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RR&H is thrilled to announce the publication today of “The Laws of (Legal) Robotics”, our first working paper.
The short paper provides an account of the likely future state of legal technology, and how state courts have dealt with automation in the law through unauthorized practice of law (UPL) rules. The report argues that existing approaches taken during the 1990s and 2000s are simultaneously over and underinclusive, and ultimately work to hinder innovation in the legal industry.
It proposes a new framework drawing inspiration from the problems faced by online platforms in managing third-party development through APIs. By applying similar design principles to legal automatons, it is believed that a better policy balance may be struck going forwards. Downloadable here (PDF).
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.
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After a few months work under the watchful eye of my robot superiors billing hours, I’m happy to announce that we’ve largely finalized the run of show for the conference that Robot, Robot & Hwang will be curating at Stanford Law on April 26th with the Stanford Center on Legal Informatics.
FutureLaw 2013, as it is now being called — features a host of sessions I’m thrilled to be able to bring together. You can see the latest updated schedule here.
Also: registration has officially opened, and you can pick up a pass here. Worth acting soon — registration has been humming along, and the price will rise on April 1st. We also have a limited number of comp passes for friends of the firm that we’re happy to distribute, just drop a line to email@example.com.
For those who are interested (and because our offices have been getting some questions from the public), I thought I would post up here some general remarks on the design of the upcoming conference, what the goals of the event are, and how the selection of topics came together into the resulting five panels and two keynotes that will be the day’s content on April 26th. More after the jump.
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The boys and girls over at ABAJournal are reporting on the dramatic emergence of lawyer-entrepreneurs chomping up huge amounts of cash to compete with law firms in a big way even as the economy continues to tank. Combined with the ongoing trend of Biglaw partners leaving their cozy homes to spin up smaller, more maneuverable firms, it’s the opinion of senior partners here at RRH (and some of our collaborators) that we’re finally approaching a big, bad, rootin’-tootin’ High Noon style shootout on a global scale in the coming few years. On one side, the still-powerful, still-highly-respected-but-slow incumbents. On the other, the relatively-nimble-and-fresh challengers.
For legal hackers and supporters of legal hacking, there’s both ideological and pragmatic reasons to get into this fight. Not on any one side, but on creating applications and services that aid both sides.
Ideologically, it’s clear at this early stage that neither side of this fight has it quite where the legal hacker wants it yet. Incumbents are a natural opponent since they are relatively less progressive with regards to technology. But, the challengers are only partially on the side of legal hacking. While wanting to update the legal system with shiny new hardware, it’s clear that they largely want to just replicate the same old services and activities, but just cheaper, faster, and more efficiently (as indicated by some of the strongest boosters on this front). That’s pretty narrow thinking, and RRH thinks that it’s evident in how little gets talked about innovating on top of the law among both incumbents and challengers. It’s clear in the lack of real research and development even as the two teams gear up for a clash.
That being said, the conflict itself fuels a demand for the kind of research and development that legal hackers want. Challengers are looking for new ways to outflank incumbents, and incumbents are looking for ways to plug holes against the threats of challengers. Effectively, there’s a meta-market emerging to demand legal arms dealing, early-stage innovation for products that can be scaled-up and put into play in the emerging conflict over legal services. In some ways, this meta-market gets around the oft-cited problem that it looks like clients really aren’t playing a role in pushing things ahead. The very nature of competition over market share between incumbents and challengers creates the engine for technological development to occur, regardless of what clients are looking for.
Beyond being a great opportunity from the business angle, the disruptive aspects of supporting both sides opens a wedge for broader thinking and innovation to enter, so it’s worth finding ways to grease the wheels of collision. Engineering the proper tools can permit a disruptive and productive conflict between business models to deepen, but it can also cause the nature of the conflict itself to change.
There’s a pretty neat article over at Bruce MacEwen’s blog “Adam Smith Esq,” giving some of the pretty awe inspiring stats on the behemoth that is CPA Global, a firm that’s raised $700 million just this past spring. Essentially, the business is built around legal outsourcing — finding ways of reducing the reducible tasks of the legal business by farming it out to cheaper labor and automated systems. The business strategy ends up being pretty straightforwards: either bypass traditional law firms completely by marketing to enterprises, or contracting with law firms to automate some of their services.
This is, of course, mirrored on the more microscale by the automated software that can take a case and process the entire matter from start to finish. They’ve got some horrendously designed websites — and are involved in some pretty shady legal trolling, but their use is growing and the businesses that support them are booming.
The outcome, both on the large and the small scale, is the same. Increasingly, technology makes lawyers — and the law firms that collect them — merely points of access to the legal system. Once a machine is filing forms under a human name, or the lion’s share of legal work is being outsourced into disaggregated non-specialist workers, the fact that a lawyer is needed is an incidental requirement of the system. Effectively, their name just serves the role of authorization: a recognized pass that allows others to plug into the system. Despite the businesses that illustrate it, this reframing of the lawyer as simply a point of access is a great one, and suggests a thought about how legal hacking might be made possible.
In the technical space, the kind of grassroots innovation and hacker culture that made the internet such a profoundly generative and exciting space depended crucially on third-party innovation. The fact that it was easy for anyone to come along and experiment with code that they had designed allowed third-parties to find new users and applications for the computer that were completely unexpected.
However, the platform of the legal computer doesn’t have the same affordances as the digital one. If nothing else, the API keys are prohibitively expensive ($150,000+ and 3 years) and the hackerspaces at the forefront take a huge period of time to become part of (7+ years to partner) which prevents the same backwaters culture of amateur hacking to emerge. And despite having the skills, certification, and training to be a legal developer, you still don’t have the same freedom that you do in the digital space.
So, then, the zeroth hack that must occur before all else, in some sense, is this one: how can we provide those conditions for such a culture to emerge? How do you make the API keys widely available for experimentation and amateur development? What things can you put in place to encourage that activity to occur, all else being equal?
Brian Leiter’s nicely done critique of the current state of empirical legal studies (ELS) has stirred up a neat micro-flurry of comment in the past few weeks. The fascinating ELS project of taking statistical approaches to legal data (see e.g. here) as a way of approaching the system overlaps a bit on what RRH is pursuing in its work. So, it’s worth addressing how we want to do it differently here.
The real question — his first one in the post — that I think is most relevant, goes like this:
First, too much of the work is driven by the existence of a data set, rather than an intellectual or analytical point. But the existence of a data set then permits a display of technical skills, which is satisfying to those with a technical fetish. But for everyone else, the question remains: why does this matter? why should one care? and so on.
He’s right. Despite the awesomely badass work being done, the “big deal problem” is still the elephant in the room for all things having to do with merging quantitative approaches with the law. Why is this worth paying attention to?
It’s the opinion of the senior (robotic) partners here at the firm that the problem definitely isn’t — as some people have claimed — because of the academic quibblings of the political science community at the heart of ELS. And it isn’t either, as Leiter himself mentions, due to the fact that ELS loyalists are less quantitatively sophisticated than they could be (though that’s definitely a valid observation as well).
Instead, the problem has to do with the academic context in which ELS is trying to get involved. Empirical legal studies is trying to use quantitative methods to tackle an essentially non-quantitative discussion, what Leiter calls “the central normative and conceptual questions of legal scholarship and legal education” that undergird the established scholarly community. That’s a fundamental disconnect, and a losing battle to boot.
The real value of empirical work isn’t in tackling the “normative and conceptual.” The real immediate value is practical and positive – modeling the measurable realities of wins, losses, and everything in between. Like baseball statistics before the Oakland A’s — research has accumulated a huge gold mine of potential applications and insights, but currently lacks a community of tools and practitioners to deploy them. We need more of an engineering outlook: people experimenting with the models that have emerged from ELS and using quantitative methods to creatively design applied solutions to measurable questions and problems.