Blockchain technology is truly transformative, impacting almost every industry. Over the next decade, this technology will significantly transmute the legal landscape as well – a process that has already begun.
Blockchain was initially considered a ridiculous notion – the idea of a digitized ledger beholden to no single owner was derided as unusable. However, the conversion of blockchain from joke to genuine is stark. For example, the top 50 banks in the world have unified in the realization this technology could disrupt the financial industry.
For those newer to blockchain technology, here’s a brief history: In its simplest form, the term “blockchain” refers to a peer-to-peer network of computers running a common software protocol that includes a database replicated on each computer connected to the network, where each user interaction (other than a query) is recorded as a new entry. (Each computer is called a “node,” while the database is often referred to as a “distributed ledger.”)
Further, each blockchain has a mechanism, referred to as a “consensus algorithm,” for ensuring that each copy of the ledger is updated in a consistent manner and is otherwise identical to all other copies of the ledger across the network. Thus, once a transaction has been recorded on the ledger, that record is shared among all the ledger’s users, and generally, it can’t be deleted or overwritten.
Is this technology ushering in an era that creates an undeniable source of truth for contracts and digital identity? How else might it impact how law is practiced and how the legal industry operates?
Central to any discussion of blockchain and its legal impact is understanding “smart contracts,” a term that has been around for decades but in this landscape has a specific meaning. A smart contract is a few lines of computer code that creates an “if/then” statement, e.g., if Amazon® stock is at $2,000 on January 1, 2019, then sell it. What is special about smart contracts on the blockchain is that once an agreement has been reached by two parties, it is programmed onto the platform and becomes self-executing and immutable – without any human intervention. For example, Ethereum, the first blockchain platform to popularize the idea of the smart contract, permits people to code “if/then” statements onto the blockchain or into a database with ease, allowing for infinite applications.
Clearly, self-executing legal documents will at some point be the norm. This is one of the most significant efficiencies that we will see in the transactional space.
Early on, legal industry experts saw that blockchain’s smart contract applications alone had the capability to revolutionize how transactional attorneys practice law, dramatically changing how they interact with documents and clients.
Indeed, it may change the way lawyers view their very function. “These systems embed legal logic, require review by legal counsel and raise unique issues around the proper scope of the lawyer’s review versus the engineer’s,” says Joe Dewey, partner at Holland & Knight. “On an ongoing basis, corporate counsel will need to ensure that the systems are updated when necessary to account for changes in law and company policy.”
Besides the revolution in smart contracts, blockchain is already changing many other aspects within the legal industry, such as:
Cryptocurrency and the Tokenization of Assets – The creation of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, which use the technology to keep track of ownership and trades, is how most people know blockchain. Digital tokens that represent real value or ownership of other tangible assets has become one of blockchain’s most widely watched developments. With companies and others issuing these tokens via Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) – raising more than $10 billion thus far this year – attention is being paid.
In the future, we could see all assets represented by these tokens, e.g., a car, house or painting, each a store of value represented by a token and making the transactions of leasing, renting or selling that asset far easier. This will have an impact on how we create and distribute wealth, further impacting the legal industry.
Digital Identity – With the 2017 Equifax breach of 160 million individuals’ private data, our Social Security numbers are nearing the end of their usefulness and a newer identifier may be created to replace them.
Recently at an MIT event, an organization named Sovrin described a new world where each of us will have a digital wallet containing all of our private information, including money, health records, log-ins to websites, birth certificate and driver’s license. Behind all of this information will be blockchain, enabled so there will no longer be a central point of breach where millions of people’s information can be exposed at once.
Legal Industry – Many have predicted that most administrative work now completed by law firms will be replaced with blockchain-enabled solutions – and in more specialized legal matters, such as due diligence, blockchain will have a similar oversized impact. Share ownership tables and company records will be transferred onto blockchain, allowing investors, acquirers and third parties to complete their diligence in less than one hour instead of the typical weeks or months. IPO registration offerings could be processed is less than a week instead of the typical six to nine months.
In a similar vein, Holland & Knight’s Dewey sees a significant change to law firms’ back offices. “When a law firm closes a loan for a bank it needs to send over copies of the executed loan documents and other post-closing deliveries… often, this doesn’t happen,” says Dewey.
Blockchain, however, would allow the law firm and the bank to share a common repository and tracking functionality, even if different front-end software solutions are used. “The increased efficiency of such a system would be significant and benefit both the firm and the bank.”
Clearly, blockchain is ripe for disrupting nearly every industry going forward, and the practice of law may feel the impact the most. Still, these are early days. Significant infrastructure must be built, and a great deal of legal guidance will be needed.
If there was ever a time to study blockchain technology and embrace it – and the opportunities it will create – the time for the legal industry is now.