Hey there again, What’s Next readers! Law.com senior tech editor Ian Lopez back to help you keep pace with tech developments in the world of law. This week, we’ll take a look at the whirlwind of issues posed by virtual and augmented reality. We’ll also examine what Avvo’s decision to stop providing fixed-fee services means for other New Law rivals and why AI may not be so earth shattering for law firms after all. You can reach me at email@example.com or on Twitter: @IanMichaelLopez
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Ready for VR? Legal May Not Be
Virtual reality is already reshaping the way we interact with the world. Is the law ready for that shift?
Law professors Mark Lemley of Stanford and Eugene Volokh of UCLA explore some of the issues in an intriguing paper “Law, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.” Written last year, the paper is about to be published by the University of Pennsylvania Law Review and came on my radar with a tweet from Lemley:
The authors say they reacted to the Pokemon Go craze of 2016 by asking “Just imagine how many potential legal questions this raises!” They distinguish between “new takes on classic legal questions” and more novel controversies based on interactions that occur not in a physical jurisdiction, but in “private spaces with private rules.”
As Lemley and Volokh write: “[It] won’t be long before more and more of our interactions occur in virtual rather than real space (especially as avatars become realistic enough, and begin to reliably track user facial expressions): Work, training, sales, social life, education, exercise, even psychotherapy: VR will affect all these and more.”
The legal implications cross from civil to criminal. Take the case of virtual “street crimes”—that’s right, infractions like “disturbing the peace, indecent exposure, deliberately harmful visuals (such as strobe lighting used to provoke seizures in people with epilepsy), and ‘virtual groping.’” While Lemley and Volokh concede that users “generally needn’t worry about being really murdered in a virtual space,” nor “beaten or raped,” they note that “many of the early legal flashpoints” for VR will probably “involve nudity and sex.”
Consider a nude perp that “pops right in front of you, wherever you look,” in an instance where it’s impractical leave (say, your job is in a VR arena). The authors note that in the physical world, such a perp would “probably be arrested for indecent exposure or public lewdness,” but “whether this law can be applied in VR turns out to be surprisingly complicated.” The Supreme Court, they point out, held that “public displays of films containing nudity, even on drive-in theater screens visible from the street, where unwilling drivers and pedestrians may see the nudity,” are protected by the First Amendment.
Then there’s the question of jurisdiction. If a user in San Diego calls the police to file a noise complaint about a user in Dubai, is there a real likelihood that one police force will contact the other? Would something like one user’s initial triggering of another’s epileptic seizure “be enough to lead the police to be willing to intervene? Or would they likely not think this to be worth triggering a possible interstate or international investigation, when, at least going forward, the victim could avoid such harms through technological means?”
This may all seem far fetched, but perhaps not as much as you think. Augmented reality game Pokemon Go has remained largely popular since its launch, rarely dropping from Google Play and Apple’s App store’s top 100 daily downloads, reports Wired.
What’s more, legal experts are already predicting VR / AR will run into legal issues around intellectual property. As Venable counsel Kimberly Culp told Legaltech News, “We certainly see in the video game context players who want to use images of companies they like, or games that they like, and the appropriation of those images is arguably a copyright infringement if one wanted to make that argument.”
>> Look Ahead: We’re just on the precipice of VR, and legal institutions will take some time to work through issues that blur the lines between the virtual and physical worlds.
Lessons in a Legal Tech Retreat
Often in this newsletter we examine how technology is transforming the legal industry. This week, an instructive tale of what could be called first-mover disadvantagewhere innovators confront pushback from entrenched players or protectionist regulators. It’s a particular challenge for new entrants in the legal services industry, which has both.
Avvo—which can be counted alongside Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom in the “Big 3” of online providers—announced late last week it would discontinue its fixed legal services package in response to a flurry of state bar opinions and legal decisions that hampered its ability to operate in certain locations.
Avvo Legal Services had matched legal consumers with lawyers who provide services for a fixed fee—a portion of which was then directed to the platform. Various state bars and ethics boards have ruled the arrangement amounts to forbidden fee-sharing. Avvo, acquired earlier this year by Internet Brands, is throwing in the towel.
- Lynn Walsh, GC of Internet Brands, wrotein response to a request from the North Carolina State Bar:“As part of our acquisition of Avvo, we have evaluated the Avvo product offerings, and adjusted the Avvo product roadmap to align more comprehensively with our business and focus.”
But while the move may seem like a blow to online legal service providers, there seems to be no slowing down for new industry entrants. And some of them are designing their offerings with the blitz of bar opinions against Avvo and its contemporaries in mind.
➤ Self described “serial entrepreneur” Kevin Gillespie, for example, designed his upcoming Text A Lawyer service—essentially an Uber-like service for fielding legal questions —to be “as close as possible” to ethically compliant with rules of professional conduct in all 50 states.
Still he acknowledges there could be conflict with change-averse regulators in some states. As he told me recently: “There are a couple of states who will have their heads buried in the sand, their bar associations, I mean. [But] there’s nothing you can do about that.”
➤ Atlanta attorney Nick Gladd’s LegalSpark.com website lets users submit a question into the ether, which is then picked up by a lawyer, who will call the user within 10 minutes. Likewise, LawTrades Micro service allows users, for a flat fee, to shoot legal questions directly to lawyers for an email response.
➤ Another route around ethical complications is building your marketplace for lawyers, not consumers. Greg Garman took that approach with Lawclerk, creating a business-to-business platform for licensed attorneys for short-term projects.
The company allows lawyers to work together under ABA rules, and doesn’t curate or control prices. The freelancer’s payment is held in an escrow fund until a task’s completion, and Lawclerk takes a percentage, which the company insists doesn’t violate state ethics rules. As Garman explained to my colleague Rhys Dipshan: “The Supreme Court down to state bars have all uniformly held that with lawyers or your paraprofessionals, you can charge a markup.”
But it isn’t like the holy trinity of legal providers aren’t pushing ahead, despite challenges in some states. As LegalZoom chief marketing officer Laura Goldberg said in June: “We have spent a lot of time, and a lot of energy, and a lot of money educating and, when necessary, fighting the resistance. … But we have felt in the past two years that we’ve really won those fights and that there’s been maybe not an overt acknowledgement, but an acknowledgement that we are here to stay.”
>> Takeaway: State bars are likely to continue taking issue with these organizations, though the demand for online matchmaking solutions, both from clients and attorneys, seems to be strong.
Listen Up (Before You Drink the AI Kool-Aid)
If you’re tuned in to the conversation about the future of law, it can sometimes feel like the AI revolution is imminent. Well ALM senior analyst Nicholas Bruch isn’t buying it. “I tend to see AI as a lot of smoke and not much fire,” Bruch told Ben Hancock in this week’s Legal Speak podcast.
Bruch, who studies the legal services market, notes that AI works well in areas that involve large amounts of data, that require repetitive tasks, and where there are clear inputs and outputs. Using AI to control temperature makes sense for a power plant. Not so much for a law firm advising clients in murky areas … at least not yet.
More from Bruch: “I don’t think that much is at risk right now. Now does that mean law firms shouldn’t be watching this space? No, I think they should be keenly watching how quickly AI develops, how quickly it is deployed in other professional services spaces … Do I think law firms should be investing in AI? No.”
That’s it for this week! Keep reading for What’s Next!