ILTACON 2022: WHAT LEGAL PROFESSIONALS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT BLOCKCHAINS

Originally published in the Legal Current

By Carrie Booker

A highlight of Day One of ILTACON included the session Blockchain – Are You Prepared for DeFi, NFTs, and DAOs? with Joe Raczynski, manager, Technical Innovation Services. The session provided a blockchain overview and explored cryptocurrencies, smart contracts, decentralized finance, and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

Legal Current had the opportunity to talk with Raczynski after his session, and below is a recap of the conversation.

Legal Current: Why is it important for legal professionals to understand how blockchains work?

Raczynski: If you plan to practice as a legal professional beyond the next three plus years, blockchain is critical to understand. Blockchains are a fundamental shift in the way we think about control and proof.  They can help people track provenance, view records, and execute contracts. It is a fundamental shift in the way we will transact with code acting as the unbiased middle between two entities. It has the potential to be very powerful. If you are on the transactional side, there is little question in time, you will interact with blockchains for almost any legal document. It will certainly help in the automation components of workflow going forward. As you can imagine, litigation will certainly ensue as questions around the above become central to disputes. 

LC: Can you share a short history of blockchain and key ways to participate in it?

Raczynski: Blockchain was initially considered a ridiculous notion – the idea of a digitized ledger beholden to no single owner. However, the evolution of blockchain from joke to genuine is stark. For example, the top 50 banks in the world have unified in the realization this technology could disrupt the financial industry.

For those newer to blockchain technology, here’s a brief history: In its simplest form, the term “blockchain” refers to a peer-to-peer network of computers running a common software protocol that includes a database replicated on each computer connected to the network, where each user interaction (other than a query) is recorded as a new entry. Each computer is called a “node,” while the database is often referred to as a “distributed ledger.” In its most simplistic sense, blockchain is a distributed database based on code.

People will participate with the exchanging of digital tokens, cryptocurrency, NFTs, DAOs, ticketing, identity, and almost anything else that require some verification between two parties.

LC: Explain what decentralized autonomous organizations are and how smart contracts are used to enforce the rules governing them.

Raczynski: 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 vote on those changes, with the subsequent actions being taken “leaderlessly.” There are no CEOs, CFOs, CTOs, only code and community.

Central to any discussion of blockchain and its legal impact is understanding “smart contracts,” a term that has been around for decades but in this landscape has a specific meaning. A smart contract is a few lines of computer code that creates an “if/then” statement, e.g., “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. 

LC: What impact are blockchain technologies making on the FinTech and LegalTech spaces?

Raczynski: 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.

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.

What is pivotal  is that you can establish complex financial ecosystems that run based on rules, thus eliminating the need for traditional third parties, like banks and brokerage houses. These rules can dictate action, lock-in value, automate transactions, and create immense efficiencies in the marketplace at a fraction of the cost of our current systems.

LC: How are NFTs and the metaverse evolving, and how is the regulation landscape keeping up?

Raczynski: The next stage of blockchain, cryptocurrency and DeFi are non-fungible tokens (NFTs). They represent anything physical or digital registered to the blockchain. NFTs 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 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.

Currently, the only regulation that exists starts with cryptocurrency and the DeFi space. NFTs are so new, there is very little guidance. As for the metaverse, it is going to be amazing to see how regulators will address it.

ABA Center for Innovation – Trends Report 2022

Happy to have played a small role in this report with sections on:

  • Defining a Legal Platform
  • What is an API in the Legal Industry
  • AI – Artificial Intelligence in Legal
  • What is the Metaverse and Why it is Important

The Innovation Trends Report will focus on case studies in three areas: Internal ABA Innovations, Advances in Legal Technology, and Regulatory Innovation. It will also feature a case study on Utah’s sandbox, exclusively in the Innovation Trends Report, by sandbox participant, RocketLawyer. This Report is the inaugural edition intended as an annual publication by the Center.

Please see the full report here: Innovation Trends Report

Lawyers & the Metaverse

In a new Q&A interview, Thomson Reuters’ technologist and futurist Joseph Raczynski offers his insight about the Metaverse and how it will impact the legal industry 

In February this year, ArentFox Schiff announced that it had become the first major US law firm to “join the Metaverse” by acquiring a land site in Decentraland, a fact that underscored how seriously lawyers are taking one of the latest technology trends. Thomson Reuters’ technologist and futurist Joseph Raczynski talks about how the Metaverse will impact the legal space, and what lawyers should do to prepare.

Asian Legal Business: You’ve written previously about the Metaverse and the preparedness of lawyers. How widespread do you think the use of this will be in the near future, and how can lawyers make sure they are sufficiently prepared?

Joseph Raczynski: If by the near future we are saying three to five years, I would say 100% that the Metaverse will be used in various forms by the majority of the population in the industrialized world. It has already started. There are two forces at play that are enabling the Metaverse: One, blockchain, which is a unique way to store information in a provable, unalterable way. Second, the emerging hardware is key. When Apple releases its Virtual Reality (VR) or Mixed Reality (MR) headset in the coming year or so, it will force all of us to head into the Metaverse. Just for perspective, VR is fully immersive, while MR allows you to see the physical world and places digital imagery on top of that.

Joseph Raczynski of Thomson Reuters

I have likely spoken to thousands of lawyers over the last several years. They are extraordinarily bright, but with one limiting factor — their dedication to their craft. This means that they do not have the time to lift their heads to see what is coming. All these emerging technologies will impact their practices in some way, as well as the business of law. At a minimum, lawyers need the opportunity to focus on the big four: AI, blockchain, workflow, and the grab bag of general emerging technology. There are a multitude of places to learn about these things, but I would include some of the classics such as Google Alerts, Twitter threads on these topics, and magazines like Wired, which should be a staple for everyone.

Asian Legal Business: What kind of opportunities could the Metaverse bring to lawyers?

Joseph Raczynski: Imagine a world, much like what we have now, but only digital. It is nearly as immersive and interactive. Then, extrapolate all the problems, issues, benefits, and challenges we have currently in real life, and think about where lawyers play a role. It will be similar. In the beginning, much of the involvement of lawyers will be around intellectual property (IP) issues and copyright.

Soon thereafter, insurance and contractual disagreements will ensue, but these contract issues could be interesting because of the nature of the platform a Metaverse will be built upon. Since it should rely on blockchain and smart contracts, these disputes could likely be easier to solve at a lower tier, leaving lawyers to resolve more complex issues.

Asian Legal Business: How does our engagement with digital worlds and environments shape the way we work and the kind of work we carry out?

Joseph Raczynski: If we presume that we are moving increasingly into a digital world, then every nuance surrounding that space will become increasingly important. Start with artificial intelligence (AI). Algorithms will increasingly be able to make decisions for us. Yes, this includes much of the legal work out there. These algos start off simply, but will become far more complex, freeing us from some decisions or work.

Stack on top of that blockchain, which is trustless (as in, you don’t have to trust a third-party) database, meaning both AI and blockchain can work in tandem to begin doing some pretty impressive workflows that are automated. When we move into the Metaverse for both fun and business, everything can be quantified, e.g. a house, shoes, art, tickets to a concert, via a non-fungible token (NFT) which uses a blockchain. Processes will increasingly be leveraging data and AI to make decisions which will rely less on human intervention.

I know this can sound frightening, and it could be — which is why as this progresses, we need the best legal minds to understand the implications, yet keep a progressive mindset to guide the path forward. We do not merely wish to replicate everything we have in the real world, but try to evolve it to the best we humanly can.


This interview was written by Elizabeth Beattie, a Hong Kong-based journalist at Thomson Reuters, and originally published in Thomson Reuters Asian Legal Business.

Animated Series: What’s Up with the Metaverse

Originally published on the ABA Center for Innovation, Innovation and You

by Joseph Raczynski with creative by Elise Harmening, Esq.

What’s Up with the Metaverse, was written by Joseph Raczynski of Thomson Reuters, a member of the Governing Council for the Center for Innovation, and created by Elise Harmening, Esq., Project Specialist Manager at the Center for Innovation.

The Metaverse is coming: Is the legal market prepared?

Are you ready for the Metaverse? Probably not, but please bear with me, because the legal implications will be enormous. Open your creative mind first, and at the very end apply your critical thinking legal intellect. Here we go.

Originally published on Thomson Reuters Institute.

Imagine, if you will, a world resembling our physical one, but a completely virtual, immersive, colorful, all-encompassing one with land, rivers, houses, farms, people, animals, full cities, stores, businesses, concerts, and everything else contained in our physical world. Sauntering down a bustling city street, minus the smells, is as easy as walking on a moon that orbits an earthlike place. Platforms with full replication of our physical world are being built through a wearable device to create this Metaverse. Why? That seems a tad ridiculous.

Yet, before the iPhone was launched 14 years ago, we didn’t imagine the myriad of things we could accomplish by simply touching a piece of glass-faced, hand-held technology today. It would have been a leap of faith to see where we sit now. Thus, the Metaverse is that next leap.

Over the next 18 months, following an era of Zoom and Teams virtual meetings on laptops and mobile devices, Apple will be releasing the first mixed or virtual reality headset, allowing for people to interact virtually. Initially the focus will be on new Zoom-like meetings with far more immersive business engagements, but then it gets more profound. Wait for it.

MetaverseConcept of virtual reality glasses

Why now?

The Metaverse, or Web 3.0, is developing, but what led us here? First came layer one: blockchain, an immutable database to store information, in concert with the proliferation of cryptocurrencies, an ability to transfer value akin to currency initially, but later representing all assets. The tokenization of assets is a seminal concept and means that anything physical, or more important in this instance, digital, can be proven and has authority via code on an immutable ledger.

The latest manifestation of this authenticated representation of ownership are NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), and their popularity is the slippery slope of the Metaverse. Initially, people are buying digital art. In building out the Metaverse, art will be displayed on the walls of homes. However, the assets, living in smart contracts on the blockchain represent all assets. Homes, offices, land and even designer clothing of this world — legally represented by deeds, contracts, and leases — have been tokenized. This means you can buy digital land, homes, and other objects on a platform like OpenSea, to prove you own it. That value creates a network effect, enabling interactions within an ecosystem, and therefore a new Metaverse (world) is born.

MetraverseDigital land for sale on Decentraland

Indeed, OpenSea is just one of several marketplaces where individuals can buy the future of asset ownership in the Metaverse. All asset ownership, both digitally and physically, could be ported over to an NFT on blockchains. All of these critical pieces are then layered on top of a platform of animation — the actual space inside the headset, which has been with us for many years. It is the asset tokenization that makes this paradigm shift most pivotal. Transactional attorneys should beware, and litigators should feel their eyes widening at the possibilities ahead.

The virtual spaces being developed have cities in which you can buy almost anything. Land, upon which you can build your house, then you can fill that house with pieces of art (via NFT), and wear an outfit that is a verifiable Ralph Lauren suit with Nike shoes. The concert you attend requires a ticket (another NFT), and the subsequent music you want to purchase is also digitally saved and copyright enabled. Again, all of this is purchased from companies with underlining NFT ownership.

These digital worlds will likely be our future in the next decade, and a substantial amount of your time will be inside of these worlds. I know, it’s terrifying. If you are skeptical, however, note that OpenSea processed transactions of more than $3.3 billion in August alone, and this is just the beginning.

In the Metaverse, people will interact, transact, own assets, have relationships, build things and companies, create intellectual property (IP), have copyright issues, and advertise. Further, crimes may happen, insurance likely will be developed, and a massive host of other IRL (In Real Life) concepts that now all now require will evolve — and that will require legal professionals to be involved.

Not to mention the scaling of DeFi (Decentralized Finance), which has already begun and will continue to ramp up. Clearly, this is a burgeoning market. While I have been engaged in this space for several years, a recent white paper from Reed Smith on the Metaverse underlined its importance for the legal industry. It is a worthy read if you wish to continue down the rabbit hole.

What’s next?

What is on the horizon as we move into the Metaverse? DAOs, for one,

DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) are entities that have been built by humans. Likely a business initially, but once the code has been written, the code acts as the law and it runs the business autonomously. These DAOs will proliferate both inside, but more importantly for the foreseeable future, outside of the Metaverse. They are already very successful, supporting $25 billion on one DeFi DAO right now. (I will examine the magnitude of DAOs in an upcoming post.)

The implications of the Metaverse for the legal community and within the regulatory community as well as every other facet is enormous. While this space is being built, it is still early. Over the course of the next several years, the Metaverse and all its implications will move from the fringe to a more important arena for lawyers to contemplate and eventually address. Now is time for those lawyers to apply their critical thinking legal intellect.