CodeX FutureLaw 2021 Conference Report

This year, the CodeX FutureLaw conference was, like all conferences over the last 12+ months, virtual. CodeX FutureLaw is billed as a day with “the community that is shaping the future of law,” and it is dense with innovators on stage and in the audience.

Going virtual suited CodeX FutureLaw just fine. It was presented over Zoom with only a few minor hitches of the kind we’re all used to by now. Since the conference is just one “stage” with one panel following another, video worked just fine. Although one of my favorite parts is catching up with friends and meeting people during the breaks and at happy hour, and then rounding up a group for a late dinner in Palo Alto. That was obviously missing this year.

The Future is Computational Law

The topics at CodeX FutureLaw, as you might expect from an academic conference, tend to be fairly esoteric. Most of the morning concerned computable contracts, which are starting to be relevant to international shipping conglomerates but not especially relevant to someone who wants to get divorced or buy a house. Not yet, anyway.

This is, in other words, leading-edge stuff. It isn’t the next-year future of law, but it sure could be the ten-years-from-now future of law.

The morning’s topic was computable contracts, or contracts with terms clear enough that we can compute whether they have been complied with. Usually this means terms that can be understood by computers, which is how computable contracts and computational law fit into legal informatics, which is why it gets so much time at CodeX, which is after all the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics.

Computable contract terms would obviously be a game-changer, replacing litigation with Boolean queries. This is necessary for things like self-executing contracts, where if the price of olive oil goes up, for example, the next payment in a contract for the sale of goods is automatically adjusted. Or if a blockchain-tagged shipping container arrives late to its destination, the carrier is automatically charged a previously agreed-on penalty.

But as I mentioned, this is probably years away. In 2021, the crowded morning panel (7 panelists on a panel scheduled for 60 minutes!) had a lively discussion. They argued about whether we need standardized contract terms (several projects are under way, including Contract Definition Language at CodeX and L4 from Legalese) or whether natural language processing can do the job (we’ll probably need it—and humans—as a backstop regardless). And they covered different ways we might change the way we write contracts (and statutes) so that computers and humans can understand them.

Computable contracts and laws will be amazing and transformative if they become commonplace, and listening to the panelists at CodeX FutureLaw it feels inevitable. But it would be a major shift in the way the law works, so there is a lot of work yet to do.

But Not Just Computational Law

The opening keynote was a leisurely presentation by Alan Kay, a computing pioneer who helped invent object-oriented programming and the graphical user interface. He pointed out that computer programs are “the Dunning-Kruger effect in action” because they are always fully confident they know what is going on when they really have no idea.

In the afternoon, startup founders and academics stock the Law, Education, and Experience (LEX) Talks panels to share lessons learned or just talk about the cool stuff they are working on. These are usually my favorite part of FutureLaw.

Here are a few things I took away from the afternoon talks:

  • Katie Atkinson made the case for explainable AI, especially in law. In other words, if an algorithm makes a legal decision, it must be able to explain why it made that decision. Law is no place for black boxes. (This could help mitigate the damage done by an algorithm operating under Dunning-Kruger delusions.)
  • Thibault Schrepal is working on “computable antitrust,” or the idea that we might be able to detect anticompetitive practices by using algorithms to analyze public data. This would be preferable than the current system, where 90% of antitrust detection comes from companies complaining about their competitors. (Paper.)
  • Dan Katz and Dirk Hartung talked about their research into the relationship between the growth of regulations relative to law. They measured the complexity of US and German statutes over 25 years, and compared it to the growth in regulations. They found that “at the federal level, the American legal system is increasingly dominated by regulations, whereas the German legal system remains governed by stautes.” (Paper.)

In the final panel, panelists paid tribute to Deborah Rhode, who, according to her New York Times obituary, “transformed the field of legal ethics from little more than a crib sheet for passing the bar exam into an empirically rich, morally rigorous investigation into how lawyers should serve the public.” Rhode was a featured speaker at the last CodeX FutureLaw I attended, and she spoke forcefully against protectionist measures like unauthorized practice of law prohibitions. This year, her colleagues like Gillian Hadfield spoke about her legacy alongside beneficiaries of that legacy like Erin Levine.

Published on April 9th, 2021. Last updated on January 11th, 2022, by Sam Glover.