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Can Humans End the Anthropocene?

There has been a great deal of buzz and attention in the science and policy communities over the idea that Earth has left the Holocene epoch and entered the Anthropocene, a proposed epoch that begins when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. What is unique about the Anthropocene is that it is human-driven. We started it through the massive impacts our industry, resource extraction, agriculture, and sheer numbers have had on the biosphere. The question is whether we can end it, and if so, how and at what cost to humanity?

In a fascinating article in Science on this theme, Francois Sarrazin and Jane Lecomte outline five different scenarios for how humans handle the Antrhopocene based on how we treat our fellow species. In the most dystopian (for Earth) scenario, which they call the Blind Anthropocene, we give up on conservation of ecosystems and engage in runaway consumption to serve human needs only. In a range of three Deliberate Anthropocene scenarios, humans engage in conservation efforts, but for different goals. In the most human-focused scenario we conserve biodiversity to produce flows of provisioning (e.g., extracting timber) and regulating (e.g., wetlands providing sediment capture) ecosystem services benefitting human communities. An intermediate scenario adds protection of wilderness and landscapes, but only to enhance cultural (e.g., recreation) ecosystem services. In the most progressive Deliberate Anthropocene scenario, conservation is aimed at inter-generational fitness of humanity, which would focus on maintaining sustainable flows of regulating ecosystem services even at the expense of satisfying wants of present society.

Most environmental policy discourse focuses on which of these four scenarios, all of which are anthropocentric, should guide our decisions and actions. As Sarrazin and Lecomte argue, however, none of these approaches, not even the most aggressive Deliberate Anthropocene conservation scenario, will bring the Anthropocene to an end. They argue that a fifth scenario, which they call the Deliberate Overcoming of the Anthropocene, will be required. In this “evocentric” scenario, humans design conservation to ensure not only the fitness of future generations of humans, but also to ensure the future evolutionary fitness of all other species. Only if we can return other species to such an evolutionary trajectory—one not so influenced by human impacts—could we begin to entertain the idea that the Anthropocene is drawing to a close, thanks to us.

Their proposal is, to say the least, radical. What would it take to accomplish it? What laws and policies would we need to put in place now to start turning the Anthropocene around—to actually end rather than soften its impacts—and how long would it take? Is it even possible?

Regardless of its audacity, their proposal could prompt a useful thought exercise to test just how progressive even our most progressive conservation policies truly are. It could also provide a reference point for measuring how deeply entrenched the Anthropocene moves over time. It is at the very least worth thinking about.

Can AI Make AI Obey the Law?

Amitai Etzioni, the famous sociologist, and his son Oren Etzioni, the famous computer scientist, have posted an intriguing paper on SSRN, Keeping AI Legal. The paper starts by outlining some of the many legal issues that will spin out from the progression of artificial intelligence (AI) in cars, the internet, and countless other devices and technologies–what they call “smart instruments”–given the ability of the AI programming to learn as it carries out its mission. Many of these issues are familiar to anyone following the bigger AI debate–i.e., whether it is going to help us or kill us, on which luminaries have opined both ways–such as who is liable if an autonomous car runs off the road, or what if a bank loan algorithm designed to select for the best credit risks based purely on socially acceptable criteria (income, outstanding loans etc.) begins to discriminate based on race or gender. The point is, AI smart instruments could learn over time to do things and make decisions that make perfect sense to the AI but break the law. The article argues that, given this potential, we need to think more deeply about AI and “the legal order,” defined not just as law enforcement but also as including preventive measures.

This theme recalls a previous post of mine on “embedded law”–the idea that as more and more of our stuff and activities are governed by software and AI, we can program legal compliance into the code–for example, to make falsifying records or insider trading impossible. Similarly, the Etzionis argue that the operational AI of smart instruments will soon be so opaque and impenetrable as to be essentially a black box in terms of sorting out legal concerns like the errant car or the discriminatory algorithm. Ex ante human intervention to prevent the illegality will be impossible in many instances, because the AI is moving too fast (see my previous post on this theme), and ex post analysis of the liabilities will be impossible because we will not be able to recreate what the AI did.

The Etzionis’ solution is that we need “AI programs to examine AI programs,” which they call “AI Guardians.” These AI Guardians would “interrogate, discover, supervise, audit, and guarantee the compliance of operational AI programs.” For example, if the operational AI program of a bank called in a customer’s loan, the AI Guardian program would check to determine whether the operational program acted on improper information it had learned to obtain and assess. AI Guardians, argue the Etzionis, would be superior to humans given their speed, lower cost, and impersonal interface.

I get where they are coming from, but I see some problems. First of all, many determinations of legality of illegality depend on judgement calls–balancing tests, the reasonable person standard, etc. If AI Guardians are to make those calls, then necessarily they will need to be programmed to learn, which leads right back to the problem of operational AI learning to break the law. Maybe AI Guardians will learn to break the law too. Perhaps for those calls the AI Guardian could simply alert a human compliance officer to investigate, but then we’ve put humans back into the picture. So let’s say that the AI Guardians only enforce laws with bright line rules, such as don’t drive over 50mph. Many such rules have exceptions that require judgment to apply, however, so we are back to the judgment call problem. And if all the AI Guardians do is prevent violations of bright line rules with no exceptions, it’s not clear they are an example of AI at all.

But this is not what the Etzionis have in mind–they envision that “AI Guardians…will grow smarter just as operational AI programs do.” The trick will be to allow the AI Guardians to “grow smarter” but prevent the potential for them as well to cross the line. The Etzionis recognize this lurking “Who will guard the guardians” question exists even for their AI Guardians, and propose that all smart instruments have a “readily locatable off switch.” Before long, however, flipping the off switch will mean more than turning off the car–it will mean turning off the whole city!  

All of this is yet more Law 2050 food for thought…  

 

 

Our Grandchildren Redesigned, by Michael Bess – A Legal Futurism Treasure Chest

As you may have noticed (or if not, now you know), I haven’t posted anything on the site for a while. I have all the typical excuses: busy at work, family stuff, the holidays, etc. But truth be told, not much grabbed me. That changed when I read Our Grandchildren Redesigned, the latest by my Vanderbilt colleague and friend, historian Michael Bess. As a dabbler in legal futurism, Bess’s book is a treasure chest to me. The subtitle says it all: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future.

In Redesigned, Bess pulls off what others have tried but failed to deliver. Using what is known today about the past, present, and trajectory of pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics, and genetics and epigenetics (plus nanotechnology, AI, robotics, and synthetic biology), Bess constructs plausible scenarios of how humans will use these technologies to “improve” on our biology and how society will respond. There is no science fiction in the book, no extreme claims, no utopian or dystopian indulgence. Bess the careful, acclaimed historian has turned his sights on the bioengineered future with the same measured, thoughtful, methodical attention to detail and cogency. And one could spin an endless stream of questions about the law’s future from his scenarios, many of which Bess signals or even digs into.

Bess opens the book (and its ongoing website) with three premises. First, “It’s almost certainly going to happen.” By “it” he means the convergence of the technologies towards the capacity for human physical and mental engineering through drugs, biotech devices, and epigenetic manipulations. Lest there be any doubts, chapters two through five put them to rest. Second, “It will bring both opportunity and peril.” Sure, you might say, so have smartphones. So what? But third, “Its impact will be radical.”  Of course, it’s this third of his premises that might attract the charge that it’s Bess who is being radical, but by the end of the book my only concern was that he didn’t play the scenario out as fully crazy as it could get!

I’m not going to review Bess’s account of the technologies or even the scenarios he builds in any detail. Read the book! Rather, what makes the book of such tremendous potential impact and of value to legal futurists is Bess’s engagement of the social and ethical choices that will have to be made as redesigning becomes possible, then practical, then popular, and eventually part of all our (grandchildren’s) lives. There are three big themes Bess develops in this regard.

First, this will not happen overnight. Many of the legal issues one can envision will flow from the transitional nature of the uploading of redesign technology into society. New technologies will at first be expensive, thus furthering already pervasive wealth disparities. Some technologies will need to begin at young ages to be effective, creating inter-generational disparities. Of course, responding to social disparity is nothing new to the law, but we are not talking about who can afford smartphones, we are talking about who gets the smart pills, the fully-functional artificial eye, the tweaked gene expression for holding off cancer, and so on. Bess’s concern is on target—the redesign disparity could begin to rip apart society as it comes online. How will law respond?

Second, Bess explores issues that will be inherent in the new normal in which a substantial level of redesign is eventually available to the masses. If the average age moves to 150, it takes little imagination to play out what that could mean for employment, marriage, welfare, the environment, prisons, you name it? And if people can be better at anything, with potentially vast improvement on the horizon, what does that mean for sports, warfare, science, the arts, you name it? Plus, in all likelihood we can’t become the bast at everything, so, much as children do today, we will likely see specializations that produce even more extreme differences between groups than are possible today. Will the best tennis players have anything in common with the best flutists?  And what about people who, for moral or religious reasons, choose not to participate? What will we do with them? Lots of law change in store!

Third, Bess asks what we should do now to shape the new normal, if we can. Bess believes, and I agree, that getting control of the direction and intensity of redesign will be hard, but necessary. If the U.S. backs off on moral grounds (e.g., as with stem cell research), what’s to stop North Korea? And if we set international limits, domestic controls on private experimentation will need to be rigorous. And what would the limits look like? Bess suggests seven key challenges, including controlling radical inequality, defending mental privacy, and avoiding commodification of the human being. Again, law will have to be engaged.

I should emphasize that there is far more to Bess’s work than I have let on in this law-focused account. There is a profoundly philosophical dimension, as Bess asks early in the book whether we should redesign and then develops a set of human flourishing factors that he believes should guide our way. Bess animates his descriptive scenarios with short fictional vignettes of life and lives, and even some laws, in the redesign future. By no means corny or out of place, these allow the reader to personalize the impacts of a redesign future. In my case, I found myself drifting into thought about the legal future as well. In short, all I have hoped to do here is scratch the surface of Bess’s brilliant work to whet your Law 2050 appetites.

Bottom line, if you want to get a picture of how being a human will take a sharp turn by around 2050, Our Grandchildren Redesigned is your starting point.

The Ecosystem Services Framework Gains the White House as a Fan

Just as I focus my students in Law 2050 on spotting and following trends, I try to do the same in my field of environmental and natural resources law. One of the tends I have followed for years is the emergence of the “ecosystem services” framework. Some significant recent developments warrant this post:

The ecosystem services framework focuses on the economic values humans derive from functioning ecosystems in the form of services rather than commodities, such as water filtration, pollination, flood control, and groundwater recharge. Because many of these services exhibit public good qualities, ecologists and economists began forging the concept of ecosystem services valuation in the 1990s as a way of improving land use and resource development decision making by ensuring that all relevant economic values were being taken into account when making decisions about the conservation or development of “natural capital” resources. Research on ecosystem services exploded onto the scene and has been going strong since in ecology, economics, and other disciplines bearing on environmental and natural resources management.

The policy world quickly picked up on the ecosystem services idea as well. For example, in 1998 the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report emphasizing the importance of the nation’s natural capital. The United Nations embraced the concept at the global scale with its Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which assessed the status of ecosystem services throughout the world and explicitly tied ecosystem services to human prosperity.

By contrast, uptake in law was slow to come. Almost two decades after the PCAST report, it is fair to say that the ecosystem services concept has made few inroads into “law to apply” status in the form of legislative and regulatory text. In one prominent example, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a joint regulation in 2008 overhauling their policies on compensatory mitigation under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the agencies adopted a watershed-scale focus and declared that compensatory mitigation decisions would take compensating losses to ecosystem services into account. See 33 C.F.R. 332.3(d)(1). That and the few other federal initiatives to use ecosystem services in decision making, while on the rise, have been ad hoc and uncoordinated.

But that is set to change. On October 7, 2015, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and Office of Science and Technology (OST) issued their Memorandum for Executive Departments and Agencies on Incorporating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making (the Memorandum). If fully implemented, the Memorandum has game-changer potential to infuse the ecosystem services concept deep into the fabric of environmental and natural resources law.

The Memorandum “directs agencies to develop and institutionalize policies to promote consideration of ecosystem services, where appropriate and practicable, in planning, investments, and regulatory contexts.” The goal of doing so is “to better integrate in Federal decision making due consideration of the full range of benefits and tradeoffs among ecosystem services associated with potential Federal Actions.” The scope of the policy goal is broadly stated to include all federal programmatic and planning activities including “natural-resource management and land-use planning, climate-adaptation planning and risk-reduction efforts, and, where appropriate, environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other analyses of Federally-assisted programs, policies, projects, and regulatory proposals.” To facilitate agencies in achieving its policy goals, CEQ will prepare a guidance document outlining best practices for: (1) describing the action; (2) identifying and classifying key ecosystem services in the location of interest; (3) assessing the impact of the action on ecosystem services relative to baseline; (4) assessing the effect of the changes in ecosystem services associated with the action; and (5) integrating ecosystem services analyses into decision making. In the interim, agencies are by March 30, 2016, to have submitted documentation describing their current incorporation of ecosystem services in decision making and establishing a work plan for moving toward the goals of the policy directive. Id. at 4. Meanwhile, CEQ has assembled a task force of experts from relevant agencies to craft the best practices implementation guidance, which will be subject to interagency review, public comment, and, by November 2016, to external peer review consistent with OMB’s information quality procedures and standards. Once the guidance is released, agencies will adjust their work plans as needed. The Memorandum also acknowledges that “ultimately, successful implementation of the concepts in this directive may require Federal agencies to modify certain practices, policies, or existing regulations to address evolving understanding of the value of ecosystem services.”

Environmental lawyers should watch the Memorandum’s implementation over the next year closely, for if agencies follow its directives faithfully and fully the ecosystem services framework will be teed up to permeate the policies and regulations of a broad range of federal programs that touch our scope of practice. In particular, incorporation of best practices for ecosystem services impact assessments under NEPA would project the ecosystem services framework into state, local, and private actions receiving federal agency funding or approval. To be sure, there is plenty of work to be done before one can evaluate the Memorandum’s impact on the mainstreaming of the ecosystem services framework into environmental law. Significantly, the timeline of the Memorandum directives will deliver the best practices implementation guidance in the final days of the Obama administration, leaving it to the incoming administration to determine where to take it. Nevertheless, simply by declaring the incorporation of ecosystem services into federal agency decision making as an Executive policy and laying out the tasks and timelines for doing so, the issuance of the Memorandum has done more to advance the ecosystem services framework as a legal concept than has any previous initiative. And in the long run, the reality is that the ecosystem services framework is by now so deeply ingrained in ecology, economics, and other disciplines of environmental and natural resources management, it will become increasingly difficult for agencies not to incorporate it. Hence I believe I can safely predict that the momentum the Memorandum will give for mainstreaming the ecosystem services framework into environmental law will not easily be turned around.  Stay tuned!

Will the Next Generation of Lawyers Embrace or Resist Innovation?

Today I appeared on a forum Vanderbilt Law School holds each spring for 1L students to familiarize them with the various curricular programs we have here, of which there are many (see list here).  I had the pleasure of introducing our new Program on Law & Innovation for the first time at this forum, giving the students an overview of our themes, faculty, courses, and activities. They seemed to get it, and showed genuine interest.

When I returned to my office I thumbed through the new 2015 Report on the State of the Legal Market published by the Georgetown Law Center for the Study of the Legal Profession and Peer Monitor. One startling passage (though it’s not news) reports that although very high percentages of surveyed law firm leaders agree that they are likely to continue to see demand for efficiency, price competition, commoditized legal work, and competition from non-traditional legal service providers (well above 80% in each case), only 40 percent of their firms have done anything strategic to achieve greater efficiency and only 30 percent have significantly changed pricing strategy. The report goes on later to examine different explanations for the resistance of law firms to change notwithstanding that most law firm leaders get it: lawyers are conservation; law firms are not designed to invest in innovation; why should a senior partner change rather than maximize his or her final years of profits; etc. The bottom line is that it is largely due to people and human nature, not law firms per se.

I am reminded of Max Plank’s famous observation: A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. Of course I am not hoping for any senior equity partners to die. Rather, I am hoping that our Program and others like it popping up at other law schools will equip our graduates to “be familiar with it” when it comes to initiating and navigating necessary change in their law firms as leadership shifts to them. If we can accomplish even just that, I will feel this was a worthwhile investment of the Law School’s and my resources.

Regulatory Innovation and the Sharing Economy

My Law 2050 energy has been devoted the past month to grading a pile of fabulous papers my students compiled on a broad variety of topics and planning some exciting new developments here at Vanderbilt. More on the latter, later. For now, some observations on several trends in law based on the student papers.

The major writing assignment in the law 2050 class requires students to identify an “inside law” or “outside law” trend and cover it in a blog post, client alert latter, and bar journal article. The purpose is twofold: (1) expose them to writing styles their future employers are likely to expect them to use for professional development and (2) encourage entrepreneurial thinking about how to “jump on” emerging themes and opportunities.

As I have mentioned before, the breadth of “outside law” topics was impressive. Three major themes dominated, however: (1) regulating the so-called sharing economy; (2) weird new technologies; and (3) personal data privacy.  Taking them one at a time, this post covers the sharing economy, a snarl of legal issues that ought to keep plenty of lawyers busy for the foreseeable future.

The engine of the sharing economy, no surprise, is the internet and its capacity to link people. Sharing economy companies leverage this capacity to match supply and demand primarily for services, the big three so far being rides (e.g., Uber), rooms (e.g., Airbnb), and odd jobs and errands (e.g., TaskRabbit).

Two opposing narratives have dominated the debate over how to receive the sharing economy. In one, sharing economy companies project themselves as innovative middlemen who merely use smart phone technology to hook up willing service providers with those in need of a ride, place to stay, or broken pipe fixed. In the other narrative, regulated companies in the traditional economy who see the sharing economy as completion accuse its participants of illegally and unfairly skirting rules and regulations running the gamut from licensing to taxes to employment. Which is it? It seems like a little of both to me, which is what has made the sharing economy a regulatory challenge.

The rhetoric of the sharing economy began with its name, because it is not at all about sharing—it’s about charging for services. When ride-share companies ramped up around the nation, for example, they took the position that it was simply about using phones and their smart software to match people who needed a ride with people who for whatever reason felt like driving people around—any exchange of money from passenger to driver was a “donation.” But now with surge pricing and capitalized values in the billions, the sharing economy looks much more like a business model. The other preposterous premise of the sharing economy was that it is quaint and benign, presenting no concerns that should catch the eye of regulation.

The sharing narrative fell apart pretty fast, however, and the rhetoric shifted to fending off the regulatory wolves.  Questions raised about the ride-room-errand trio have been so obvious, however, it’s clear the inventors of the sharing economy decided just to go forward without asking permission and wait to see what hit the fan, when, and where. After all, it’s no accident that we regulated rides, rooms, and errands for hire, and for good reason—just check into the history of taxis in major cities in the early 1900s and you’ll find plenty of horror stories. Even a short typology of legal and regulatory issues these new upstarts present is chock full of issues:

  • business licensing and taxes:  Must Uber or its drivers be licensed as a taxi; must Airbnb or its “landlords” pay hotel taxes
  • employment status: Are Uber’s drivers and TaskRabbit’s tasklers independent contractors or employees?; Who payes TaskRabbit’s tasker employment taxes?
  • health & safety regulation: Are Airbnb accommodations subject to health regulations and the ADA
  • insurance and liability: Who is liable when an Airbnb “tenant” burns down the apartment or an Uber driver assaults a passenger or drives into a building?
  • zoning: What if local zoning does not allow hotels in a particular area–can Airbnb operate there?
  • private contracts: What is homeowner association bylaws or an apartment lease restrict rentals and sublets?

On the other hand, it’s just as clear that the regulatory system has gone far beyond managing the problems presented by unrestricted ride, room, and errands providers to become part of the problem, protecting the taxis, hotels, and other services industries as much if not more than it protects consumers. Surely the regulated companies do deserve some protection in return for bearing the burden of regulation, such as the fixed rates taxis must charge regardless of demand. But if I can get an Uber driver at a busy downtown location in one minute, have him or her drive me safely back to my reasonably-priced Airbnb apartment I rented for the weekend late the prior week, and get someone over quickly to clean up the place before I turn in the key, what’s wrong with that?  It’s hard to get that from the traditional regulated economy. And if the traditional regulated economy isn’t meeting demand, it’s worth taking a step back to ask how to improve the system.

So we have a regulatory conundrum on our hands: consumers love the sharing economy, but want some acceptable level of security and protection; entrenched regulated providers in the traditional economy such as taxis and hotels hate the sharing economy, but can’t deliver its same level of convenience because of regulation; government sees licensing fee and tax revenue slipping away, and can’t please both consumers and the regulated industries.

At the two extremes, one approach would be to unflinchingly apply all the status quo rules of the traditional regulated economy to the sharing economy, which would largely eliminate it, and the other would be to simply turn a blind eye and let tort law sort out the provider-customer relations in the sharing economy, which will cut deep into the stability of the regulated ride, room, and errands providers of the traditional economy. For a while it looked as if the live and let live model was prevailing, as companies like Uber and Airbnb shot into hipster prominence. More recently, however, the sharing economy has taken serious hits, such as Uber’s complete ban in Nevada and fines in San Francisco and Airbnb’s tangles with New York, to name just a few.

A compromise would be to think hard about innovative regulation for the sharing economy. Eric Biber and I, for example, have suggested using a general permitting approach to segregate different segments of sharing economy markets in terms of level of activity and corresponding level of regulation. Or, as Shrai Shapiro has suggested, intermediate forms of regulation, fees, and licensing could be used to open markets to the sharing economy in limited ways. Nashville, for example, recently allowed Uber to operate at the City’s airport, but subjected it to registration, insurance, inspection, and background check requirements.

Either way, its clear that the sharing economy is not going away, but neither are consumer protection regulation, licensing fees, and taxes. The legal issues remain numerous and unresolved. I was glad to see several of my students take hold of this theme and delve deeply and insightfully into its future.

In Appreciation of the Fall 2014 Law 2050 Class Guest Speakers

Classes are over here at Vanderbilt Law School, and I am happy to say that the second edition of my Law 2050 class was chock full of great guest speakers—21 in all. Because they make up such a key component of the class, I want to thank them all again. This year’s roster included the following presentations and speakers, in order of appearance:

Law Firm Leaders Panel: Andy Bayman (King & Spalding), John Grenier (Bradley Arant), and Todd Rolapp (Bass Berry Sims)

In-House Counsel Panel: Mike McCarthy (Quantumscape), Celia Catlett (Texas Roadhouse), and Sara Finley (CVS/Caremark)

Law Firm Globalization and Consolidation: Steve Mahon and Mark Ruehlmann (Squire Patton Boggs)

Introduction to Legal Project Management: Larry Bridgesmith (ERM Legal Solutions and Program Coordinator, Vanderbilt Program on Law and Innovation)

Introduction to E-discovery and Information Technolog: Marc Jenkins (Cicayda and Vanderbilt Law Adjunct)

Alternatives to Big Law Panel: Annie Passino (Southern Environmental Law Center), Austin Payne, (Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation), and Alex Scarbrough Fisher (Thompson Burton)

Demonstration of Lex Machina: Jeremy Mulder (Lex Machina)

Introduction to and Workshop on Neota Logic: Kevin Mulcahy (Neota Logic)

The Technological Future: John Lutz (Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor for Information Technology)

Demonstration of Casetext: Jake Heller (Casetext)

Lean Law: John Murdoch (Bradley Arant) and Prof. Nancy Hyer (Vanderbilt Owen School of Business)

Law Firm Economics: Patrick Cavanaugh (Blank Rome) and Walt Burton (Thompson Burton)

Thank you all—the class would not be what it is for the students without your involvement!

JB

Still in Post-Normal Times (not the New Normal) in the Legal Industry

I see many references to the legal industry finding itself in a “new normal,” most prominently as the title of Patrick Lamb’s and Paul Lippe’s thoughtful ABA Journal column, but also in plenty of other places. I have used the term frequently myself. But what’s “normal” about the “new normal” in law? After all, normal means “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” My sense is that there is a lot going on in legal practice these days that is unusual, atypical, and unexpected. So, not normal.

An alrternative description—one I will use henceforth—is that the legal industry is in Post-Normal Times. The concept of Post-Normal Times was developed in 2010 by scientist Ziauddin Sardar to describe the turbulent and changing times we are living in. He based his idea on the work of Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz, who in the early 1990s challenged conventional science with their model of Post-Normal Science as a methodology of inquiry that is appropriate for cases where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent.”  This graph illustrates their focus on two variables—decision stakes and systems uncertainties—defining the environment for using Post-Normal Science as a methodology:

Post-normal_Science_diagram

Applied science and other traditional problem-solving strategies do not work well in the context of long-term issues where there is less available information than is desired by stakeholders. Post-Normal Science advocates creating an “extended peer community” consisting of all those affected by an issue who are prepared to enter into dialogue on it.

Building on that theme, Sardar defines Post-Normal Times as “an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense.”  He elaborates on the nature of Post-Normal Times:

All that was ‘normal’ has now evaporated…. To have any notion of a viable future, we must grasp the significance of this period of transition which is characterised by three c’s: complexity, chaos and contradictions. These forces propel and sustain postnormal times leading to uncertainty and different types of ignorance that make decision-making problematic and increase risks to individuals, society and the planet. Postnormal times demands, this paper argues, that we abandon the ideas of ‘control and management’, and rethink the cherished notions of progress, modernisation and efficiency. The way forward must be based on virtues of humility, modesty and accountability, the indispensible requirement of living with uncertainty, complexity and ignorance. We will have to imagine ourselves out of postnormal times and into a new age of normalcy—with an ethical compass and a broad spectrum of imaginations from the rich diversity of human cultures.

Ziauddin Sardar, “Welcome to postnormal times,” Futures 42(2010) 435-444.

That sounds a lot more like the legal industry’s current predicament than “new normal” conveys. If so, are humility, modesty, and accountability at least part of the answer for law’s imagining itself out of postnormal times and into a new age of normalcy?

Law 2050 Students Take a Deep Dive into Neota Logic

Many, many years ago, when I was practicing environmental law with Fulbright & Jaworski in Austin, I was unfortunate enough to have a number of clients whose needs required that I master the EPA’s utterly convoluted definition of solid and hazardous waste. One summer I assigned a summer associate the task of flowcharting the definition. Over the course of the summer we debugged draft after draft until, finally, we had a handwritten flowchart that flawlessly worked any scenario through the definition step-by-step. It was ten legal-sized, taped-together pages long. It worked, but it wasn’t very practical.

If only we had had Neota Logic back then!  Last week, in my Law 2050 class, Kevin Mulcahy, Director of Education for Neota, demoed their product over the course of two classes and a 3-hour evening workshop.  Prior to the session I had assigned the class the exercise of flowcharting the copyright law of academic fair use. Each student prepared a flowchart and explained its logic, then six groups collaborated on final work products. I sent the group flowcharts to Kevin so he could use them to explain the Neota platform in a context familiar to the students.

Neota is a software program that allows the user to translate legal (or other) content into a user-friendly interactive application environment, much like Turbo Tax does for tax preparation. Neota allows the content expert to build the app with no coding expertise, with end products that are quite sophisticated in terms of what can be embedded in the app and how smoothly the app walks the user through the compliance logic. Example apps Kevin offered covered topics as varied as songwriter rights to Dodd-Frank compliance.

The first class period Kevin introduced Neota and then walked through each of the group flowcharts to analyze how each one broke down the fair use compliance problem. The core theme was how important it is to develop the output scenarios first. In the fair use exercise, there are several yes/no questions specific to educational uses, and then a multi-factored balancing test applies in the event none of those binary questions leads to a fair use outcome. Like any balancing test, this one yields a range of scenarios from very likely fair use to very likely not fair use. We spent a good deal of time thinking about how to design an app component to capture the balancing test.

In the evening workshop a group of 20 students acted as content experts to guide Kevin through the process of building the fair use app, much in the way a legal expert might work worth a Neota software expert. The most striking learning experience from this session, besides the deep look under Neota’s hood, was how the process of building the app actually sharpened our fair use compliance logic. We tested various approaches for capturing the balancing test and conveying output scenarios with substantive explanations for the user.

The next day the entire class regrouped to go over the workshop product, allowing those who could not make the workshop due to conflicting classes the chance to get a good feel for both the flexibility and precision the Neota software offers. Thinking back to my perfectly accurate but impractical ten-page flowchart of the EPA’s waste definition, I could envision how that and many other tasks that required developing a compliance logic could have been leveraged into apps I could have shared with other attorneys in my firm as well as clients.

My Law 2050 students clearly got a lot out of the immersion in using Neota to attack a compliance logic problem. I can’t thank Kevin and Neota enough for the time he invested in preparing for and delivering what was an excellent hands-on and instructive workshop. By the way, the EPA now has an online decision tool for navigating through the waste definition. I think they might want to get in touch with Neota!

Don’t Cry for the Global 100

The October 2014 issue of The American Lawyer includes its annual rundown of the Global 100 – the top 100 law firms around the world based on revenue – and I must say there’s quite a bit of legal spend going on out there! My ballpark estimate of the total revenue of the top 100 firms is close to $100 billion. Profits per partner at the Global 100 averaged $1.61 million in 2013, which is up (yes, up) 5.3 percent over 2012 (which was up 0.7 percent over 2011), with 70 firms averaging over $1 million. As expected, US firms took the biggest share of profits. Interestingly, some of the largest firms in the world in terms of revenue and/or lawyers fall below the $1 million PPP mark, including Jones Day, K&L Gates, Norton Rose Fulbright, Squire Sanders, CMS Legal, and Dentons. In some cases that may be a tradeoff between stability and profit, and in some cases the verein structure could result in uneven PPP across the firm’s offices.

As one might expect, the lion’s share of all that legal spend goes to firms with their largest number of attorneys based in the US. Of the top 50 firms in the world, 42 find their largest number of attorneys in the US. For the top 100 firms the number is 78, with the UK a distant second. In some cases, however, the US share, while the largest for the firm, is still relatively low. Overall, though, over 97,000 of the lawyers working for the Global 100 work in the US. The UK comes in a distant second with 6900 and China is third with just over 2500. But the number of lawyers working for AmLaw 200 firms in offices outside of the US, and the number of offices outside the US, has expanded steadily since 1998, primarily into the UK, but also significantly into China, Germany, France, Australia, and Canada.

The bottom line: Global Big Law seems to be doing just fine and spreading its wings. Is news of its death premature?

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