FutureLaw 2019: Rearranging the Bits of the LegalTech Revolution

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FutureLaw

STANFORD, Calif. — The annual FutureLaw conference — produced by CodeX, the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, with the sponsorship of Thomson Reuters — has always been a good forum to discuss the impact of fragmented forces in the global legal system: technology, innovation, data, people, and new legal tech startups.

This year, the conference seemed to pivot away from simply diagnosing the condition of the legacy legal services industry and began to take a hard look at what a future defined by all that fragmentation might look like.

The consensus from the many panels and talks at FutureLaw seems to be that it will be centered on data, platforms, interoperability, and open systems.

One focus of the event was government data, and the extent to which it is increasingly being used to build legal applications. Highlights of the discussion on the use of government data included:

Leila Banijamali, a Codex fellow, presented Symbium’s Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) service. Data about land use regulations and geospatial data combines to gives a homeowner the ability to test in real-time whether a planned ADU is allowed on a housing lot, and where and how big it might be, without a trip down to the city zoning department.

Pia Andrews, executive director of Digital Government in the New South Wales Department of Finance, Services and Innovation, described New South Wales’ ambitious Digital Transformation initiative. The initiative, which offers a radical reworking of what it means to provide digital government services, will promote government as a platform built on machine-readable code, open data, and guided, digital consumer-facing services that provide answers and service to the public.

Matti Schneider, Chief Innovation Officer for the Office of the Ambassador for Digital Affairs at the French Foreign Affairs Ministry, presented OpenFisca, an open source computational law engine — a service that “turns law into software.” Products built on top of the platform can, for example, determine eligibility for social benefits across various agencies, leveraging both the underlying data and OpenFiscas tools and APIs.

Singapore continues to be the best example of government promotion of legal tech and system-wide innovation in Asia. Jerrold Soh, Lecturer of Law at Singapore Management University, presented the findings of the Singapore Academy of Law’s State of Legal Innovation Report for the Asia Pacific region. The report reveals a rising tide of activity all over the region, often with more direct support and direction from governments than one finds in Western countries.

Governments leveraging tools like these are truly operating as platforms for the delivery of legal and other public services. They are leveraging data and open source tools to allow other parties to come in and co-create solutions that bring laws and regulations closer to being used by “consumers” of the law.

But somebody has to feed the beast. Legal data must be accessed, cleaned up, and normalized, before it’s put to use. Two examples from FutureLaw included:

1. Amy Shoemaker of the Stanford Computational Policy Lab described the work of the Stanford Open Policing project, which collects and applies data about police stops involving people in vehicles, an immense effort encompassing more than 200 million individual traffic stop records from dozens of state and local police departments across the US. This data provided concrete evidence of racial bias in the rates of searches and arrests; and this project is an example of how deep and wide data sets can provide the evidentiary basis for law and policy changes.

2. Two Stanford Fellows, Jameson Dempsey of CodeX and Jorge Gabriel Jiménez of the Stanford Legal Design Lab, presented a proposal for a comprehensive Legal Data Commons. The idea is that legal data from all kinds of sources might be aggregated and made available to the legal tech community, including courts, legal aid organizations, legaltech companies, and academics. This practice would overcome the balkanization and inaccessibility that characterizes legal data today.

FutureLaw

Finally, someone has to train the next generation of lawyers and allied professionals who will be able to weave all this data and software into effective platforms. The role of legal education came into focus in a panel led by Dan Rodriguez, Professor at Northwestern University.

Context is King — CodeX fellow Jay Mandal looked at legal education from the viewpoint of consumers of legal services. What clients need are a basket of capabilities, including not only legal expertise, but also technical industry expertise and business processes skills. Those latter two are contexts that current law school programs simply don’t provide; solutions would include legal education that includes more interdisciplinary content and experiential education.

Employers Need to Step UpAlice Armitage, director of Applied Innovation at University of California Hastings, noted that legal jobs were now different, but legal ed hasn’t changed. It’s not that legal education systems were designed improperly, it’s just that they were designed for a different era, and now, the demands placed on lawyers have shifted the target. She noted that, with a few exceptions like Stanford and Northwestern, few of the elite law schools have tech and innovation programs; rather, innovations in legal ed are coming from “non-elite” schools. If legal employers want to encourage a pipeline of tech-savvy lawyers, they’ll have to vote with their hiring practices and engage those schools.

Beyond the Seven-Year Grind — The US system, with three years of law school on top of an already expensive undergraduate education, puts a financial burden on new JDs, including those who see themselves working in tech- and process-centric roles rather than more lucrative partner tracks. Dirk Hartung from Bucerius Law School in Germany provided a European perspective — maybe the academic diversity of US students entering law schools is an advantage. They enter the field with diverse undergraduate backgrounds, however, the problem is that law school tends to hammer it out of them. Hartung noted three European countries (Spain, the UK, and Germany) that do have distinct legal tech degrees, and a total of ten European countries that are taking some approach to tech as part of the legal curriculum.

In the end, the education panel left the sense that legal education is moving in slow motion, while the rest of the FutureLaw conference provided evidence that other players are moving quickly toward a more dynamic, open, flexible legal system that’s not necessarily architected by lawyers.