STANFORD, Calif. — Innovation in the legal industry is about change driven from both the top down and from the bottom up. Some innovation comes from thousands of impassioned rebels, reformers, and disruptors, typically working in small corners of the legal world. They work through the vehicles of legal tech startups, or in academia through graduate research or clinical projects, or through public-interest organizations trying to make legal systems work better for segments of society whose access to legal systems is limited.
FutureLaw, the annual conference held by CodeX, the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, has traditionally been a great showcase for these bottom-up initiatives, led by data scientists, designers, change-minded grad students, and entrepreneurs of all stripes. One of the great attractions of this event has been a chance for a non-technical audience to get a look under the hood of some of the advanced technology being applied to legal problems.
But now that legal innovation has gone mainstream, the top-down agents want a seat at the table. In recent years, FutureLaw has received the attention of the ABA, BigLaw, big corporate clients, law school deans, and other more established players. Those players hold the levers on a number of other larger forces for innovation, that likely can only be imposed in a top-down manner: reform in the way the profession is regulated (especially unauthorized practice of law rules and restrictions on law firm ownership); reform in the way we educate lawyers; structural industry change (such as the growth of alternative legal service providers); and reforms in the way the industry integrates and rewards the allied professionals (data scientists, process engineers, and designers) who comprise an increasingly important part of the legal talent pool.
On the bottom-up side of this year’s FutureLaw, there was a lot to sink one’s teeth into — researchers and practitioners digging into real problems in legal services delivery:
- Fairness and Transparency in AI. A series of speakers looked at the way the application of artificial intelligence to legal problems gives rise to concerns about the transparency and “explainability” of answers to legal questions. The in-depth examples came from fields such as bias in the formulas used to evaluate defendants’ risk of future criminal behavior; issues around the decisions that algorithms in driverless cars will make; and an exposition on the concept of TCAV — testing with concept-activation vectors — a methodology for evaluating and testing systems that classify objects (systems that might well be used in legal AI applications). This was geeky stuff that gave the audience a real taste of the challenges and the opportunities in applying data science and AI to legal problems.
- Practical applications for today’s problems. A number of entrepreneurial efforts and examples brought the discussion a little closer to home. Stanford student Askon Farhangi presented results of his automated citator (a tool which allows you to track the history of your case through the courts) that was able to improve on previous efforts; Arianna Rossi of the University of Bologna presented research around ways to represent privacy policies (which we all regularly agree to without reading or understanding) by representing them visually with icons; Margaret Hagan of Stanford’s Legal Design lab and David Colarusso of the Legal Innovation and Tech Lab at Suffolk University presented their project called Learned Hands, which is crowdsourcing ways to classify common legal problems, as a first step toward creating better legal question & answering systems.
- Better datasets. Other sessions highlighted bottom-up efforts to simply build datasets that increase our understanding of legal tech, or provide better data inputs to legal applications. Pieter Gunst of CodeX presented an update on the CodeX Techindex, a database of legal tech startups worldwide; and student John Polansky and Irina Zakes of Fibonacci Web Studio presented their database about the litigation patterns of Non-Practicing Entities (or NPEs, which are sometimes, depending on the situation, known as patent trolls). The latter was a great demonstration of the way technology can be applied to automate the collection and processing of otherwise hard-to-corral data.
Now, a funny thing happened on the way to FutureLaw 2018. The opening keynote was delivered by one of the most visible representatives of the establishment who provided a “top-down” perspective in the industry: Hilarie Bass, President of the American Bar Association and Co-President of Greenberg Traurig. But much of her talk, too, was devoted to small, targeted, and forward-looking initiatives that nonetheless gave the impression of an ABA that’s nibbling around the edges of legal industry reform rather than attacking it head-on. Among the high-points of her talk were:
- First, she highlighted the ABA Center for Innovation, which operates through a fellowship program and a number of small but noteworthy initiatives. The fellows are applying technology to access to justice issues in tenants’ rights, privacy issues, and helping pro se litigants find resources, to name a few areas. The Center is also actively involved in the Legal Services Corporation’s partnership with Microsoft that is building statewide justice portals in two states as pilot projects.
- The Center has also developed its own apps such as the Louisiana Flood App, which helped victims of the recent widespread flooding gather documentation to establish home ownership and eligibility for FEMA benefits.
- Through collaborations, the Center is also working on projects for online dispute resolution in New York and a “Legal Checkup” tool to help people identify potential legal issues and resources.
These initiatives are all worthy of support, and the ABA has the ability to marshal resources and talent around them, but at the end of the day they don’t address much of the industry’s top-down challenges around regulation, legal education, and structure that are much bigger and more vexing problems right now. With the exception of a closing keynote from Professor Deborah Rhode of Stanford that provided a fairly narrow discussion of the unauthorized practice of law (UPL) debate using Avvo as an example, none of the industry’s bigger, looming innovation policy challenges were addressed head on.
In many ways the the legal industry today resembles the political environment in many of the world’s leading democracies; there is a lot of exciting change and innovation going on at the grassroots level, but the lack of consensus and political will at the institutional level is hampering large-scale change.