Do You Need a Smart Watch?

I practiced law for some years and did not own a tablet or a smart phone. I was intrigued when someone plopped a Mac on my desk and said, figure out how to use it. It’s main function? To help us get rid of our “word processing center”. Remember those?

Well, times have changed. After desktops came mobile phones. So now my clients could call me from their cars. Great idea, until we realized that just about anyone and his uncle could listen in. And when the chat got intense, it was fender bender time.

But there were things coming down the road that tech could offer major help for. Calendering, time management and knowledge management in general. And I think we are still developing good  tech systems for these tasks. So does a smart watch fit into this? At least one lawyer thinks so. I have my doubts.

How Great are your Courts?

Court performance is one of those naughty topics in law. Lawyers frequently lament to their clients that they cannot guarantee just results from the courts in their jurisdictions.  I did it myself when I was an active litigator. At the same time, very rarely do lawyers take responsibility for improving court performance (I can think of one exception off the top of my head – the performance of the Delaware chancery court for corporate clients). Indeed, lawyers are usually content to accept that attempting such improvement would violate “judicial independence” Convenient for lawyers. Perhaps less so for clients.

So does protecting judicial independence trump monitoring and improving judicial performance? For example, should courts publicize waiting times, settlement rates, reversal rates, consistency, and such? Or should such data not even be collected, lest the public start thinking about whether they are satisfied with the performance of their legal systems? And what about reporting on the courts to the public? Who does that anyway?

And is law about heroic individual, brilliant judges who make history deciding great cases, or is law about delivering a basic service to the people who need it on a day by day basis? These thoughts troubled me as I read a post about a new book called “The Mother Court“.

Borderless Business and Human Rights

In the distant past, global commercial enterprises usually acted in concert with the powers that be at home. It was required by their charter. So, British trading interests developed into the British raj. But these days, commercial entities operate globally on their own and for their own purposes. They are disconnected to a large degree. So that folks may complain, for example, about  their using “tax inversion”, one cannot complain that — absent money laundering or transfer pricing concerns — moving profits across borders abroad to lower taxes is a violation of law even if it may not be in the national interests of the home country.

This applies to how commercial interests treat people as well as how they account fro their income. At least in some cases, transnational corporations appear to have acted in ways that are … shall we say … dreadful from a human rights perspective. I refer to engaging in murder, torture, property expropriation, this sort of thing.

Should they be more accountable at home? It is an interesting question. And so far, the answer from the US Supreme Court is “no”. But one senses that this debate is not over. Le Monde Diplomatique offers a thoughtful overview.

Smart Contracts

Lawyers don’t like this, but more and more of their services are being digitized. It is not because digitization is better than advice given by highly educated and experienced professionals. It is because it is good enough for a given situation and less expensive.

I bumped into this the other day when a lawyer refused to negotiated a fee for drafting a legal document because he didn’t want to sacrifice his “reputation for quality”. Well, too bad for him. We just didn’t need to pay a huge fee for a relatively minor function.

Along comes the idea of “smart contracts“. What is that? Well check out the link.

Smart contracts hold the potential to empower people to build a fairer, more affordable and more efficient legal system and smart oracles are one of the simplest ways to realize that dream.

And what is a smart oracle?

Most proposals for smart contracts depend on independent entities to inform contracts about the state of the outside world. Bitcoin contracts rely on “oracles” to attest to facts from the outside world by introducing signatures into the network if and only if specific conditions are met. For instance, the smart contract for a will would need to know whether or not someone had died.

The point is that new network technologies are reducing the need for centralized control to ensure trust in transactional settings. Lawyers will need to get their hands around this idea.

Client’s Need More than Lawyers

In the old days, you might have had a “family lawyer”. This was a person whom you knew and whom you would consult first with any legal issue. If that person could not help, he or she (in those days, it was more likely a he) would steer you in the right direction to get help.

But practicing law became more of a business long ago, and the idea of a lawyer chatting with a client — and not billing — is now a bit quaint. So where do people in that pre-client phase go to chat? Good question. One place is to the bookstore — or its digital equivalent, Amazon. And to digital media. Forbes, for example, offers advice on what to do if you are about to get sued.

Here is the takeaway from this. Forbes marketing folks are smart. They don’t run articles unless they think people will want them. So it is relatively convincing that people are looking for this type of input. What do I do before I start shelling out big money for legal representation. Is reading a Forbes article enough? It may be a start, but I would argue that there is a lot more market room here. The question is who wants to fill that space. Global law will be tracking that.