Book Review: Blockchain and the Legal Profession

October 3, 2018

According to the blurb, this book aims to ‘cut through the
hype and explore the many different facets of Blockchain, and what it will mean
for the legal profession’.

In my opinion, it falls rather short.

The first three chapters have the greatest focus on the
legal profession, a trait unfortunately missing from some of the later pieces.

After a description of the blockchain which I found hard to
follow (chapter 4 of The New Scientist’s ‘The
End of Money: The story of bitcoin, cryptocurrencies and the blockchain
remains my suggested starting point), chapter 1 asserts that,
yes, blockchain will disrupt legal practice.

But it does not explain how.

It points to indicators that the legal industry is ripe for
disruption — a common enough view — but it does not follow that blockchain will
be the, or even a, disruptor, and more detail would have been welcome.

It also claims that blockchain will make (some) lawyers
redundant, but again is light on explaining why this should be the case, other
than in respect of lawyers acting as information repositories.

Chapter 2 — law and p2p tech — gives the strong impression
that we can expect lots of amazing things to happen, thanks to blockchain but,
again, I felt there was insufficient detail about implementation.

With the example of the potential to issue parking fines
quickly, the chapter introduces smart contracts, using the blockchain. There’s
plenty written about smart contracts, and I did not feel that this discussion
brought anything particularly new to the table, especially since smart contracts
and blockchains are not indelibly linked. Perhaps for someone who wanted a
starting point, this chapter would be worthwhile, but given the proliferation
of articles and blogposts written about smart contracts, I would have hoped for
something more critical and analytical.

The concluding section looks at the practice of lawyers in
the future, commenting that ‘the functional aspects of the practice of law will
be assumed and automatic’ and that lawyers will advise on ‘how to navigate …
digital choice of law strategy, smart contract design, and application of
artificial intelligence’.

Chapter 3 focuses on the impact of blockchain on law firm
business models. It looks to the death of the intermediary, with a practical
example of the use of Bitcoin, as blockchain-based currency, to remove the need
to use an intermediary fiat currency in international transactions. I liked
this, and wish there was more of the same kind of ‘applied thinking’

I’m curious, though, as to whether Bitcoin is really an
answer here, as it strikes me that there is something akin to a network effect
in operation: as a would-be customer, it’s no good me having Bitcoin as a
currency, especially in large sums, if I can’t buy much with it, and, as a
retailer, I’ve no incentive to accept payment in Bitcoin if I can’t pay my
bills with it. Until that gets unlocked, perhaps Bitcoin remains primarily a
form of investment.

I say this as I bought a small amount of Bitcoin some months
back, to understand the experience, and I still have the full sum left in my
wallet, as the opportunity to spend it has not arisen. I’ve also looked at
taking Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies as payment through decoded:Legal, and
I’ve yet to convince myself that doing so would be a sound decision. Discussion
of how the legal profession might itself use cryptocurrency, albeit more to do
with the application layer of cryptocurrency than with the underlying
blockchain itself, would have been superb.

As with chapter 1, it tends towards hyperbole in places — it
is ‘astonishing’ that ‘so few’ lawyers are developing practices focused on
blockchains (is it? Really?) — but offers sensible guidance that firms should
be encouraged to experiment with the use of blockchain in their own practices.
More examples of what this might look like would have been ideal, beyond ‘smart

Similarly, it predicts the death of the billable hour
(which, again, seems to be a common enough view to be almost unarguable at this
point), but it is left unclear why this will be down to blockchain.

Smart contracts are the mainstay of chapter 4, which speaks
of a ‘legal system, whose inefficiency has reached dimensions threatening
systemic incoherence’.

Recognising that blockchains are complementary to smart
contracts, rather than inherent, this chapter discusses the benefits brought by
a blockchain in terms of transparency and decentralisation. However, ‘transparency’
may not be desirable for many confidential commercial transactions, requiring
the use of private blockchains, and the decentralisation is only as good as the
number of people who have copies of the relevant blockchain.

The discussion on ‘regulatory protocols’ is interesting, and
it is the first commentary I have seen on the potential need for ‘plugins’ to
allow regulators to intervene in smart contracts, with the example given of a
contract concluded under duress needing to be reversed. This is fascinating,
and is something to consider in a lot more detail. It seems to me that this
could entail revisiting the cyberlaw notions of ‘east coast code’ and ‘west
coast code’, and determining who, in fact, holds authority — and, if protocol
developers or blockchain operators have to make way for regulatory intervention
directly into the system, whether this is quite what many of the proponents of
blockchain, or of smart contracts, have in mind.

There are also some interesting comments about the
possibility of creating a whole new, alternative, legal system (‘Bitnation’
also comes up in chapter 2) but, much like discussion of ‘cyberlaw’ and a
unified ‘law of the Internet’, the discussion stumbles against the undeniable
relevance of real-world jurisdictions. Cyberlaw is still an idea which I still
find appealing, but the increasing balkanisation of legal frameworks regulating
online activity suggest it is a forlorn hope rather than something achievable,
and I suspect the same is true of an alternative, blockchain-based, legal

This was one of the stronger chapters in the book.

Chapter 5 takes a US-centric look at the enforceability of
smart contracts, chapter 6 deals with chains of custody with a focus on
computer forensics labs, chapter 7 deals with digital archiving and the role
the blockchain might play, and chapter 9 comments on fundraising via tokens and
Initial Coin Offerings, again from a US perspective.

While any (or all) of these might be of interest to some in
the legal profession, they lack substantive commentary on what they mean for
the legal profession. They feel to me like essays written for different
audiences, re-used for this book, but, whether that is the case or not, they
could really have benefitted from stronger focus on the ‘legal profession’, as
opposed to broader impacts or regulatory issues arising from the use of

Chapter 8 is primarily a list of patent filings — US only —
relating to blockchain, again with no clear application to the legal
profession. Flipping through the list of patent filings gives an indication of
how, at a high, one sentence, level, some are considering the use of blockchain
and a motivated reader could apply their own mind to determining whether there
is a role for any of these in the legal profession, but it is disappointing
that this is an exercise left to the reader. Again, applying the facts to the
problem — what this means to the legal profession — could have been far
stronger, and it would have been ideal to see a discussion beyond US filings.

I went into this book with high hopes and, at roughly £1.50
per page, I don’t think that that is unreasonable. But I was, ultimately,

As someone with a tech law firm, I didn’t put this book down
full of ideas as to how I could use blockchain to enhance my practice and my
clients’ experiences, or how it might affect the profession overall in any
substantive sense.

I had wondered if there would be discussion about lawyers
putting their advice into blockchains, so that there can be no dispute later as
to who said what based on what facts and instructions, or an exploration of the
use of smart contracts to define legal deliverables, linked to client auto-payment,
to be used by the legal profession, or other tangible means of using the
blockchain in legal practices, but it did not deliver for me in this regard. I
could move my engagement letters and client onboarding onto the blockchain, but
I’m struggling to see the benefits in doing so, especially since a private
blockchain for this appears to confer little advantage over a suitably-backed
up private storage system. Perhaps something to do with ensuring the integrity
of the identification documents I have validated?

I felt that it lacked cohesion, and that it was a collection
of disparate articles rather than a logical, methodical exploration of the way
the blockchain might impact the legal profession. I expected a far stronger
focus on ‘and this is what it means to the legal profession’ and the absence of
this was the real let-down. While some chapters are stronger on this than
others, even those are more speculative and enthusiastic than they are grounded
and revelatory.

I loved the authors’ enthusiasm, but it comes at the cost of
the book feeling rather like the collated outcome of a blockchain-lovers
conference: lots of aspiration, lots of excitement for the future, but too
little in the way of actionable advice, critical commentary, or robust
application to the legal profession.

There are some gems to be found in this book, but, even at
just 100 pages, it felt like hard work trying to extract them.

and the Legal Profession
was published by Ark Group in June 2018 (100 pp,
£149.53 for paperback, ISBN 978-1-78358-338-6).

Neil Brown runs
decoded:Legal, a law firm specialising in advising on telecoms, tech, and
Internet law matters. He won’t be accepting payment in Bitcoin just yet.