Blockchain for dummies: more transformation, more change

duck-chainBlockchain is coming. It will radically transform commerce. And the economy. And the practice of law. It’s another one of those things.

So what is blockchain? What is it going to change?

Start with this: blockchain is not a technology that blocks chains (of data). Instead, it assembles blocks (of data) into chains. Start there.

Blockchain is also called “distributed ledger technology.” In effect, it promises an internet-accessible registry system. Data is recorded electronically. And, instead of having one central official “place” where it resides, the data is “distributed” among all participants or potential users. Participants “agree” electronically about the validity of relevant information.

The resulting “distributed ledger” is analogous to land registration, such as that authorized in North Carolina, only it is digital and it goes much further. All the components of ownership, or an agreement, or a transaction, including enforcement, can be linked, block by block, into an inalterable, decentralized, automated digital chain — a ledger — that is Internet accessible.

  1. There is no need for a government or other central registry to record anything because the distributed ledger does that, making the data universally accessible among participants. And the technology can make recorded data unchangeable.
  2. There is no limit to what kinds of ownership or value or transactions can be recorded in a blockchain because the parties themselves make those choices electronically and the technology accommodates the data.
  3. In effect, the technology enables a universally accessible decentralized registry whose validity cannot be forged, and whose terms cannot be altered. And it can be made  “smart,” which is to say, capable of executing agreed actions with certainty.

This has the potential for “radical transformation” of commerce. Ownership, agreements, and transactions can be digitized. The processes of authentication, verification, validation, recording title, and executing transfers upon counter-performance, can be blocked, chained and automated.

Currently, functions such as these are heavily dependent on assurances from lawyers: opinions and certifications.

But with the technology that is coming, lawyers will no longer be needed for those functions. Blockchains will provide them. Lawyers will be replaced by 1’s and 0’s.

Blockchains though will recast the role of lawyers.

North Carolina lawyer Nina Kilbride says that while lawyers will no longer be administrators of commerce; they will become instead its engineers. (That began this summer, she says.)  The future role of lawyers, she says, is not to administer and validate processes, but to design the digital processes (blockchain structures) best suited to automate particular commercial objectives.

Good places to start to understand this are

North Carolina appears to be right at the center of blockchain’s emergence, with Nina Kilbride and Monax, the Raleigh company she’s associated with. At least, that’s the evidence of the recent North Carolina Bar Association program on the subject (“What Lawyers Should Know about Blockchain Today”).

This has the feel of that moment in 1839 when Caswell County’s Stephen Slade awoke from his slumber and discovered the process for flue-curing tobacco.

People get ready, there’s a chain a-coming.

Mindful governance for boards of directors, trustees

Illustration by Lars Leetaru

Illustration by Lars Leetaru

The Mindful Board: Mastering the Art of Conscious Governance by Charlotte Roberts & Martha Summerville is just out.

It will take anyone involved in making decisions for a group or a system onto new ground. Good book. More here later.

Available at fine bookstores from one end of the World Wide Web to the other.

Roberts and Summerville are high-powered Guilford College trustees.

Cahiers de Hoummous: Two hummus tips to go

sumac-in-blue-thimble-post

Sumac

MidLaw normally seeks to confine the Cahiers de Hoummous  to hummus topics only and to dole them out at a measured pace. Just now though, we are sitting on not one but two slightly collateral tips that are questing to be free. The post-Thanksgiving interval seems a fitting moment to give them voice.

First: sumac. The argument is made that ground sumac should have an equal place on the table with salt and pepper. Agreed. Sumac is a characteristic spice of the Middle East. It is
commonly described as tart, sour or astringent — mild, but in the nature of lemon or vinegar.

Just try it. Get you some and see what you think. Sumac is a likely seasoning for hummus and many other foods: chicken, fish, rice, potatoes, fried foods, in soda to drink (seriously). Could be healthy. Who knows?

mssabbaha2

Mssabbaha with sumac

Second: boil an egg and serve it with your hummus. This can be for breakfast or with any other egg-appropriate meal, mezze or snack. Cook the egg for exactly 6 minutes and 50 seconds (per Momofuku). Fill a bowl with cold water and ice. When the eggs are done, transfer them immediately to the ice bath. After that, you know what to do.

For this, you will want your hummus creamy and your egg soft in the middle. (Remember: eggs are back. You can eat them now.)

You’ll be rocking and rolling soon.

ABA studies the future; Axiom opens an office: hires lawyers in Charlotte

cat-in-tieThe American Bar Association recently released its Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States. Not long afterward, the ABA House of Delegates refused to approve outside investment in law firms. The ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services contemplates state-by-state examinations of the issue, to be followed by local decisions state by state.

Last week, Axiom, a provider of “legal solutions” and “leader in the business of law,” announced opening an office in Charlotte.

Axiom is not a law firm. It is a business. It employs lawyers. It delivers legal services. It is an “alternative to the traditional law firm” — “more flexible, elastic, and commercially-minded”.

Axiom has begun hiring lawyers for Charlotte. It is hiring “elite talent that wants to practice in the Axiom mode.” And “looking at every practice area.

So, there’s them that studies and them that does.

 

Video interview with NC Chief Justice on future of legal services

future-legal-services-hero_jpg_imagep_980x179-2-png-imagep-980x179North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin represented the judiciary on the American Bar Association’s Commission on the Future of Legal Services whose report was published earlier this year, and so Chief Justice Martin was interviewed recently by Ralph Baxter, Chairman of Thomson Reuters’ Legal Executive Institute, who asked the Chief  (i) about broadening the scope of those who can participate in delivery of legal services (that is, who beyond licensed lawyers can provide legal services?); and (ii) about opening the door for non-lawyer investment in the business of legal services (can law firms issue stock?). Chief Justice Martin described the process by which such changes could come.

New proposals can come either through the ABA or directly at the state level. The ABA’s House of Delegates has already refused to approve outside investment in law firms. Even so, the Commission recommends that the states continue to consider the issue.

“So [non-lawyer investment in law firms is] one of those things that might happen,” Ralph Baxter observed to the Chief Justice in the video interview. The Chief’s response, a nonverbal chuckle, is the very model of making a noise without making a comment. Judicial and judicious. Worth the price of the (free) video.

 

An Eastern planter and a Piedmont abolitionist — William Horn Battle hanging out with Richard Mendenhall – Wait! What?

richard_mendenhall_older

Richard Mendenhall

William Horn Battle

William Horn Battle

OK – now I am fascinated.

In Memories of an Old-Time Tar Heel, Kemp Plummer Battle recalls a trip that he and his father, William Horn Battle, made to Asheville in the summer of 1848. Kemp was sixteen years old. On the way, they stopped at Jamestown where they spent an evening with Richard Mendenhall, “an old acquaintance of my father.”

Here is part of Kemp Battle’s account:

Near Greensborough we met an old acquaintance of my father, a refined and educated Quaker named Richard Mendenhall. On parting, he said courteously, “Come and see me, Kemp, and I will entertain thee for thy father’s sake until I know thee and can entertain thee for thy own.” I afterwards found this was a quotation from Swift’s Tale of a Tub.

While Mr. Mendenhall did not keep a hotel, he was willing to furnish meals to travelers at his house in Jamestown (pronounced “Jimston”). My father and I had dinner with him. Some friends had told me that he was fond of testing their knowledge of history. I determined to put a bluff on him. He began by asking me what was a giaour, the title of one of Byron’s poems. I happened to know that it was a name given by the Turks to disbelievers in Islamism. I answered his question and at once plied him with counter historical questions so fast that he refrained from catechising me further.

A nice story. Old-time Tar Heels, indeed. You can visit the Mendenhall home in Jamestown today and see where they were.

But how did William Horn Battle come to be acquainted with Richard Mendenhall? They were an unlikely pair.

William Horn Battle was born and raised in Battleboro (then) in Edgecombe County, a town founded by his grandfather. His family were farmers and slaveholders and founders of one of the oldest cotton mills in the state, which operated with slave labor. Battle himself was a lawyer, banker, judge and North Carolina Supreme Court Justice. He is acknowledged as the founder of the UNC Law School. Conservative at his core, William Horn Battle was the very embodiment of the antebellum establishment. He prominently opposed licensing women to practice law.  Son, Kemp, among other roles, was president of the Chatham Railroad Company, Treasurer of the State, and president of the University of North Carolina.

Richard Mendenhall was born and raised in Jamestown in Guilford County, a town founded by his father and named for his grandfather who settled it. Mendenhall operated what is now preserved as the Mendenhall Plantation. He was a tanner, merchant, and educator. He was also an abolitionist and a founder and president of the Manumission Society of North Carolina. He led in transporting African Americans to Liberia and Haiti. He is said to have been a principal in the Underground Railroad. His younger brother, George C. Mendenhall, was a prominent lawyer, legislator, and UNC trustee. George was a large slaveholder, who formed companies of slaves that operated variously as builders, caterers, farm laborers, etc. Under Richard’s influence, George and his wife transported their slaves to freedom in the Midwest, thereby stimulating celebrated litigation. As a lawyer, George defended abolitionists and free blacks. Richard Mendenhall’s sons were a lawyer, bankers, investors in cotton mills, and leaders in building the North Carolina Railroad.  His son, Nereus Mendenhall, served as president and kept Guilford College open through the Civil War and afterward. Guilford College, when led by Mendenhall, has been characterized  as an “island of moderation, surrounded by a sea of fundamentalism.”

Both the Battles and the Mendenhalls were Whigs and unionists. But, when war came the Battles were ardent supporters of the Confederacy. The Mendenhalls, Quakers, stood aside from the war. Some were imprisoned and abused for refusing to fight. Nereus Mendenhall interceded with Jefferson Davis to arrange legal protections for Quakers and other pacifists.

So William Horn Battle and Richard Mendenhall seem unlikely dinner companions. An eastern planter and a Piedmont abolitionist. Each might rather have regarded the other as a Carolina giaour, than as a dinner-table discussant of literature and history. (Sixteen-year-old Kemp Battle later became professor of history at UNC.)

MidLaw’s theory is that Battle and Mendenhall may have become acquainted in Raleigh, perhaps in connection with Richard’s service in the General Assembly (if he did serve, as MidLaw believes he did).

Or, it may have been that William Horn Battle and Richard Mendenhall were simply a pair of civil, cultivated people, North Carolina leaders, from different backgrounds and with different points of view in what was becoming an increasingly divided society. Old-time Tar Heels.

Window into NC lawyers in the 19th Century, Kemp P. Battle’s memories

Kemp Plummer Battle

Kemp Plummer Battle

At the second-hand bookstore in the Raleigh-Durham airport the other day, I came across a copy of Memories of an Old-Time Tar Heel, the compendium of Kemp Plummer Battle’s memories and anecdotes. Himself a lawyer (also a railroad president, university president, Edgecombe County farmer, and more), so were his father, William Horn Battle, and others in his family.

So Battle’s memories include many a lawyer story. Those stories are windows into the North Carolina Bar in the mid-nineteenth century. Below is a good one that shows lawyers and also Battle’s densely-packed style.

Judge Thomas Ruffin, the younger, had probably the ability of his father. In his younger days, he was not a hard student of legal principles, although he gave his whole mind to the trial of his cases. Indeed, so eager was he for victory that there were accusations of sharp practice. But I personally had no evidence of this. On the contrary, when thrown intimately with him for a day or two once, I was struck by his high-toned principles. I remarked to one of the best of men, his law partner Judge Dillard, “Ruffin is a lawyer who can be relied on for utter fairness.” Dillard smilingly said, “He is a rascal like the rest of us.” He meant only that in the hot excitement of trials he might take positions which non-lawyers might think not strictly fair. But it should be remembered that lawyers giving their minds to the cause of their clients, studying mainly the arguments for their side, necessarily become biased. It is impossible for them to act as impartial judges. This is illustrated by what Judge James C. MacRae told me about a trial over which he presided. A certain lawyer made a speech advocating a construction of the law which did not meet the judge’s approval and he said, “Surely you do not claim that to the be the law?” “Well, Judge, I can’t say that I do, but I did not know how it would strike your Honor.”

Come to think of it, this practice may have survived the 19th Century.

Cahiers de Hoummous — “Cooks without Borders,” hummus insight bordering on wisdom

Cooks without Borders is a blog worth examining, if only for this one post:

Ottolenghi meets Zahav: Introducing the ultimate hummus recipe

She is asking the right questions of the right people.

And, she has also found two key secrets that MidLaw readers have seen before: (i) use canned chickpeas when you need to, and, when you do, (ii) you need to cook’em just a bit.

Cooks without Borders ihummusday-1431534933s a very good blog, even though it goes far afield from hummus. But, as good as that blog is, there is little or no commentary there about mid-size law firms, or about Tarboro or Edgecombe County, or about  North Carolina lawyers — and, there is nothing about the virtues of Guilford College, lifelong learning, or the liberal arts.

So, I’m not exactly sure why you’d read it. You need that stuff to go with your hummus.

Maybe you’d read it for the food commentary. Anyway, she’s got the hummus nuances about right.

MidLaw chauvinism

A photo by Charlie Harutaka. unsplash.com/photos/Gacd_XeSGQk

Photo by Charlie Harutaka.

Occasionally MidLaw has been characterized as diagnosing the obsolescence of mid-size firms. Sometimes we’re even said to be predicting the demise of mid-size firms. So I was glad that Kathryn Whitaker titled her JD Supra interview with me as “The Case for the Mid-Sized Law Firm.”

Of course, from time to time MidLaw does seek to understand the changes around us. And, from time to time it adverts to those who predict the end of the practice of law as we know it. Sometimes, MidLaw countenances those who proclaim the end of law firms altogether. But withal — MidLaw is solid – firm – in the conviction that mid-sized firms will be the last to go.

Kathryn quotes me as saying

A mid-sized firm is the best place on the planet to be a lawyer. The key is direct engagement with clients and colleagues.

Well, that’s what happens with oral interviews. You get all wound up and then you say something that you can’t take back. So, I am staked out. But, at least I believe what I said. No pivot here.

[In an earlier post, MidLaw proposed to republish Kathryn’s  JD Supra interview in this space, but I have come to the conclusion that the thing is just too long to put here, especially when it’s already been published over there. So, here’s another link instead.]

The main thing is: We will be the last to go!

Henceforth please understand: when MidLaw acknowledges the challenges that beset us, I am  simply setting the stage for us once more to demonstrate our resilience – to flex our agility. Remember, it was MidLaw who said these five years past, “Mid-Sized Firms Are the Only Hope for the Future of the Legal Profession,” and, later, more modestly, “I like MidLaw’s chances.”

More on the rise of robots, lawyers advised to get some emotions

robot2Here’s another article predicting that robots and artificial intelligence are getting ready to replace lawyers. Japanese scholar Hiroshi Ishiguro is the principal source.

Two highlights from this piece:

  • Robots are 5 to 10 years away from being able to do what lawyers do. “It’s easy to write a computer program for a lawyer.”
  • People trust robots more than lawyers. They are more comfortable talking to robots.

People simply like robots better than they do lawyers. And the clear implication is that robots have better ethics than lawyers do. It’s not only lawyers. Ishiguro says that in the future “about half of comedians are going to be robots.” (About half?)

Lawyers are advised to develop capacities for creativity, human connections, and emotion. Emotion, connection, creativity.

Or, get a hammer.

And, see Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, and of course, Richard and Daniel Susskind, The Future of the Professions, How Technology Will Transform the Work of Experts.

I hope law schools and bar associations are looking at the implications of these issues for those just entering the profession.Ten years from now is when it will really start to matter.