Takeaways from CodeX FutureLaw 2018: Four Central Themes

Earlier this month, Nextlaw Labs attended the CodeX FutureLaw Conference 2018 at Stanford Law School. With a wide range of speakers and topics, four central themes emerged throughout the sessions:

  1. A Multidisciplinary Approach

Legal innovation is intrinsically multidisciplinary. It takes creativity and perspectives beyond the industry to reinvent the business and practice of law. Hilarie Bass, President of the American Bar Association (ABA), opened the conference by challenging attendees to break down the silos between their respective fields and adopt a cross-functional approach to shaping the future of legal services.

Arianna Rossi, PhD candidate at the University of Bologna, delved into the importance of actually reading the privacy policies we are subject to in our daily lives. She identified unintelligible privacy policies as a design flaw and presented ways to simplify the process of reading them through the use of visual icons.

Margaret Hagan, Director of Stanford’s Legal Design Lab, and David Colarusso of Suffolk University’s Legal Innovation and Tech Lab are using design principles, crowdsourcing knowledge and “pent-up attorney power” to classify and answer common legal questions in a project called Learned Hands.

CodeX fellow Kate Didech described regtech in user-centered design terms as “taking actionable law and bringing it to the human experience …  and streamlining interactions between governments, residents and business.” Regtech involves making regulations computable and bringing it to user interaction—think TurboTax.

  1. Fairness, Accountability and Transparency

While it is easy to get caught up in the excitement around AI’s ability to automate legal processes, it is crucial to understand its limitations. Stanford assistant professor Sharad Goel dove into the risk of machine bias: computer decision-making processes designed to mimic human decision-making patterns may unintentionally incorporate human bias. In one notable example, a UK hospital developed an algorithm to review medical school applications, but the algorithm discriminated against women and minorities in the same way as its human predecessors had.

CodeX fellow Bryan Casey explored ethical questions surrounding autonomous vehicles, particularly in instances where the algorithms would prioritize pedestrian safety in affluent neighborhoods over lower income neighborhoods to avoid the risk of larger insurance settlements.

Ironically, algorithms built on human behavior tend to carry human bias and therefore need ethical human regulation. This fact underscores the Nextlaw Labs message that machine + human is better than machine or human alone. Goel ended his talk with “Algorithms are good at what they are good at, and they are incredibly bad at everything else” — and policy makers need to understand that.

The session Beyond ICO’s – Blockchain as Legal Tech covered ways to operationalize accountability via new technology and raised fascinating points about how blockchain can bring transparency to not only our financial system but our legal system, governments around the world and adjacent industries from insurance and real estate to logistics and pharmaceuticals.

  1. Access to Justice

Throughout the conference, access to justice was cited as a major issue hampering the legal industry. Hilarie Bass shared the startling statistic that 80% of Americans do not have access to justice and offered a fundamental reason — it simply costs too much.

Bass highlighted the many initiatives that the ABA Center for Innovation is taking to tackle this issue including apps that help flood victims with basic legal questions like “how to file a FEMA claim”, a legal checkup tool enabling online dispute resolution so that parties can avoid court appearances during inconvenient hours, and ABA’s Free Legal Answers, a virtual legal advice clinic.

At the closing keynote, Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode referenced the World Justice Project: 2012-2013 Report which ranked the U.S. 67th in the world for accessibility and affordability in civil justice—tied with Uganda. Deborah held strong support for alternative legal service providers like Avvo, LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, which are helping to fill the obvious gap in the legal market.

  1. Measuring and Indexing Innovation

Professor of Law at Michigan State Daniel Linna cited Jim Sandman’s FutureLaw 2016 keynote as his project inspiration. Sandman suggested that law firms should be ranked based on tech adoption rather than revenue and profit. Linna took this call to action to heart and recruited students to develop an innovation index that measured law firm tech adoption based on publicly available information. Linna further indexed law schools on legal innovation-related coursework, providing information that empowers the next generation of lawyers eager to embrace and own industry innovation.

Co-founder of, Pieter Gunst, described the open source database and a curated list of 828 companies that are “changing the way legal is done” called the Stanford Legal Tech Index. It contains many significant legal tech startups in the marketplace including many in the Nextlaw Ventures portfolio, and identifies significant market trends such as the distribution of companies by use case over time.

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Hearing the ideas shared at CodeX FutureLaw left me inspired and hopeful about the future of legal tech. While the challenges ahead are certainly immense—whether systemic pressures  from the industry’s business model or limitations in the technology from a legal ethics standpoint— a community of brilliant minds from a diverse range of disciplines are contributing their creativity to the transformation of the legal industry.  There is a growing sense of responsibility and accountability to ensure that the law, and the technology that is being built to support it, is designed to better serve all people.