Well, the earth has done it again. It has traveled around the sun—one more time—and we’re suddenly approaching the end of yet another calendar year.
When I began to think about writing this piece for 2015, I worried that nothing worth mentioning had happened since I wrote the 2014 piece. The year just felt so short. Yet, here I am, and there’s no shortage of unique ideas that characterized and shaped 2015. So, here we go:
This year, artificial intelligence, or “AI,” has been a buzzword in legal technology. Many of us watched Watson compete on Jeopardy! in 2011. Those who were more forward thinking or thoughtful probably saw Watson’s success and thought, “The applications of this technology in law are ready and varied.” But most of us probably thought, “Sure, Watson can win a game show, but a robot can’t do what lawyers do.”
Well, it turns out it might, and one company is exploring that possibility right now. ROSS, an artificially intelligent “attorney” that assists with legal research, has been referred to as the “child of Watson” or “Watson for law.” ROSS Intelligence, the company behind the creation of ROSS, has received an investment from NextLaw Labs to continue exploring this compelling territory.
But ROSS isn’t the only technology being developed to do what lawyers do. In one of the most educational and interesting blog posts of the year, Noah Waisberg, CEO of Kira Systems, which is building AI technology to review and analyze complex documents, gave a great overview of how a variety of AI technologies work and how they’ll affect the legal industry. I highly recommend reading it.
The other, if not quite as hot, buzzword in legal technology this year has been “the blockchain,” and, more specifically, its legal
counterpart, the “smart contract.”
Put simply, a smart contract is an automated contract. Quoting from a great Fast Company article on smart contracts:
“At core, these automated contracts work like any other computer program’s if-then statements . . . . When a pre-programmed condition is triggered, the smart contract executes the corresponding contractual clause.”
It’s not difficult to program a computer to execute an if-then statement—a given action in the event of a certain condition—but crypto-currencies, such as bitcoin, which is based upon blockchain technology, have brought the adoption and use of smart contracts closer to reality.
The adoption of smart contracts has been held back by the fact that currency transfers require a separate action. In the event of a smart, automated contract, an account holder must specifically authorize a banking transaction that sends money to a specific person, weakening the “automated” nature of the transaction since the paying party still must authorize—or decline—payment. This separate authorization introduces an additional cost for two reasons: the separate authorization takes time to complete, and the risk of an incomplete authorization adds enforcement cost. A smart contract implemented in conjunction with a blockchain-based crypto-currency, on the other hand, can be programmed to automatically transfer a pre-determined amount of crypto-currency from one contract party to another without a separate bank authorization, thereby eliminating the transaction costs inherent in traditional contracts. Combine this possibility with the coming “Internet of Things,” in which a variety of real world items—from phones to homes to cars—can be connected to and controlled through the internet.
Like AI, the blockchain and smart contracts are still just getting a foothold in law. There’s a great deal of promise but also a great deal of time until that promise is realized. Nonetheless, with a large number of people thinking about and working on smart contracts for lawyers and even a blockchain news in law this is a technology to watch.
2015 was also notable as a key year in which the American Bar Association took significant steps to understand and prepare its members for the rapidly changing legal landscape. The ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services held a well-attended and well-publicized National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services at Stanford Law School in early May 2015. Notable for the breadth of attendees and speakers, the conference prompted exciting and compelling discussions. The commission’s mandate has been approved for at least one additional year, so expect this group to continue broadening horizons and guiding lawyers through 21st-century challenges and opportunities.
Don’t be bad
2015 had its share of some courtroom drama too.
Receiving perhaps the most attention was the Supreme Court ruling in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission. The Court upheld a Federal Trade Commission ruling that a “strong-arm” campaign by the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners to push teeth whiteners out of business through the unauthorized practice of dentistry regulations was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. In addition, and perhaps even more significantly, the Court ruled that the board did not enjoy anti-trust immunity. Besides the fact that the board’s actions were partially inspired by a similar but less successful campaign by the North Carolina State Bar against what it deemed the unauthorized practice of law, many legal pundits asserted that the analogies to legal services—and various states’ unauthorized practice of regulatory activities—were applicable.
Avvo also won a victory for online anonymity this past summer. The Washington Court of Appeals ruled that an attorney plaintiff suing Avvo to reveal the identity of an anonymous commenter who left a negative review of the plaintiff must do more than claim defamation to unmask the anonymous commenter. Besides helping to clarify a relatively uncharted area of law, online anonymity, the ruling bolstered protections for anonymous speech that has great importance in online networks, marketplaces, and other digital spaces.
Born to dance
Finally, the first class of limited license legal technicians, or LLLTs, graduated and began delivering legal services in Washington State this year. LLLTs are licensed by the Washington State Bar to deliver a limited set of legal services. Initially focusing on family law LLLTs are expected to expand areas of competence to additional areas in the future. The project was undertaken to address the growing gap in access to services that plagues many communities. Although it remains to be seen if LLLTs will help solve this problem, the program represents a remarkable transition as it allows a bar association to license and regulate individuals who have not completed a law degree nor otherwise sat for the traditional bar exam to deliver legal services.
As if that weren’t enough, The Washington Post has reported that Washington may not be alone. California, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, and Florida are currently exploring similar opportunities in their respective jurisdictions.
Returning to the cosmic, the end of 2015 signifies the halfway point of the 2nd decade of the 21st century. I don’t know about you, but to me it still feels like 1999. Time flies. And I’m sure it’ll be no time at all until I’m here writing a review for 2016.