5 questions about the environmental impact of crypto-mining

Originally published on Thomson Reuters Insights by Gina Jurva, with Joseph Raczynski.

Is the act of mining for cryptocurrency damaging to the environment? We asked our resident technologist to assess this emerging landscape

Two hot words in the corporate and financial worlds today seem to be cryptocurrencies and ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance issues) — yet, are the two intertwined? More specifically, are cryptocurrencies environmentally friendly or are they a global threat to meeting climate targets as articulated at the recent United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP26)?

We spoke to Joseph Raczynski, Thomson Reuters’ resident Technologist & Futurist and early adopter of cryptocurrency, about crypto-mining, the cost to the environment, and its sustainability going forward.

Thomson Reuters Institute: In its most basic terms, what is crypto-mining?

Joseph Raczynski: The traditional act of mining cryptocurrency is driven by heavy computer processing power as processors race to solve a mathematical problem first, so that the sole winner can add a grouping of transactions to the blockchain. For example, a transaction could be one person sending another person money via Bitcoin.

Computer processing power — which you can tangibly feel as your machine gets warm — means the processor is working very hard to do something. The act of mining financially rewards the first computer, or grouping of pooled computers, that solve the mathematical puzzle with that cryptocurrency’s native token. In the Bitcoin example, more than 100,000 nodes (computer groupings) all over the world are competing to win the race, and if they do, they earn 6.25 Bitcoin (valued today around $237,500) for the ability to add the grouping of transactions to the next block on the chain. This happens roughly every 10 minutes.

Joseph Raczynski of Thomson Reuters

Baked into the code is a reduction of the reward over time, and there is a fixed supply of Bitcoin that will ever exist, so the mining becomes likely more difficult over time depending on how many computers are competing at any given moment. This process is called proof of work and is heavily energy intensive; while another form of mining consensus is proof of stake and is far more efficient.

Thomson Reuters Institute: How much does cryptocurrency cost the environment?

Joseph Raczynski: This is a very nuanced and politically divisive topic. Having been in this space since 2011, I can see both sides of the debate, and I believe I can distill its reality. Proof of work is natively inefficient, as it uses lots of electricity to solve that mathematical problem to win the reward. On its face value, this is not environmentally sound.

However, crypto-miners intrinsic interest lies in being as electrically efficient as possible because energy consumption is their principal expense after the hardware investment of fast computers and processors, which are also called mining rigs. Miners seek out the cheapest places in the world to plug their rigs into the electrical grid. They pursue renewables — solar, wind, and hydro power — and have used the blow-off captured from natural gas, which would have been lost or burned as waste.

Although the quest for clean energy is increasingly being sought, not all crypto-miners are doing this. There is little question that proof of work is a cost for the environment, but it is not as catastrophic as some suggest. An intangible effect, of course, is aligning that energy consumption and environmental impact with the benefit that cryptocurrency has created via a vast new industry. The technology has created an internet of value that we will all leverage, so there is a cost benefit that is being struck as well.

Thomson Reuters Institute: Could the impact of crypto-miners be reduced in some way?

Joseph Raczynski: Another fascinating argument about the environmental impact is that crypto-miners are essentially the new intermediary. Be it banking, legal, insurance, supply chain, or most other transactional businesses, each of these enterprises could be replaced with a blockchain. As a result, all of the physical and environmental impacts of those institutions could be negated with a move to blockchain. Think of the electricity used to build and run office buildings, the workers who travel, gas and oil used, materials needed, and all other combinations of energy and environmental impact that any such institution has on the environment — that would be reduced with the underlining technology that would serve its purpose. Ultimately, proof of stake solves this environmental issue, but proof of work is something that will persist, in a decreasing form.

Thomson Reuters Institute: One cryptocurrency, Ethereum, said it wants to reduce its energy use almost 100% this year through transitioning to a proof of stake process. How can cryptocurrencies use proof of stake to be more sustainable?

Joseph Raczynski: There is great news afoot that pretty much solves the electricity issue, and in turn, the environmental problem. The primary blockchains, Ethereum, Solana, Avalanche, Cosmos, along with many others and which are the future of the industry, rely on proof of stake, which itself relies on a different mechanism to confirm and add transactions to the digital ledger. There are many flavors of proof of stake, but if someone wishes to participate as a crypto-miner in this instance, they are not using processing power to win a mathematical race. Instead, each person puts up money, or a stake, to participate. These users are hoping to earn anywhere from 7% to 1,000% on the money that they stake, by locking it into a smart contract that reinforces the resiliency of the network. The incentive is that the more money that people stake, the greater the network effect and security.

Currently, the potential of these high interest rates at are driving tens of billions of dollars into staking. Of those participating, the code dictates who actually gets to save the latest batches of transactions to the blockchain. There is a disincentive if you are a bad actor and try to upend or alter a block, by saving information to the ledger, for example. If you attempt to disrupt the network, you get slashed which means your stake could be confiscated. Proof of stake is expected to reduce the electrical consumption of crypto-mining by well over 99%. Ethereum should be upgraded to this version in 2022, and that alone will reduce the environmental impact.

Thomson Reuters Institute: Does mining and transacting with cryptocurrencies actually contribute to climate change?

Joseph Raczynski: If proof of work continued with Ethereum, which is the most-utilized blockchain in the world, then yes, crypto-mining could have had a negative impact on climate change over time. However, the upgrade to Ethereum 2.0 (ETH2), on a proof of stake model will dramatically change this.

DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) and Regulation

Originally published on Cryptos on the Rise.

A DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) is a revolutionary change in the manner that people and businesses can organize.  Leveraging blockchain technology, it is a decentralized model of control and governance.  The essence of a DAO is transparency, clarity of rule, and process driven decisions – primarily utilizing smart contracts on distributed ledgers.  Once a DAO has been established, via a blockchain, participants take ownership of its token, which allow them to participate in the system.  Token holders can propose changes, and can vote on those changes, with the subsequent actions being taken, “leaderlessly”.  There are no CEOs, CFOs, CTOs, only code and community.

Close to 5,000 DAOs have been formed to date, expecting to grow exponentially.  Many involve pooling digital money together to purchase assets, both physical and digital.  ConstitutionDAO was established seven days prior to the auctioning of one of the eleven remaining copies of the US Constitution. The intent, to purchase and house it at a protected public location.  Participants in the DAO contributed money in ETH (Ethereum token) to the cause, raising $45 million.  Separately, the AssangeDAO raise $53 million for the criminal defense of Julian Assange.  These are quick and powerful ways form decentralized autonomous organizations.

Central to a DAO is transparency.  Anyone can see which individual (wallet address) owns tokens.  Tokens allow for people to vote on proposals.  Anyone can create a proposal.  Simply stated, and in an ideal setting, it is egalitarian.  Challenges to the model are its extremely democratic nature, i.e. voting on everything.  As a result, it can be overly deliberate and result in a slower process compared to a more centralized formed organization like a corporation.

With this nascent, but extremely powerful organizational structure, the regulatory landscape at the state level is nearly non-existent.  Wyoming, which has led the US on regulation for blockchain and cryptocurrency, recently codified rules for DAOs residing in the state. Therefore, a DAO could be created under the laws of the State of Wyoming. No other state enables this yet.  Further, there is a movement afoot for corporations in the cryptocurrency space to dissolve and become DAOs.  With potentially hawkish regulation on the horizon for cryptocurrency, DAOs, by their very nature, are code based, self-running, leaderless entities running via a decentralized network, which permits actions based on how users interact under brassbound, predefined rules. Theoretically, under the current regulatory landscape there is nothing the law can do about such an entity. The converted corporation to a DAO would no longer be in control of the platform, which reverts to a completely new decentralized model, unlike anything regulated currently.

According to the SEC guidance issued in 2017, they determined that “The DAO”, an entity raising money in an ICO, Initial Coin Offering, that it was indeed a security.  The difference here is that many of the DAOs created now are under the auspices of “investment clubs” or are simply voting mechanisms, whereby the SEC generally does not regulate, unless met by the “Securities Act of 1933” regulating the offer and sale of those membership interests, or under the Investment Company Act of 1940 (1940 Act), or if a person who is paid for providing advice regarding the investments of the club or its members may be an investment adviser under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (Advisers Act) or state law. (SEC, https://www.sec.gov/reportspubs/investor-publications/investorpubsinvclubhtm.html)

The SEC is reportedly looking into true DAOs like Uniswap in the decentralized finance (DeFi) space, as a decentralized exchange (DEX), which is a code-based organization that matches buyers and sellers of cryptocurrency.  One area of focus is lending pools, where users will provide their assets for other users to trade, which provide healthy yields, just as banks provide interest on your assets.  This may fall into the Howey Test investment contract realm. 

DAOs are in their embryonic stage with legislatures and regulators.  There is little question that this space if bursting with potential and therefore creating a framework with regulation is certainly on the horizon. 

Mind-shifting into blockchain, cryptocurrency, and the future of asset ownership in the metaverse

Originally posted on Our Purpose – Thomson Reuters

Are you ready to jump down the rabbit hole? Well, so begins one of the most transformative periods in human history. What began as a widely dismissed experiment unleashed on the world by an anonymous author became a phenomenon that will alter corporations, governments and your own personal finances. As a technologist and futurist in a company widely respected for its ability to inform the way forward for professionals in the legal, tax and accounting and government sectors, I’m frequently asked how these technologies will shape the world we live in.  While some of the shifts are already underway, most are yet to come, Ultimately, these technologies will change commerce, law, taxes and wealth creation, and how we interact with each other. How is this possible? Let us start with the building blocks of our future infrastructure. 

Bitcoin invented blockchain technology in 2009 with their white paperBlockchain enables a decentralized ledger to run on thousands of computers globally. Through sophisticated consensus mechanisms, the machines confirm transactions between two entities. They accomplish these trades without banks or government oversight. The underlying technology Bitcoin uses is called blockchain, which is the secret sauce of this monumental infrastructural shift. So, while Bitcoin is neat, blockchain is our future tech.

Foundational infrastructural blocks

Our history starts with Web 1.0, the early internet in 1990, when we read content and clicked links to viewable information. In the early 2000s, along came “Web2,” allowing direct user interaction, for example “likes” or “voting up” content. That was a computational marvel of coding at the time. We are now entering “Web3.” It is the most significant paradigm shift since the internet began. Web3 ushers in the ability to tokenize assets. This means you can leverage blockchain, a trusted database, to create the internet of value and a web of digital asset ownership that is provable and verifiable without third parties. For simplicity, tokens represent digital shares or ownership of something.

Unpacking Web3

As a result of blockchain, myriad cryptocurrencies were born leveraging this tech. Some will have real potential to compete against a national currency like the dollar.  Sixteen thousand cryptocurrencies exist today. Eighty-three central banks around the world are now fast-tracking Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDC) (to compete against this shift to cryptocurrency.) Regulators the world over are also attempting to keep up. Many of the 16,000 will falter, but the appeal of these cryptocurrencies is that they are building new use cases of the internet of value. Some have programmed into their code, scarcity, and some deflationary attributes. For people living in countries with high inflation, these cryptocurrencies act as a hedge. Importantly, people can hold assets individually, cryptographically, without a bank. The owner has a lock and key to their money and need only to interact with the blockchain via their digital wallet. As a result, the valuation of cryptocurrency reached 3 trillion dollars recently.  

DeFi

The next building block for this vision is transforming the financial industry. Decentralized Finance  (DeFi) is reimagining what the industry could look like without intermediaries. By its nature, blockchain removes third parties because the code and underlying math does the verification. Currently, DeFi has hundreds of billions of dollars locked into various blockchains, using “smart contracts” and cryptocurrency. A smart contract is a few lines of computer code that creates an “if/then” statement, for example, if Amazon® stock is at $2,000 on January 1, 2019, then sell it.

What is special about smart contracts on the blockchain is that once an agreement has been reached by two parties, it is programmed onto the platform and becomes self-executing and immutable – without any human intervention, what a human or bank would have done to record something. For example, in DeFi, if I wanted to earn 20% interest on my cryptocurrency (my money), I could sign a smart contract within my digital wallet telling the blockchain to hold in custody the money for an agreed period, netting me 20%. Nearly every imaginable financial instrument is being ported over into DeFi.

NFTs and the Metaverse

The next stage of blockchain, cryptocurrency and DeFi are Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). They represent anything physical or digital registered to the blockchain. NTFs give an asset a unique code or hash or name that can be checked and is verifiable on that digital ledger. We will use this to prove ownership of assets, such as the deed to your car or house. Recently, NFTs have taken the art and music world by storm. Billions of dollars of digital art have been purchased in the last year. As we move into the Metaverse, an eventual virtual place for business and entertainment, those assets will have even more value in virtual homes or in a digital Times Square. It is surreal to contemplate, but this will happen in the next handful of years, all enabled by blockchain.

DAOs – The future of organizational structures

Going forward, the final building block to the blockchain stack are Decentralized Autonomous Organizations or DAOs. These are essentially entities built on code, leveraging smart contracts and tokens permitting token holders to vote on decisions that the organization is considering. In the next several years, I predict a major sports franchise will be owned by a DAO. Imagine being a token holder in that DAO and being able to vote on who is drafted. Recently, a copy of the Unites States Constitution was nearly won at auction by a DAO. This will be commonplace soon.

These are early days of blockchain and what it has birthed – cryptocurrency, DeFi, NFTs and DAOs. The emergence of these technologies will mean that professionals in the legal, tax and accounting and government sectors can expect to see significant changes in the years ahead. The abundance of new opportunities in nearly every field, including legal, tax, and government, is immense. The legal industry will see nearly every angle impacted for both the business and practice of law. Contracts will be automated and interactive leveraging blockchain. Litigation will rely on truth from transactions on the chain. In tax, applications will need to digest and interpret these ledgers, but will provide even more clarity about global transactions.  Governments will likely need to regulate and help interpret how these amorphous systems are framed in our world. There is little doubt that this will transform both our personal and professional lives, especially as we move into the Metaverse.

Top 10 err.. 16 LegalTech Talks of 2021! Now available!

The list is out!  Last year was an amazing one for LegalTech talks and thought leadership.  I presented over 70 times on Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, AI, Workflow, and the Legal Platform.  It was also a fascinating year where edgy concepts entered the LegalTech space, including the Metaverse and NFTs.  In all likelihood, these will continue to flourish in 2022.

If you’re game, you can watch the top sessions from the past year on a huge swath of LegalTech and general tech topics below:

Innovation:

Preparing Now for the Legal Technology Landscape in the Decades Ahead

Innovation in the Legal Industry

Dauntless Assent Into Legal Innovation

Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, DAOs, NFTs, Metaverse:

An Introduction to the Impact of Blockchain on Legal

Blockchain 2.0 Advanced Blockchain – Case Studies and the Evolution

Cryptocurrency Fundamentals

Cryptocurrency, DeFi, NFTs and the Metaverse

The Future of Contracts

Emerging Technology Conference on Blockchain and the Metaverse

Understanding Digital Identity & Its Impact on Legal

Artificial Intelligence:

Breaking Down AI – The Underlying Language and Technology of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence and the Impact of Exponential Technology on Legal

Cybersecurity:

The State of Cybersecurity in Legal

The Dark Web — The Evolving Landscape and its Impact on the Legal Industry

Legal Platform & APIs

Legal Platforms, APIs, and the REvolution of Whizzbang LegalTech

Cloud:

Fundamentals of Cloud Computing

Buying the Constitution: The rise of DAOs in legal

Originally published on Thomson Reuters Institute on November 18, 2021.

Could Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) become the model for future business structures and transform the legal industry in the process?

Update: After this blog post was published, the ConstitutionDAO fell short in its bid to buy a rare copy of the US Constitution in an auction held by Sotheby’s. The crypto-consortium was edged out by another buyer with a winning bid of $43.2 million, a record price for a printed text and twice the price that had been predicted for the document. This post has been updated to reflect this event.


With the dropping of Sotheby’s hammer late Thursday, ConstitutionDAO fell just short of its bid to purchase one of the last remaining copies of the United States Constitution. It is one of two remaining copies still owned by private hands of the 13 in existence. Despite being beaten out at auction, this is a monumental moment in the recognition of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs), which raises awareness of a system that will transform the legal industry.

A DAO is a blockchain structure (think of it as a safe database), that anyone can leverage to self-govern through participation, authored by rules, baked into code, and permitting voting through digital tokens (think cryptocurrency) — all while leveraging smart contracts. What does this mean? A DAO is a newer legal structure that humans (for now) are creating, which has a stated purpose and a plan to execute decisions via code. In this instance, the intended purpose is to win the Sotheby’s auction and retain a copy of the US Constitution. Also stipulated in the DAO is its governance — for example, where does the community want the document to be stored or displayed?

Had the ConstitutionDAO won the auction, these questions of governance would have been proposed, and the individuals who own these digital tokens in their wallets, could have then voted. Indeed, individuals now can create wallets to store tokens or cryptocurrency that not only allows them to own digital assets like cryptocurrency, digital art (NFTs), or land in the Metaverse, but also sign or vote on a topic that a DAO has offered. (They must own those specific DAO tokens in their wallet in order to vote.) These wallets are the future of identity, asset ownership, and your ability to prove something, vote, or sign agreements.

ConstitutionDAO started with the idea that the general population could own a copy of the Constitution. They gave themselves six days to raise the high end of the projected winning auction, $20 million; and at the time of this writing, 7,500 people had contributed to this DAO, at a sum of well over $40 million, blowing past the original goal. (Since ConstitutionDAO did not win the auction, all funds will be returned to those who donated them.)

DAOs
Day 1 of 6 for ConstitutionDAO

If anyone wishes to participate in a DAO, you first must purchase tokens, which typically gives voting rights that will allow the owner to guide what that organization does in conjunction with the rest of the community that also owns the tokens. We may also see DAOs using factional ownership of an asset — for example, a Picasso painting, London Bridge, or the Empire State Building. In this instance you have the ability to influence decisions, but you also have a partial ownership of the underlining asset as it appreciates or depreciates.

DAOs
Where it started (left), and where it went (right)

As I have written previously, DAOs may become the future of businesses or organizational structures not only in the Metaverse, but in the real world. At the Thomson Reuters Institute’s recent 2021 Emerging Legal Technology Forum, I sat on a panel discussing the evolution of blockchain and tossed out a prediction that a DAO will own a major sporting franchise within the next four years. My comment was received with a collective gasp in the room.

Imagine the ability for you and others to vote on which players the New York Giants pro football team acquires… yet, by owning tokens of the NYGiantsDAO or whatever it may come to be named, you in combination with others who own said tokens could vote to acquire the next greatest player or even possibly vote on who to bench in the next game. The implications are profound.

The sums of money that DAOs will raise likely will be staggering, such that they could overwhelm current ownership models with a flood of money from massive numbers of private individuals interested in participating. We have seen this with ConstitutionDAO now having raised more than $40 million and counting in just six days.

DAOs

Here is one simple example of a DAO translated into real life. Think about the interaction you have with a vending machine. In essence, it is a legal contract that you are entering. You approach the machine in your breakroom, and it takes your money via credit card. You choose your candy bar, and the machine dispenses the snack. As a DAO, it uses that money to re-order more Snickers bars, when it knows that that row is nearly empty. It can also order cleaning services and pay the rent all by itself. As you put money into that machine, you and its other users have a say in which snacks it will order and how often it should be cleaned. Ultimately, it has no managers, and all of those processes were pre-written into its code.

Most initial DAOs will have a board or controlling entity, of course, but they will use code and voting rights-governing models to establish equitable means of responsibility and decision-making. However, ultimately it is a system whereby the code could be fully autonomous, meaning a business could be established and run nearly or completely autonomously.

In the Decentralized Finance (DeFi) space, many of the exchanges are code-based executions of asset swapping or purchases of assets like cryptocurrency or synthetic assets that mirror stocks. These organizations are increasingly DAO-centric and will eventually not have much human intervention, because much of its operations should be programmed into the organizational structure, only needing tweaks of code voted on by the DAO members.

DAOs are the future of organizations. They will create an amazing world of possibilities, but simultaneously disrupt many structures we currently have in place now. On the legal side, there is incredible opportunity for lawyers in both transactional practice areas as well as the eventual litigation side of the business. When regulation comes, it will be fascinating to watch how we embrace and adapt to this decentralized model with our current lens.

Podcast: The Hearing – Houman Shadab, Professor of Law NYLS

From the producers… Bitcoin: bringing FOMO since 2013.

What would your scream sound like if you had dismissed Bitcoin as a joke in your law class in 2013 at $100 dollars – when it sits at $60,000 today? Joe’s guest this week is Houman Shadab, the Director of the Innovation Center for Law and Technology at New York Law School. He’s here to tell us how lawyers can navigate, benefit from and translate today’s new wave of rapid technological advances.

Houman talks us through the greenroom snacks at the US Capitol before he testified – what we really wanted to know. And, in a throwback to Mark Zuckerberg’s uncomfortable testimony before congress (“Sir, we run ads”), he tells Joe about his experience of sitting in front of the US government explaining the implications of various securities laws on hedge funds.

We’re a curious bunch at The Hearing, so we asked Houman to tell us what lawyers and legal students can do to better enable themselves for success. The answer seems to lie in no-code. Houman explains what the heck this is and why it matters to the legal ecosystem. So, get your notepad and digital wallet ready and press play!

Podcast:

Apple Podcasts https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/ep-86-houman-shadab-new-york-law-school-icme/id1389813956?i=1000541095827

Spotifyhttps://open.spotify.com/episode/44txkHGm3JqLe3EKgewSCd

SoundCloud https://soundcloud.com/user-264672855/the-hearing-episode-86-houman-shadab-new-york-law-school-icme?si=1b56a97e30e5402397fb3bbca4c2b613

The impact of blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and NFTs on the legal industry with Joseph Raczynski

It was a ton of fun recording this podcast with the omniscient and ever engaging Joseph Gartner at the ABA Center for Innovation – (full transparency, I sit on the Council). With Joey’s new role as Director and Counsel, we chatted all things #blockchain#cryptocurrencies, and #NFTs and their impact on the legal industry.  It is fantastic to be a part of a group pushing on #innovation in the legal industry at the ABA with Chair, Don Bivens and the entire Center for Innovation Governing Council.

https://www.buzzsprout.com/1784333/8764341-the-impact-of-blockchain-cryptocurrencies-and-nfts-on-the-legal-industry-with-joseph-raczynski

Podcast: The Hearing – Stevie Ghiassi, Co-founder Legaler and Legaler Aid

Question: What do the Iranian national football team, NFTs, Hotel Rwanda and tennis great, Andy Murray have in common?

Answer: Stevie Ghiassi, Co-founder of Legaler and Legaler Aid. And my guest this week!

In this episode, Stevie chats with me about his unlikely journey from running a chain of souvenir shops to becoming a legal tech entrepreneur. He also talks about the important work that Legaler Aid is doing, and ways in which legal tech and blockchain have helped them pivot after Covid took away traditional fundraising streams.

Yet again we’re seeing innovative ways that cryptocurrency and blockchain are being used, and how they offer real opportunities for the legal industry.

Apple:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/ep-78-stevie-ghiassi-legaler/id1389813956?i=1000524478029

Google: https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9wb3J0YWwtYXBpLnRoaXNpc2Rpc3RvcnRlZC5jb20veG1sL3RoZS1oZWFyaW5n/episode/aHR0cDovL2F1ZGlvLnRoaXNpc2Rpc3RvcnRlZC5jb20vcmVwb3NpdG9yeS9hdWRpby9lcGlzb2Rlcy9FcDc4X1N0ZXZpZV9HaGlhc3NpX21peGRvd24tMTYyMjgxMTgwNDQ2MjA3MzUyNi1NekkyT1RFdE56VTVNelkxTkRBPS5tcDM?sa=X&ved=0CAUQkfYCahcKEwjAm42r05XxAhUAAAAAHQAAAAAQCg&hl=en

The Law Firm of the Future

Interview with Joseph Raczynski, written by Michelle Worrall Tilton

Kanas City Metropolitan Bar Association

Attorneys look to precedent to solve today’s legal problems. “Steeped in tradition” is how we often describe the legal profession.  As result, it’s no surprise that there is inherent tension between emerging technology and the legal profession. The American Bar Association’s 2020 TechReport, which surveys firms and tracks attorney use of technology in their practices, reported that only 7% of attorneys are using tech tools, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), for document review and research.  Firms with more than 100 attorneys are more likely to use AI, as well as firms that engage in mass tort litigation. Despite promises of increased efficiency, productivity, and profitability, a significant number of attorneys cite distrust of the technology and underlying algorithms.

Even though the legal services market is estimated to be a $1T industry globally, Forbes reports that it is also one of the least digitized:

– Joseph Raczynski

That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the legal community to remote hearings, yoga pants, and dining room tables seemingly overnight.  Prior to the pandemic, the ABA’s 2019 TechReport estimated that the vast majority of law firms of all sizes – other than solos – worked in traditional law firm environments. Now, many managing partners are rethinking their office space needs because technology allows attorneys and staff to work from home.  Cloud-based document storage doesn’t demand the physical space once required for the paper detritus of the legal practice. 

According to commercial real estate brokers with expertise in law firm office space, firms have been downsizing for some time – and the trend is expected to intensify post-pandemic.  It’s anticipated that firms will increasingly implement a hybrid model where employees schedule the use of a community workspace or a conference room, but otherwise work remotely.  This provides the opportunity for collaboration and meetings with clients in a professional and inviting setting – think chic hotel lobby – while reducing the real estate footprint and attendant expense. 

Despite the occasional mishap of appearing in virtual court as a cute kitten, the legal profession has progressed in dog years with respect to the use of technology during the pandemic.   Remote hearings provide greater access for certain types of cases and hearings.  Litigants and their attorneys are saving time and money by not having the hassle of travelling back and forth to court. It’s easier for litigants to attend hearings remotely without having to take off as much time from work or to arrange for child care.  Corporate clients are now accustomed to remote environments and online meetings.  Many companies, such as Salesforce, American Express, and Microsoft, have reverted to permanent work-from-home arrangements for some employees.  A silver lining of the pandemic is that the legal industry has had no choice but to embrace technology.  So, what will the practice of law be like in the next twenty years?

-Joseph Raczynski

Fortunately, we don’t have to guess how technology will transform the legal profession in the years to come nor do we need to rely on a DeLorean time machine with a mad scientist sidekick.  Thomson Reuters Corporation has a forward-thinking technology specialist on the payroll with the title of “Futurist.”   Joseph Raczynski is a Technologist & Futurist, Manager of Technical Client Management for the cutting-edge legal products and services company. Raczynski, who is based in Washington, DC and focuses globally specializes in the future of technology and its impact on the legal profession. He has expertise in cybersecurity, blockchain, artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, and drone technology.  Raczynski also hosts a popular podcast, The Hearing, which focuses on legal innovation.

After talking with this fascinating tech expert via halo-conferencing (not really, but made you wonder), it’s clear that technology will play a significant role in the future of the practice of law.  While firms were pushed to adapt and use new technology during the pandemic, some firms that have operated for decades with little change, may revert back to that mindset.  Firms, however, that buck the system and invest in technology will thrive in the long term. According to Raczynski:

-Joseph Raczynski

Firms that are willing to embrace technology will provide better services for their clients. They will be better able to quickly sift through and digest immense sums of information. “In the decades ahead, data and services to understand that data will reign supreme,” Raczynski predicts.  Facing pressure from corporate clients to cap rates and reduce billings, some firms are incubating legal tech companies to speed development of software and other products to facilitate the efficient delivery of client services. Those that are successful will license their internally developed tech services to other firms or sell the technology to companies. Either way, these entrepreneurial firms are generating new revenue streams while developing tools to better serve their clients. For example, national plaintiff personal injury firm, Parker Waichman, developed case management software, which it licenses to other firms to help them manage mass tort litigation. Not to be left out, smaller firms are banding together in collaborative settings to invest in technologies together that they wouldn’t be able to manage financially on their own.

With insight from Raczynski, let’s zoom ahead for a glimpse into the future. 

Raczynski predicts that current roles undertaken by attorneys will change significantly over the next twenty years. “Much of the rote work being performed now, will be gone,” he says. “That said, many new facets which we haven’t even conceived will likely supplant some of those activities.”  Certainly, AI imbued eDiscovery tools will be the norm for document review.  This technology eliminates the “amounts of eyes on pages,” he says.

AI and machine-learning will continue to facilitate and expedite research and trial practice.  Raczynski describes how attorneys will have computer applications at their .  Research platforms will have semantic and nuanced understanding of the actual meaning of legal opinions and will go well beyond key-word matching.  The applications will quickly access every case and ruling on point and “spit out decisions,” which will likely be “the final decision,” or at the very least be “augmented intelligence” to assist the judge or jury, he predicts.  Litigation will become less burdensome and more efficient for the majority of cases.  Perhaps, too, this will result in significant financial savings to clients.  Interestingly, Raczynski anticipates that technology will reduce courtroom drama as finders of fact will make decisions based on data – and be less influenced by attorney performance.  Courts will be virtualized with mixed reality 3D glasses for the judge and jury that will bring crime scenes, accident reconstruction, and other cases to life.

Outside of the courtroom, Raczynski anticipates that technology will automate transactional work.  While contract negotiations will still exist, “everything will be interactive, voice automated, templated, intuitive, and securely stored on a blockchain,” he says.  Blockchain creates an immutable, digital record of transactions. It eliminates human error, which is commonplace in contract drafting.  Retinal scans will be used to confirm the validity of executed documents.

-Joseph Raczynski

Blockchain technology, according to Raczynski, will be run so that triggering language on this platform will automatically negotiate deals or execute contractual obligations. “What we are talking about is fully codified contracts,” he predicts, “with the ability to interact with factual data and either negotiate on its own, based on Party A’s and B’s preferences, or even self-litigate when something in the code goes awry.”  While blockchain is still somewhat nascent and the stuff of computer scientists, it will transform global commerce and the practice of law.

Technology will also transform law practice management and allow attorneys to spend more time serving clients instead of handling administrative issues.  Thomson Reuters conducted a study on time management and reported that with smaller firms, approximately 61% of their time was spent practicing law.  The balance of their time was spent on the business of running the firm, which is crucial, but not a billable activity. The larger the firm, the less time spent on administrative work.  In the future, law practice management will be facilitated through the use of a decentralized autonomous organization or DAO.  This is a business model structured on self-executing smart contracts that function without the need for in-person decision-making.  Smart contract governance doesn’t require boards of directors or firm management committees to meet, analyze data, and make decisions.  Rather, a DAO outsources the analysis through smart contracts allowing for token-holder network consensus.  Voting attorneys would hold tokens based upon their seniority, billings or pecking order status.

Admittedly, much of this technology is difficult to explain let alone visualize in practice.  However, there are steps that law firms should be taking now to better position themselves to be able to leverage emerging technology. “Opportunity abounds in the legal market right now,” Raczynski says. He portends a golden age for the practice of law: the intersection of where the legal industry marries technology.  While firms of all sizes were once reluctant to spend disposable income on technology – even on network security – large firms, in particular, are starting to increase their IT spend and budget for the future. Planning and budgeting for the proactive use of technology are key first steps. 

There has been a significant shift in law firm operational budgets allowing for an increase in technology spending. As attorneys have become more technologically advanced, there has been less need for clerical staff to draft pleadings and correspondence, perform filings, mail letters, and other tasks.  Younger lawyers, who have never used a Dictaphone or fax machine, have long been drafting their own briefs. Since the recession in 2008, firms have been increasing attorney-to-clerical ratios and spending less on clerical support staff. A legal secretary, who once supported one or two attorneys, is now working with eight or more.  As described earlier, firms are spending less on their office leases by reducing square footage.  Technology has filled the void left by these drastic operational changes, while freeing up cash for reinvestment in IT products and infrastructure.

Importantly, technology also levels the playing field. Solo and small firms are poised to benefit as the cost of technology decreases.  “If they decide to embrace technology, Raczynski says, “it enables them to automate, find answers quickly, and respond to their clients with aplomb.” He recommends that solo and small firms connect with the growing LegalTech community to see how they can learn, interact, and leverage new ideas to benefit their practices.  Additionally, law schools are excellent sources for technology training and incubating new ideas.

In Tomorrowland, there will be significant opportunities for tech forward iGeneration attorneys.  Law school graduates, who grew up with mobile devices in their strollers, will have key leadership roles.  Attorneys with degrees in engineering, network security, computer science and coding will be valuable hires.  As technology is second nature for them, they can undertake important IT operations and reverse-mentor firm members who aren’t as tech savvy.  

Finally, corporate clients aren’t going to wait for their hometown attorneys to become comfortable with emerging technology – especially when some firms are deploying high tech tools in their practices.  Corporations are investing in their own technology infrastructures and expect the same commitment from their professional service providers. They also expect law firms to engage in vigorous network security to protect sensitive client data from malicious actors, which is a real threat.  Ideally, law firms will automate routine research, drafting, and discovery review, so that attorneys can focus on customer service, including responsive and timely communications, learning about their clients’ unique business needs so they can be proactive instead of reactive, and cultivating new client relationships.

There is no time like the present to prepare for the future.  Attorneys should attend technology conferences, network with legal service vendors, join cyber law committees, and connect with futurists like Raczynski to gain a better understanding of the technology that is already transforming the practice of law.  Learning something new will feel uncomfortable at first, but it will get easier. The DeLorean is idling out front and ready when you are.