Legal Value

There’s increasingly available data about lawyers and their performance. The old method was just differentiating on price, but the new approach is to develop and forward a quantitative standard that will differentiate legal value in the marketplace. There’s a bunch of people trying to crack this problem (see AttorneyFee), and it in some ways remains an elusive holy grail. The point is simple: crudely differentiating on a price metric will not solve some of the deep inefficiencies in the legal marketplace. But how do we build a replacement metric that is simultaneously transparent but more nuanced?

Cracking this problem and developing a standard benefits the legal technology community in two ways. First, on a basic level it increases competition, lowers prices, and thereby increases access to the legal system. Second, the presence of this performance data standardized throughout the industry unlocks the possibility of building a new generation of follow-on technologies for assembling legal talent for certain tasks, and leveraging the resulting data to shape the regulation of the legal industry.

This project embeds many underlying questions about how the legal technology community will fit into the overall picture in the future. Will these metrics seek to compete or cooperate with the existing legal establishment? Will they be supported by a single company or platform, or will it build into a generally shared standard? These are yet to be worked out – and FutureLaw saw no clear consensus as to the means by which these standard metrics will be created. We’ll just need to try it out and see.

II. Pushing The Limits of Automation

How far will automation go? Kingsley Martin over at KMStandards believes that we have a long way to go – and that automation and computational contracts will be standard of the future. RR&H is — of course — highly supportive of this general move, regardless of the ultimate outcome. There was general consensus that the future of these types of businesses and experiments in machine-readable legal text and automated visualization of legal information was extremely promising as a direction for the community to proceed in.

However, it was suggested during the conference that we may need to build better tools to benchmark our automated systems against the humans that they are trying to outcompete. This supposes a kind of annual Loebner Prize for legal automatons, or in the very least building a standard battery of tests or John Henry-type showdowns to assess the current state of the technology. This is something that Robot, Robot & Hwang is taking on for Fall 2013, and we’ll have more on this soon.

III. Increasing Diversity

Let’s face facts — the roster of speakers for FutureLaw was bro-heavy to the point of hilarity (or depression). We should be doing much better. Full stop.

The awesome Amy Wan has been already marching on ahead with this, and RR&H can’t wait to see where it all goes. This is in part a matter of gender, but endemic of a general problem of failing to bring in a more diverse set of backgrounds and talents to the community as well. The UI/UX of legal technology is not where it should be (and more often than not it sucks), and one of the reasons is simply that the community hasn’t built the networks and talent pipelines to bring people to collaborate with us en masse on solving these problems. There’s a huge opportunity here, and how we expand significantly the scope of those involved in the broader effort of changing the legal system was a common priority among the FutureLaw attendees.

IV. An Open Curriculum

Dan Katz hammered home the concept of reinventing the legal curriculum to create training more tailored to the current state of the legal marketplace. His project — ReInvent Law — is making big strides on this, and more people should join in. This was a dream of the late Larry Ribstein, and the community appears to have taken up the banner to adopt legal training to match reality.

The materials for this new curriculum (and the design for a larger educational program) can and should be open. The freer and more accessible the materials to teach these skills, the more likely adoption will spread from law school to law school. Since the development of a curriculum requires certain aspirational assumptions about what legal practice should look like, the process of architecting this curriculum will also bring to the fore many of the intellectual tensions that still remain in the space. Should future lawyers be required to know how to code or trawl through data? What role should lawyers play in enterprises in the future? This is a deep pool that is worth jumping into sooner, rather than later.

V. A More Effective System of Financing Innovation

Among the panelists on our Financing panel was some agreement about the difficulty of obtaining funding for legal technology startups. The problems with this are often cited and well understood — powerful incumbents, difficult technical problems, lack of technical co-founders in the space, and so on. All these create a scarcity of capital that prevents the community from taking on some of the large-scale, resource-intensive projects that would build great companies. This has a broader community impact, as well: the lack of these companies slows the formation of a strong network of established support that would help to bolster and advise successive generations of entrepreneurs in the space.

Insofar as some investors are or were once lawyers themselves, it may be easier to sell the size of the opportunity here. So, one idea that has been floated is the concept of designing a specialized incubator for companies attacking problems in the legal technology space. Another is to encourage the development of independent law firms that integrate all the powerful technologies currently being designed, in effect having the community foster its own demand. Both would be useful levers for moving ahead on solving this challenge.

Those are the five. Any that I missed as part of this First Consensus? Feel free to comment along below, and I (and the robotic partners here at RR&H) hope to catch you at the next conference!

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