Tag Archives: technology

Blockchain, Bartleby, and real property lawyers

Bartleby, The Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street, by Herman Melville.

It was published in 1835, but it is uncannily contemporary. Uncanny: Bartleby is a direct comment on the application of blockchain to the practice of law in the 21st Century – coming from a guy otherwise best known for his study of albino whales and certain broader aspects of the whaling industry in the 18th Century.

The book is an almost perfect thing for a holiday weekend. It is free. Published in 1835, you can download it at no charge. It is short. And it is written in an engaging style. It is funny.

Withal, you can still feel a sense of accomplishment from reading it. It’s said to be “the most noted of American short stories.” It’s among the most interpreted, commented upon, and alluded to stories ever. The Economist magazine maintains a blog named Bartleby. Bartleby.com is a major Internet repository of classic texts. The character, Bartleby, is a stereotype, a trope even. So, it’s good to know what’s behind all that.

Bartleby has become a mental model, a way of understanding the world.

And – 200 years down the road – it has become impossible to conclude that, with Bartleby, Melville was not commenting on the application of artificial intelligence to law practice – with precision and humor.

The story is told by a Wall Street real property lawyer, who describes himself as:

a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man.

The lawyer’s snug retreat has been threatened by changes in the marketplace and profession, and by accompanying changes in the law and legal system:

The good old office, now extinct in the State of New York, of a Master in Chancery, had been conferred upon me. It was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative. I seldom lose my temper; much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation at wrongs and outrages; but I must be permitted to be rash here and declare, that I consider the sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master in Chancery, by the new Constitution, as a—premature act;inasmuch as I had counted upon a life-lease of the profits, whereas I only received those of a few short years.

But, for the moment, the lawyer is experiencing an upswing in his business, and he needs to hire a fourth “legal copyist” or scrivener. Scriveners were 19th Century word processors. (Note for younger readers: until the late-Twentieth Century, word processors were human beings.)

So the lawyer hires a scrivener, Bartleby, who had lost his job as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office of the postal system due to a change in administration. Thereby hangs Melville’s tale of a man who copied legal documents, word-by-word and by hand, for his living.

Today, in the 21st Century, scriveners have been entirely replaced by small machines. Lawyers today – at least those in search of a snug retreat – are now the ones being re-ordered, if not largely eliminated, by changes in the law and by the advance of blockchain, artificial intelligence, and their supporting technologies, also delivered by small machines.

It’s hard to see how Bartley is not commenting on all that – although as Bartleby says, “I’d prefer not to.”

Possibly, the story is also a comment on contemporary politics. That’s for others to say. I’d prefer not.

Advertisements

Immigration restrictions said to cause recent declines in US technology, innovation, entrepreneurship

Brooks Pierce friend Vivek Wadhwa believes that US immigration restrictions are creating a reverse brain drain. He says skilled innovators come to the US for education, then get frustrated with US treatment of immigrants, and go home.

Vivek has tracked US restrictions on immigrants to the surge of start-ups in China and India — and he links that surge to recent declines in the US. So, he’s got the cure:

We need to make it easy for entrepreneurs
abroad to bring start-up firms to the United
States. One solution is to provide a ‘start-up
visa’ as a path to permanent residency. This
would perhaps be valid for five years, with
an upgrade to permanent residency dependent
on the firm’s employment of US workers.
The Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City,
Missouri has estimated that such a visa
would create 1.6 million jobs within 10 years
and boost the US economy by $224 billion
a year.

This sounds like a robust response to the challenges of globalism. Vivek says:

By becoming the best place in the world for entrepreneurs to study and work in, the United States could again be in the driving seat of technology innovation. Then we can share the resulting prosperity in a more equitable way to mitigate the anger of the electorate.

MidLaw is for that.

Law firms are surrounded. We must circle the wagons. But around what?

165hThe Financial Times recently published a very good, short article about legal technology: “Artificial intelligence disrupting the business of law.” It drives home the point that law firms are surrounded by new technologies, by alternative providers, by accounting firms providing legal services, and more. Big Law is under attack and it is beginning to fight back by investing in big technology.

MidLaw can never do that. Mid-size firms must look to third party providers to bring technology solutions.

But that’s fine. It frees mid-size firms to focus on their particular competencies, their core clients, and their home markets.

What does a mid-size firm do uniquely well? What is its focus? Get clear about that. There is a different answer for every firm. Context matters. Identity matters. Competence matters. Ethos matters.

The counter-intuitive next step after finding focus is to go beyond it. After you know who you are, the next step is to ask what goes with that? How do you grow it? What else can you be? What other services are natural expansions of core competencies?

And here is a key: growth beyond core competencies may not be limited to services that require a law license. The definition of the “practice of law” has limited relevance to the growth of a law practice. Do not allow the fact that you are a law firm delude you into the belief that you are limited to delivering legal services. Non-lawyer competitors are thriving based on the proposition that much that law firms do is not the practice of law.

Context matters:

  • who are you?
  • what are you good at?
  • what are you uniquely good at?
  • who are your clients?
  • what services can you provide to them, whether the practice of law or not?
  • what markets do you reach, can you reach?

The definition of the phrase “law firm” is shifting, shaking, and shrinking. Potential clients don’t see law firms as alternatives that all do about the same thing. And they don’t much care what the legal definition of  “the practice of law” may be.