It’s Not the Bullet That Kills You, It’s the Hole – Reinvent Law NYC

8427079470_dc8d62792fI am not an attorney. Well, I am, licensed by the Great State of Ohio and everything, but I haven’t practiced.  In that I mean I haven’t opened up a law office.  Instead, I’ve clerked for a judge, worked in a public law library and now work for a non-profit. Instead of being “a lawyer”, I’ve spent my career helping the people that have fallen through the cracks of the legal system without crossing the line of giving “legal advice” because of the protectionist rules of the bar.

Paul Bunyan himself couldn’t carry the axe I have to grind with the legal profession, or more specifically, the lawyers who are straining credulity in their protests of change in order to maintain the status quo at the expense of so many under-served people.

So take that as a giant grain of salt with my review of Reinvent Law NYC.

As you’ve probably read by now, Gentle Reader, Reinvent Law NYC was a firehose of information, carried out in a series of 6 and 15 minutes talks.  Those going into the event expecting the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of Legal Tech were surely disappointed.   I wasn’t because…I’ve been to this sort of thing before.  If you’re a regular reader, you know I love me some unconferences.  So the first – and maybe biggest – benefit of Reinvent Law to the legal community is that it’s an introduction to another way of getting professional information.   It’s not a $750 CLE where you pay for the privilege of having coffee and doughnuts waiting for you when you roll in at 10am.   It’s free and it’s a little rough around the edges but it’s an opportunity to maybe learn something new or get a new idea.  And you don’t have to pass the cost of that CLE onto your clients in your hourly billing rates.

I saw leading up to it a bunch of complaints about the content and the diversity of speaker line up. It seems like there are certain themes about the Reinvent Laws and this one had more big law/general counsel than previous ones.  Not really relevant to my interests, but that’s okay.  Not my event.  And so my advice to people that want to hear about hourly billing or whatever is…host your own.  Most law schools would be happy to give you the space, I’m sure, and you can surely find like-minded people to speak for free.  As for the diversity issue, that’s trickier.  On one hand, I should just take my own medicine and host my own event if I want more diverse speakers.  On the other, I can’t help but be disappointed that in 2014 it’s still such a boys club.  As we say in feminism,  my future of law will be intersectional or it’s bullshit.

Still, to be safe, I wore my lucky Appalachian Oosik necklace so I’d blend in with the fellas.  BYOP, y’all. 🙂

I admit to having a general optimism about the technologically-enhanced possibilities awaiting the legal world.  Not blind optimism, mind you.  And as I’ve said before, there is no Unified Theory of New Law.   I think it’s possible and reasonable to think that there are some interesting innovations in predictive coding while at the same time finding the idea of  writing contracts in machine readable code to be laughable.  (No, literally…someone near me actually starting laughing at that idea.)   I went in expecting a general survey of some ideas and tools that are being considered in the New Law Space and in that I was very satisfied.  Didn’t agree with everyone and, frankly, didn’t care about what some people were talking about.  I don’t think I need to in order to consider the event a success.

Since there were so many speakers, and I honestly couldn’t absorb all of what they were saying given the amount and speed of talks, I can’t give a talk by talk review.   I realized afterwards that these events are a bit of Rorschach Test.  In some ways, you’ll see what you want to see.  Did you want to see a bunch of silly young people wearing jeans and hoodies on stage and <clutches pearls> legal start-ups who exist solely to suck the lifeblood out of poor attorneys and innocent people that should go to an attorney?  Or did you want to see the future of law and felt like you were at the AltLaw version of a tent revival?    Whatever you wanted, you probably got.

No matter what you wanted, I do hope that one idea and theme was absorbed by all.  One of my favorite talks was by Josh Kubicki, a legal start-up adviser.  I guess that’s the best way to describe his job – the legal start-up world and venture capital is so far beyond my interests and experience that it’s all a little fuzzy to me.  So that’s why it’s a bit of a surprise that I enjoyed it.  Most of his time was allotted to bringing up start-up founders onto the stage.  He said (paraphrasing), “some will succeed, some will fail, and that’s okay.”

Say it with me, y’all: Failure is okay.

Not only is it okay, but it’s expected.

And sometimes being too early looks like failure.  I think closing speaker Richard Susskind is a prime example of that.  He said in his law school thesis that computers would revolutionize legal practice.  So, has he been flogging a failed idea for 30 odd years or is it only in this decade that consumer grade computing power has caught up enough to make his ideas feasible?  I’ll let you decide.

I think the crux of the problem between the New Law Naysayers and the Alt Law world is this:   Naysayers want a definite answer and a guarantee of the path to be taking.  Alt Law types have no idea what’s going to happen – just that something is – and aren’t phased by that fact which leaves the naysayers, shall we say, unimpressed.

Oh, Christ, I’m stuck working with Lorises again.

In the Loris blog post linked above, I refer to the William Faulkner quote, “Them that’s going,” he said, “get in the goddamn wagon. Them that ain’t, get out of the goddamn way.” And I think that’s where I’m at now.  My biggest take away and change after Reinvent Law NYC is that I’m done trying to convince the Naysayers.  I’m gonna do what I do and when they end their miserable lives by having a heart attack at their desk in a few years, I’ll have about 30 more years to clean up the messes they made.  It’s the curse befalling my generation.

I don’t have a problem listening to criticism or reading opposing viewpoints.  One of the reasons I went to Reinventlaw NYC is because I think some of the ideas ARE bullshit, but I was open to having my opinion altered.  The problem is that I find so little substantive criticism coming from the Bar.  Some of it is because many alt-law ideas are in the idea stage and there’s not much to criticize yet.  But honestly, I think very few have actually looked at the underlying technology (or really understand it) and are going on a gut reaction based on fear.  Technology has been replacing human workers in legal practice for years…but they were librarians, secretaries and other non-important members of the system with nary a peep.  Now that it’s coming after lawyers and the billable hour…well, I guess shit just got real.

Please, somebody…without using strawmen or mis-statements of what people said or what a tool actually does, explain the problems with them. For example, why is predictive coding bad when attorneys everywhere have been relying upon Westlaw and other research tools algorithms to sort research results?  Why is automating the instructions in local court rules so that a non-attorney can understand them and create a usable document so terrible?  Why is it better for someone to go without a contract or enforceable agreement than one made by a cell phone app?

Unacceptable answers include: ‘because the CEO wears jeans at conferences’, ‘because lawyers have always done it’ and ‘because Fuck Richard Susskind, that’s why.’

And show your work.

Thinking that all the ideas presented at Reinvent Law and similar events are nothing for attorneys to worry about is the biggest tummy rub of all.  You’ll get no tummy rubs from me, attorneys.  You are really not that special.  (And I would like to know how one can simultaneously hold the ideas that law school teaches nothing practical and yet attorneys have something special so that there are functions that only they can do. Show your work there, too.)  There are many many processes currently performed by attorneys at an hourly rate that can and should be done either via non-attorneys or a computer program.  Especially because the vast majority of people that need these services are going without.

I know many of you don’t like metaphors or comparing the legal profession to others, but why is every single profession on the planet susceptible to technological enhancements and replacing human labor but law?

I do want to end on a positive note – there were four (I think?) speakers at Reinvent Law that were students at MSU College of Law.  They were some of the more interesting and put together presentations of the day.  Didn’t agree with all of them…(Google Glass guy…bless your heart, that ain’t never gonna happen.  But you’re thinking big, and that’s great!  Good job!) …but I don’t have to. I think back to my days in law school – which was only ten years ago and at a top tier (at the time), mind you – and can’t even imagine being offered this type of opportunity to think about the practice of law and be given the idea that it’s possible to change it.   I will happily get on their wagon as we leave a bunch of people in the dust behind.

Photo Credit: april-mo via Compfight cc


  1 comment for “It’s Not the Bullet That Kills You, It’s the Hole – Reinvent Law NYC

  1. February 11, 2014 at 7:37 pm

    Hey Sarah,

    First: Very bummed that we didn’t get to shake hands on Friday. I’m a big fan and would have been pleased to connect in person.

    On that note, and second: I hope that my quick thoughts on legal hacking were compelling. If you’d had the time I think that you would have REALLY enjoyed the legal hackathon that the NY, DC and Seattle legal hackers hosted Saturday and Sunday in Brooklyn. Robert Richards has aggregated a bunch of the content from the event here: but it was incredible. As soon as I finish the ReInvent Law write-up for my blog, I’m going to write one on the hackathon. Hope you’ll give it a read.

    Finally, to your point about fear, I wanted to toss your way my response to criticism of the ReInvent Law Silicon Valley event by “He Who Must Not be Named.” I actually met him on Friday and found him incredibly pleasant (the jury’s still out as far as whether I was or should have been surprised by that fact).

    In short, I agree that there is no one monolithic alt-law vision. In fact, those of us who attended and enjoyed ReInvent Law may not agree on or even hold one specific vision for the future of law but nearly all of us are united in our agreement that the current system is seriously failing lawyers, clients, and the general public and needs to be rethought in some significant ways. As a result, fear must be a big part of the reactiveness that we see from many alt-law haters because, as you rightly point out, there’s really not much for haters to be reactive to.



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