Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Democracy, Voting and the Blockchain....Digital Democracy....


Right now Horizon State is running its Initial Coin Offering (ICO). Horizon State is a "token-based blockchain voting and decision-making platform that delivers unprecedented trust through the integrity and post-unforgeable attributes of blockchain technology." Or in other words it's a digital ballot box.

Horizon State is the second Australian ICO after PowerLedger, a P2P blockchain trading platform for energy.

My disclosure here: I am a member of the advisory board of Horizon State and very proud so to be. This is one of those projects one can believe in.

The central problem addressed by Horizon State is that voting and elections are centralized and opaque. We have no way of knowing if our votes have been registered, taken account of, or just thrown away. Think of the Kennedy-Nixon presidential election--it was said that Jack Kennedy won because the Mayor made the graveyards of Chicago vote early and often. That's clout....

With blockchain voting becomes transparent and secure. Once you've voted the vote can't be altered. If there is a hacking attempt, it leaves a trail. You know your vote is recorded in the right place so the technology itself creates a system of trust which traditional voting never quite achieves.

Paper is delicate: it suffers in fire and water or simply being put in the rubbish, and it's slow and can get lost. Even electric voting machines aren't safe. DEF CON hackers in 2017 took less than 90 minutes to hack into standard US WinVote voting machines and take control. (They were still using Windows XP. Sounds like the hacks into the NHS computers--XP again.)



We've had good reports of the project. Smith + Crown said "...while its peer companies remain focused on creating a working prototype, Horizon State has begun to develop its vision of creating an ecosystem that can fundamentally shift the way voters inform themselves and relate to the democratic process more broadly. While this approach will likely be emulated by other companies, Horizon State’s advance could be enough, at the very least, to ensure it a considerable stake in what will almost surely become a sizeable market."

Forbes has run an interview with the CEO, Jamie Skella, which puts the point directly:
Horizon State is utilizing distributed ledger technology, otherwise known as blockchain, to deliver a digital ballot box that cannot be hacked. Sharing all of the technological benefits that makes Bitcoin possible - being verifiable transactions of value without a bank - we are using blockchain transactions as votes, while still maintaining anonymity of the voter. The end result is a system that is quicker to orchestrate than traditional voting methods, more convenient for voters which reduces apathy, and far cheaper than centralized, physical voting processes. What is costing Australian tax payers AUS$122 (USD$95) for a marriage equality postal vote would cost in the vicinity of AUS$2 million (USD$157,000) using our system. This equates to a cost per eligible voter of less than $1, instead of $7, or more.
Next year I'm running a new course for law students at Griffith called "21st Century Legal Practice: Professions, Disruption, and Technology" and blockchain technology will play a significant part in the course. Of all the technologies, it is probably the one that lawyers, and people generally, understand least. Time to move law from the 19th to the 21st century then.....




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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Professions and Narratives: Can They Reconstruct Their Futures


(thanks cvtnews.ca)

I have put up new paper on SSRN titled: "Professions and Professional Service Firms in a GlobalContext: Reframing Narratives".

The abstract reads:

Professions are changing rapidly and profoundly as new technologies, organisational forms, and regulations are introduced into the professional world. As a result, professions are creating new narratives to stake their legitimate claims in the world and justify their positions. This paper examines some of these narratives in the contexts of organisation, globalisation and technology among others. The legal profession is used as a case study of change.


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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Back in the USSR...Russia Actually

(thanks to sobaka.ru)

In this photograph I'm comparing glasses with another delegate at the St Petersburg International Legal Forum. Actually we were at Legal Street, an event held by the Forum and the Russian Ministry of Justice and were being shot by a fashion magazine--Sobaka.ru, as you do.

The last few months have been active, especially in the area of law and technology and new directions for the legal profession. Three events in particular stand out. First is the Law Without Walls ConPosium in Miami; second is the JDHorizons symposium in London; and finishing up with the VII St Petersburg International Legal Forum in Russia. All quite different but with themes in common running through them.

I've written extensively about LWOW in this blog as I have been involved since its inception in 2011. What I will add to my previous comments is the dramatic growth in the students' skills and talents in formulating their projects. In the early days projects would often involve an innovative web portal that enabled people of different kinds to interact. In a couple of projects this year we had students creating chatbots to interact with their audiences. We have students using ideas based on games to coach people in new areas. Their creativity is dazzling. LWOW has now developed an incubator to help develop the winning projects.

LWOW is one of the growing number of programmes that show legal education can't remain trapped in the 19th and 20th centuries, merely based around doctrinal law. New courses such as Iron Tech Law at Georgetown and Law Apps at Melbourne use the Neota Logic platform to develop legal apps targeted at specific problems. Michigan State Law School has LegalRnD for legal services innovation. There is still enormous resistance from conventional law faculty to these types of courses, but among students, when offered them, the clamour for them is strong.

JDHorizons is part of a series of annual events held by Janders Dean, a law firm consultancy. What is unusual about Janders Dean is the way it combines the worlds of practice and academia. Each gets an opportunity to speak to the other, which, as an academic, is so enriching. We had socio-legal scholars, psychologists, lawyers, among others. It means one can be cross-disciplinary as well as cross-professional. Janders Dean is also involved in LWOW.

The VII St Petersburg International Legal Forum is different from the other two. The forum had 4,000 delegates from 70+ different countries. It is as much a forum for networking as it is for exchanging ideas. I was originally invited for one session but ended doing three. The forum is organised by the Russian Ministry of Justice each year on a distinct theme, which for 2017 was law and technology.

I was originally invited to participate in the Plenary session with the Russian Prime Minister, Dimitry Medvedev. Our panel was unusual in that besides myself we had the head of the Swiss Parliament, the CTO of Aliexpress, the head of the UCL Blockchain centre, a co-leader of IBM Watson. The central theme was the disruption of law and legal practice by technology. In particular we discussed how artificial intelligence and blockchain were radically altering our approach to business, life and the professions. (We had a two-hour lunch afterwards with the Prime Minister and the Justice Minister where we carried on these discussion. I have never had such extensive and intensive conversations with politicians before who clearly knew what they were talking about.)

The following two days I talked about law as algorithm as well as the future of legal education.

Normally I don't go to conferences like this. But I am glad I did attend. I had the opportunity to meet with and talk with a range of people, lawyers, academics I might miss. I gained an enormous amount of knowledge and contacts in St Petersburg. (Plus, it is one of the most beautiful cities I've visited.)

In these days of interdisciplinarity academics need to step out of their normal worlds and experience new things, ideas, and forums. It's the necessity to be experimental and innovative. It can be challenging, when over many years one has built expertise and knowledge in specialised areas, to come to grips with new spheres of knowledge where one isn't the expert. We also need to transmit this through our educational systems.

I will admit too as a legal sociologist something like the St Petersburg International Legal Forum is a great opportunity to observe other worlds and try and understand their folkways and rituals.





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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Future of Legal Services and Legal Education?



When one starts thinking about the intersection of legal services, the legal profession, and legal education, I honestly don't think it's too far removed from the Venn diagram above.

On 13 December my good friend, Julian Webb (and also Paul Maharg), organised a legal services forum at Melbourne Law School to bring together academics, policy makers and practitioners to discuss the challenges of the future of legal services and how we should research them in order to be able to meet them. Richard Moorhead came from London to give a plenary address and I moderated a panel on technology and innovation in the sector. Fortunately, the school videoed the proceedings and you can see the videos here. Happy viewing...



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Monday, January 02, 2017

Rule of Law and Legal Education: Do They Still Connect?



I've put a new paper up on SSRN.com on the rule of law and legal education. The introduction reads:

When we connect legal education and the rule of law it has two connotations: to what extent should legal education be protected by the rule of law, and to what extent should the rule of law be taught within legal education. It is not difficult to see how both connotations could cause problems in certain countries where the rule of law might exist in a different form. For example, China is becoming a rule of law-based country in respect of its commercial and intellectual property rights. Yet its record on human rights and the due prosecution of them is abysmal. The rule of law like most legal rubrics is slippery and tends to avoid easy definition (May 2014). Jeremy Waldron captures this when he says “…people’s estimation of the importance of the Rule of Law sometimes depends on which paradigm of law is being spoken about (Waldron 2012: 9).” For Aristotle safety was located in customary law and for Hayek it was the evolutionary development of the Common Law (id; but cf. May 2012). Tom Bingham’s idea of a thick definition of the rule of law has appealing since it is elastic and has an anthropological intuition about it that maintains a connection to community (Bingham 2010). In contrast to Waldron who would keep the rule of law at a meta-level rather than a substantive one, Bingham includes specific instances of rule categories such as, notably, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which the right to education is enshrined (id: 83).

In this chapter my focus is not so much on the theoretical debates surrounding the rule of law but rather how it is implicated and treated in the developments of modern legal education and practice. I first analyse the changing legal world for which the salient period is the post-World War II to the present. We have the rise of the international and transnational institutions and the emergence of the modern, organization-based, and increasingly financialised, legal profession that plays a significant role in globalization. To provide the labour force for the profession the academy’s role has come to the fore and is now the main gateway to the legal profession. Even with its duality of roles as reproducer and gatekeeper, the academy is now more remote from the profession. This in part reflects a desire on the part of the legal academy to be a more academic and intellectual member of the academy than hitherto (Cownie 2004). The rise of subspecialties within law marks this shift as does the increased number of law professors with PhDs, often in other disciplines. The increased tensions between the academy and the profession have fostered argument over both the content and structure of the law degree. One might almost ask if the issue is not so much the rule of law but the rule of lawyers. Finally I examine some of the challenges for legal education—such as the rise of legal technology—that will have enormous effects on legal practice and the rule of law, especially where it abuts access to justice.

My approach to the topic is essentially sociological, which means I ask under what conditions would the rule of law be promoted or diminished and by whom? In this respect I look to the legal profession, courts, and legal academy as key players. By this I mean they are crucial to the design of the legal system and its implementation. The relationship of the legal profession to the state or market can signify to what extent lawyers might be viewed as radical or conservative in their approach to legality and juridical questions (Rueschemeyer 1973). For example, Weber (1978) saw the English legal profession as a craft-based profession with relatively little input from the academy. The development of the common law therefore depended on the creativity of practitioners who became used to devising solutions to problems as they arose. In the absence of a legal code, lawyers innovated in law through an ad hoc process. On the mainland continent, and in many other countries, the civil code system depended on commentaries by academics that kept the law in tune with its primary principles. This resulted in a different but less innovative law making. Thus, for example, whereas in Germany pfandbriefe are creatures of statute, in the UK they were created by contract using common law principles (Flood 2007). The alliance between the state, academy, and legal profession is much stronger in code systems whereas common law jurisdictions are typically associated with the market and so depend far more on practitioners.

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Sunday, November 06, 2016

Legal Education in England & Wales and Germany: New Paper



Anna Mountford-Zimdars, Kings Learning Institute, Kings College London, and I have written a new paper on legal education in England & Wales and Germany focusing on barristers' education and German advocates. It's on SSRN.

Here's the abstract:


This paper explores the relationship between legal practice and type of university attended and degree course studied for English and German lawyers.  For England, some of the analysis is only based on data for barristers. We find that university attended matters a great deal for English barristers if they tend to have graduated from elite universities within the stratified British higher education system. In contrast, the flat German higher education system is also mirrored in the profile of lawyers were graduates in the top jobs come from a wide range of institutions.  For Germany, attainment at university and graduating in law are keys to unlocking elite positions whereas the status of university seems second to none in the British system, trumping having studied law as a first degree.  The paper thus empirically confirms anecdotal insights that knowledge and skills directly related to law matters more for early career entry in Germany and generic skills and socialization at elite universities matters more for transitioning into elite legal employment in England.  It is unclear from the available data whether the different structures mean that the social make-up of the legal professions differs, but it is clear that different ways of accessing this key profession operate in the two contexts.



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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Financing Law Firms: New Law versus Old Law: Good or Bad?


It seems to be the season of law firm/business surveys. We're hearing a lot about New Law, pushback from clients, less for more and so on. Smith & Williamson, an accounting firm, have surveyed law firms about their future finance decisions. 

Law firms are facing increasing competition from other firms. This isn't surprising as most below the Magic Circle are fungible. And it would be the same in the US too. The choices are maybe to merge or downsize into a boutique. Indeed it is the boutiques that are causing the competitive pressures on mainstream law firms. 

One solution is to buy them, rather like Facebook and Google buying smaller but useful companies. Think Facebook and Oculus. The problem for law firms is that they are shy when it comes to external financing. They like to borrow from banks with revolving credit facilities or, worse, via overdraft. (I know this is external but it isn't perceived in that way by lawyers.)

Aside from personnel, one of the biggest expenditures for law firms is technology, especially if they are trying to commoditise part of their services--e.g. online term sheets. Altman Weil say their survey found the biggest threat for law firms was CCCT (competition, commoditisation, competition [from alternative suppliers], and technology.  Calls for capital contributions from partners and overdrafts are primitive ways of funding the future. The Legal Services Act 2007 gave law firms (or more strictly legal services providers) the opportunity to become Alternative Business Structures so they could attract external investment. 

Big law hasn't really taken advantage of this yet. The most common form of entity is still the limited liability partnership. None of the big firms have incorporated, because they fear external scrutiny and pressures for change. However, Smith & Williamson found around 32% of their respondents (about 50 of the top 100) were prepared to see private equity as a source of funding. 

The funding would be used to buy "bolt-on" acquisitions, the boutiques that are the source of frustrating competition for the mainstream firms. I suspect law firms think this type of funding will be easier to control than other kinds. This is speculation but the fact that law firms haven't yet incorporated or gone public (pace Slater+Gordon) suggests to me that either they don't know how or don't want to subject themselves to market disciplines. Given private equity works on a three year timeline to exit, I can't see them taking a back seat on financial decisions in the law firm. Cost cutting, commoditisation and asset stripping are the usual weapons of private equity, so I don't see law firms being immune. And of course the private equity investor's favourite investment technique is debt loading. Law firms are used to being encumbered with debt as that's what they do normally. PE debt will be fiercer. 

So as much as law firms think of themselves as businesses, and they are, in many ways they are still immature in matters of the market. If they don't start to learn market disciplines and see themselves as something other than chummy clubs, when they go to market [I considered a number of metaphors here from dull to unprintable, so insert your own] it will be a case of, to use Goffman's phrase, "cooling the mark out".


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Thursday, September 01, 2016

What Happens When the NSA Gets Hacked?



My colleague, Adrian McCullagh, and I published a story on Medium.com about the NSA hack by a group called the Shadow Brokers.

Shadow Equations: Where IT Security Fails

Everyone now lives on the internet and security is paramount except we seem so bad at providing it. Businesses and governments receive thousands of cyber-attacks a day from countries like China. In the wake of infiltrations into Austrade and the Australian Defence Department’s networks, the prime minister’s cyber security adviser, has admitted the Australian government is attacked on a daily basis. It was even thought the failure of the Australian online census was due to a denial of service cyber-attack, which helped foment nationwide privacy scares. The story we tell here indicates that we are at a tipping point in cybersecurity.Recently a hacker group known as the ‘Shadow Brokers’ published on a particular open web site a sample of source code of particular malware (MALicious softWARE) claiming that the malware had been downloaded from an organisation known as ‘Equation Group’ (NSA)......

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Thursday, August 18, 2016

What Is Going on with the Legal Profession?



The other day I was asked to write a paragraph about the future of the legal profession and here's what I wrote:
The legal profession of the 21st century has been described as having encountered its own Cambrian explosion. Rather than extinction the legal profession is facing rapid change as the result of increasing use of technology, globalisation, the deregulation of legal services markets. Australia and the UK were early adopters of alternate structures for the provision of legal services, which in the case of the UK is placing small legal practices under immense pressure as, for example, online providers (e.g. LegalZoom and DivorceOnline) enter the market using loss leader pricing to capture business. Some refer to this as the Uberisation of the legal practice. Outsourcing of legal work to “cheaper” markets such as India and South Africa has reinforced the trends working through globalisation. Millions of dollars are being invested in new legal enterprises such as ROSS Intelligence based on IBM Watson, and Ravn, which use big data to research and answer legal questions and predict outcomes of cases. 
I don't think there's anything particularly startling in that paragraph although the reader in my law school was shocked. All one has to do is read Jordan Furlong, George Beaton et al to see where the profession and legal services are heading. But I wonder.

The counterfactuals won't go away, so how right is New Law? Dealbook reported in the New York Times that law firm revenues rose by 4.1% for 2016 H1 compared to 3.3% for H1 of 2015. Law firms have experienced growth, albeit in single digits, for the last four out of five years. There are no signs of it slowing down.

Those doing bankruptcy and litigation are thriving while transaction lawyers are faring less well owing to the stupidity of Brexit (sighs in exasperation at those idiots). Yet we've seen Big Law doing well on M&A work. Cravath raised starting salaries to $180,000. Hourly billing hasn't been abandoned. London law firms have been reporting big rises in lawyers' earnings (as PEP).

So, I'm confused by the conflicting signals. Maybe it's not a Cambrian Explosion. But there are explanations. The New York Times is talking about big law firms whereas we know smaller firms are feeling the heat from alternate suppliers, especially online providers. Big Law is relatively secure because there are no realistic alternate suppliers for what they do. Axiom and Lawyers on Demand pick low hanging fruit, the work that is easily standardised, not the big jobs like M&A. The Big 4 accounting firms are credible threats but how different are they from law firms?

Perhaps we need a big London law firm to convert to an ABS and redesign itself and see if that sets change in motion. I recall that it was the merger of Coward Chance and Clifford Turner, in the late 1980s following Big Bang, that led to a rush of law firm mergers all over the world. I don't know how close we are to that yet.



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