Silicon Valley is the nexus of the entrepreneurship in the 21st century. While European tourists may duck into a medieval church to sightsee, a Bay Area tourist may take in any number of technological cathedrals. In the Bay, it is easy to trace the history of technology companies like Google, Tesla, Hewlett Packard and Apple from humble beginnings in garages and university labs to flashy corporate campuses. A significant number of these companies have their roots at Stanford University, and it is a focal point for innovation in the Bay Area. It was my distinct honour to have my placement with Osgoode’s Intellectual Property Intensive Program at CodeX, the Stanford Centre for Legal Informatics.
This past semester at CodeX has offered me an array of experiences: first as a law student, but also as an engineer, a tourist, and a legal technologist. Codex is the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, bringing together law students, lawyers, entrepreneurs, technologists and software developers to explore and advance applications of technology to legal systems. As a law student with a background in software development, CodeX offered me a unique opportunity to combine my past experience with my education at Osgoode.
The main focus of my placement at CodeX was to assist in the design and development of the Legal Tech Index. The Index is an open source database that tracks a broad spectrum of innovative legal tech companies. These companies represent an incoming wave of disruption to the legal industry, although the degree of disruption is not yet clear.
In the Bay Area, disruption is a consistent theme that goes hand-in-hand with entrepreneurship. In 2011, Silicon Valley trailblazer Marc Andreessen declared that “Software Is Eating The World”, arguing that we are in the middle of a dramatic shift where software companies are poised to disrupt and dominate established markets. In the 6 years since, we have seen his predictions to come true many times over.
Uber’s disruption of the taxi industry, Airbnb’s disruption of the hotel industry, Netflix’s disruption of the television and movie industry and Amazon’s disruption of both online and brick-and-mortar retailing all evidence the truth in Andreessen’s argument. There is also an emerging consensus about the reasons why this disruption is so prevalent now: minimal barriers to entry for software start-ups, wide public adoption of broadband Internet and mobile phones, the numbers of software developers and data scientists graduated each year, the inherently data-focussed approach used in software, and finally the maturity of software development processes to quickly and robustly build quality applications.
Legal tech has faced its share of headwinds, but also huge potential. In the words of my Stanford advisor Dr. Roland Vogl “The reality has not matched the rhetoric”. While there are some players who are broadly successful (legal service providers such as LegalZoom, Avvo and RocketLawyer are examples of this), the adoption of legal tech has its own share of unique challenges and has struggled to find the critical mass required to trigger its broad adoption. The potential of legal technology is more efficient practice, higher quality service delivery for clients, and improved access to justice with new delivery methods and lower costs.
Many of the successful established legal tech companies so far operate as so-called document and process automation, assisting their customers with streamlining practice management and document drafting. Newer legal tech start-ups however are applying data analytics and machine learning technologies to areas of the law. These new applications offer the ability to assist lawyers in assessing risk and decision making, and in some cases making decisions themselves.
Two start-ups who visited CodeX during my placement were PredictGov and Docket Alarm. Each offers predictive analytics for lawmakers and lawyers. The former offers real-time prediction of the success of proposed legislation, and the latter predicts of outcomes of court and tribunal cases. The predictive capacity of these services offers major value for lawyers in representing the interests of their clients. These services are also among the first, and there will be many more technologies to come offering predictive capabilities in other fields.
This semester has given me the opportunity to see what law could be, and how it may change. The future may hold incremental changes in practice or even broad paradigm shifts in the practice itself. It’s reassuring to know that there are institutions like CodeX considering the benefits and the consequences of innovative changes in the legal profession.
Paul Blizzard is a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School and was enrolled in Osgoode’s Intellectual Property Law and Technology Intensive Program. As part of the program requirements, students were asked to write a reflective blog on their internship experience.