Originally published in the Legal Executive Institute
LONDON — The recent British Legal Technology Forum 2017 — Europe’s largest event with more than 1,400 attendees and emceed by Richard Susskind — peered into the future of the legal industry by hosting a provocative talk on Blockchain technology.
I spoke at the event on how Blockchain has the potential to disrupt the legal industry greatly over the coming years. The initial focus for those in attendance was to “level set” or explain Blockchain technology or Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT). In short, Blockchain tech allows for a decentralized accounting of information into a “database” or “ledger” which is not owned by one entity, rather is stored by a multitude. Initially the concept seems counterintuitive, but in reality, it is vastly more secure, redundant and transparent than traditional transactional models of recording events or data, e.g. bank accounting, credit cards purchases or even legal verifications, such as notary publics. (You can read more about the fundamentals of Blockchain here.)
As with most discussions, I built on the premise of the Exponential Growth of technology and the Trinity of Forces. These are core concepts to nearly everything happening around us now with technology; they are a set of unique influences that allow for this new technology to emerge today. These three pieces — infinite cloud storage, infinite processing power of computers and artificial intelligence — are enabling Blockchain to explode as a new Internet technology.
Blockchain’s Immediate History & Future within Legal
It may be valuable to trace Blockchain’s recent timeline:
2016 — The legal world began to wrap their collective minds around the technology. I spent time with chief information officers (CIOs) and practice heads at law firms, discussing the basics of this technology. They became evangelists to their attorneys and helped them to engage practice area experts on an awareness campaign to better understand Blockchain.
2017 — This is the year of pilots or proof of concepts (POCs). Law firms have begun setting up practice areas on the topic; and some top firms are accepting Bitcoin (Blockchain’s favorite crypto-currency) as payment. As a firm accepts Bitcoin, they are positioned two ways. One, it creates a buzz with the public by indicating that the firm is forward thinking; and two, and more importantly, it helps their internal staff understand how the technology works.
2018 — I believe there will be actual use of the technology for some firms. In discussions with the insurance industry and financial corporations, it’s clear that by next year they will have already built working prototypes. Law firms should be right behind them with smart contracts.
Legal Use Cases
In the presentation, the attendees were taken from understanding the technological concept of Blockchain and its immediate timeline to reviewing actual use cases. I cited 10 use cases for Blockchain in Legal. Honestly, there are probably hundreds that will unfold over time, but for this talk we dove into the following:
- Smart Contracts — This is the most obvious and immediate use within Legal. The ability to create self-executing documents will be instrumental to most firms in the next two to five years. Once a transactional document has been crafted, it can be codified — tossed into program which looks at trigger points in the document — and then it, without human intervention, makes if/then decisions. (See a video example here.)
- Real Estate Deeds — In Honduras, a company called Factom was experimenting by using the Blockchain to keep track of real estate transactions. The rationale being that one day a citizen might trust the government which states the citizen owns a deed to their land that their family has lived on for decades, but the next day that land might be up for auction by that same government. If that deed is recorded on the Blockchain with multiple entities verifying the property’s ownership, it’s much less likely is that a waffling government (which might be open to corruption) would prevail.
- Rental Contracts — Believe it or not, companies like AirBnB are about to be disrupted. A company called Slock.it is using the Internet of Things (IoT) and Blockchain to transform what would be a 2,400-person company and turn it into a five-person establishment — while remaining just as efficient. Their technology uses smart contracts combined with an IoT smart front door lock to establish the who, when, and how a person should enter a rental home. The physical IoT front door knob has all the information needed to legally control the experience, with all being pulled from the Ethereum Blockchain. It knows when the person is to arrive, how much they paid, gives them a code to enter on the device to gain access, and even knows when they leave for the day, so it can automatically call the cleaning staff to straighten up. All of this, without any human intervention, as the Smart Contracts are sent to the IoT front door lock. Lastly, since the efficiencies are so much greater you, the renter of your home can go from paying a 10% to 15% fee to AirBnB to roughly 2% with Slock.it.
- Chain of Custody (CoC) —Another use case in this space is simply tracking from the moment something is entered into evidence all the way through to each person or organization that encounters the item. Any sort of corruption is eliminated as multiple entities have to verify the chain, rather than just one individual. In this case, you have a direct chain from the beginning to its current state.
In the next piece, I will investigate the coming age of the BoT (Blockchain of Things) and its impact on our personal and professional lives as it intersects with the law.
For more on this subject, listen to the related Podcast of Blockchain in The Legal Sector – Taking the Smart Approach from the British Legal Technology Forum 2017.