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Tech geeks gather to reinvent the law

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Photo of Rachel Zahorsky
by Marc Hauser.

They gathered without ties or adherence to a century-old model for legal services. Instead, those in the crowd of tech geeks at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., were linked by their goal—leading a law revolution.

Forty speakers presented their visions of future law at ReInvent Law, a daylong conference in Silicon Valley in March. Led by Michigan State University law professors Dan Katz and Renee Newman Knake, the fast-paced event alternated between six-minute slideshow presentations and longer, 15-minute talks designed to teach, inspire and promote changes that will redefine the construction and delivery of legal services.

And given the significance of a conference held in Google’s backyard, greater open and affordable (or free) access to information was also a common thread.

“Lawyers are regulated to the point where it stifles innovation,” Knake told the ABA Journal. “There is a resistance among educators that if lawyers give away too much information, people won’t want their services.”

For the computer programmers, academics, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists at ReInvent Law, the future of legal practice includes Apple Store-inspired legal retail outlets where law concierges readily answer questions and pair consumers with local lawyers. Gone will be the days when individual cases are largely viewed as unique fact sets: Litigation will be driven by massive data collections that guide strategy and predict outcomes. And that information won’t be amassed in spreadsheets. Instead, it will be displayed in engaging visual graphics easily understood by lawyers and clients.

Legal work will continue to be deconstructed and amassed globally by specialists and machines geared for greater efficiency and accuracy. Outside investors, currently barred from profit sharing within U.S. law firms, are closely watching the successful deregulation of practice in the U.K. with aims to push for similar change here.


Knake and Katz are betting that law firms, new-model legal service providers and clients will clamor for the services of graduates of their MSU Law Laboratory (sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation) that offers classes for practicing attorneys and students, teaching hard technical and digital skills, and ways to adapt them to law practices.

The need for such training may be one thing attendees learned at the sessions. The fast pace and wide-ranging programming did have some in the audience confused about jargon and how the issues presented would relate to their practices.

But support for Katz and Knake’s vision was palpable among the casually dressed crowd of roughly 400 lawyers, vendors, academics and self-identified legal technologists.

However, while the profession largely acknowledges the reverberations of a paradigm shift, how quickly will it let go of an aging and costly system? And while many of the creative efforts seem aimed at large firms, how will these efforts play for solos and small firms?

When the answers to the questions may come is not certain. Meanwhile, two more large-scale ReInvent Law events are scheduled for London in June and New York City in November.

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