Thursday, 2 July 2009

The legal profession needs reinventing

Lawyers and/or geeks, correct me if I'm wrong.

Laws are made (theoretically) by the people for the protection of the people's rights.

Yet a whole industry (okay, profession) has arisen that makes its money by charging people $2000+ for a template agreement.

They're able to do this because of inertia. Simply because that's the way they've always done it.

Isn't it time the legal profession came in for a bit of reinvention?

Here's the geeky part: laws are made for the people, (kind of) by the people. Just like an open source code base.

Others then interpret the code base in order to apply it to particular needs - as we've seen with the hundreds (thousands, even) Twitter apps that use Twitter's open API.

What if we took the same approach to law?

How much of law is just code, and not dependent on interpretations?

My Dream Scenario

I'm a business owner. I want to hire a contractor, or partner with someone on a project.

I want an agreement that is legally binding, but as an entrepreneur who does a lot of partnering, I don't want to need a lawyer on staff to get stuff done. I just want to do stuff.

Wouldn't it be great to go to a website where I and my potential partner in crime can go and fill in dynamic forms that automate the process of lawyering.

Where my partner and I work out the kind of business relationship we want to have, enter the necessary parameters, and then the software would show us areas we need to think about.

Instead of the anxiety of
  1. a trip to a lawyer's office
  2. a conversation where it's highly possible to get the details wrong (after all, you may not have all your paperwork with you)
  3. not knowing what you'll be paying until afterwards
you get
  1. an agreement, that reflects your wishes, that is legally binding.
And if there are any anomalies, you can contact a lawyer through chat on the site. Or send an email.

It's the kind of disruption that's hitting every single industry. Milk the system (music industry, lawyers) and people will live for the day when you will be automated.

Act like a valuable partner, live to serve, and move with the times, and you'll be closer to the original definition of profession.

(Awesome photo from Steve Punter!)


Craig Dewe said...

The problem with lawyers is they invented their own special language just so regular people couldn't do it... talk about protecting your business interests.

I'm actually curious why legal documents are made the way they are. It's not so they're unambiguous or we wouldn't need courts to decide. You'd just go to a judge and they'd say... "Nah, you're wrong."

Plus... what happens if a contract isn't written in lawyer gibberish? Do lawyers have a field day picking it apart or is it still legally binding?

Ok... ramble/rant stopped. I like your open source idea though Simon... just in normal language please :)

Simon said...

Thanks Craig, that's awesome feedback about language. I totally agree, and you might be interested to know there's a movement afoot to disobfuscate the kind of language that gets used in law:

Jack Yan said...

Craig, you are right. The language is basically a way to keep the institutions going. However, a legal document can be very simple and in plain English. All a court ultimately looks for when there is a dispute is whether there was consensus. The original reason legalese found its way into contracts was to get specific, but the result has been to distance them from everyday people so that the profession can make money.
   Any binding contract can legally be formed even based on a phone call. The issue really is proof.

Jack Yan said...

Simon, if I might answer your original post. Without getting too long in a response, it would be conceivable to have a site with plain-English contracts. One could use a Wiki to deal with the situations that the contract does not cover (which is, in some respects, why reports of law cases exist). Through adoption this could become a new convention that is understood by everyone and it would be legally binding in the “old” system.