Lawyers are a natural fit to understand the implications of blockchain technology on society. Why? Lawyers can understand the implications of blockchain technology, because blockchain technology deals with concepts that lawyers have been wrestling with for millennia, namely: trust, exchange, agreement, consensus, and value.
Arguably the most central concept for organizing human society is trust. The degree to which people trust each other, and how they manage those trusted relationships is often intermediated by lawyers. Lawyers craft agreements for clients based on the level of trust between the parties to the agreement. Lawyers are not necessary for trust to exist, but they often bridge a “trust gap” between parties that do not know each other well. In this sense, lawyers function as trusted third parties.
With the advent of Bitcoin the trust equation changed. Now it is possible to “trust” information sent over a network you don’t trust among a group of participants you also don’t trust. To be sure, there is an element of trust that still exists. Namely, the participants in the network must trust the way the network is run, and the technology that underpins the network. The point is that lawyers have a natural affinity for managing trust relationships, and they should not be turned off by this new technological approach.
What does it mean when parties exchange something between each other? The concept of exchange, giving something to someone else and receiving something in return, is the foundation of all trade and many of our interactions as people. Exchange has many issues associated with it, such as:
- What are the terms of the exchange?
- Are the terms of the exchange clear?
- When has the exchange started?
- When is the exchange complete?
- When would it be unfair for it to not finish?
Many more issues can arise, but these sorts of questions are common place in the legal world.
For networks that use a blockchain, distributed ledger, shared ledger, or other decentralized exchange network, the answers to these questions are often found in the network protocol. The protocol determines how exchanges work and what types of exchanges are possible. Similarly, the protocol will also determine the involvement of other parties in said exchange. Knowing the rules of exchange is something that lawyers already advise their clients on, and answering those same questions with respect to blockchain applications is something they can and should do.
In many cases agreements are often contracts, and contracts involve at least two parties coming to a meeting of the minds as to the terms of their agreement. That’s a wordy way of saying “I’ll do X, if you do Y.” Historically, agreements have been memorialized in a contract. Problems arise when one of the parties claims that the terms of the contract weren’t met, or that the contract was invalid.
Blockchain technology creates the opportunity to create binding agreements on a blockchain network. A potentially huge shift in the practice of law is likely to come in the form of smart contracts. A smart contract is a way for at least one party to memorialize the terms of an agreement in computer code that is distributed across a blockchain network.
The lawyer’s traditional role of helping clients come to an agreement on a contract will not change as a result of smart contracts. What may change is how that agreement is memorialized. Here lawyers would do well to learn about smart contracts and how to code them. With each passing year more and more clients will want that option.
Traditionally, consensus on the veracity of information in a network (be they financial networks, groups of experts, etc.) has involved reconciliation processes and other mechanisms to determine what information and records are correct.
Perhaps the biggest change brought on by Bitcoin and other blockchain networks is a new way of achieving consensus on information transacted on a network. As transactions occur on a blockchain they are packaged into blocks of transactions. If certain conditions are met that block becomes part of the official record and the chain of blocks grows. If enough participants in the network agree, that block becomes part of the official record and consensus is achieved.
Determining when and how consensus is achieved is well within a lawyer’s toolkit. Being able to assess whether information is part of the official record is something lawyers already do, and something lawyers will have to do more of when their clients wish to use blockchain technology.
A concept more abstract than trust may be value. What is valuable to one may be valueless to another. How and why we value something may be intrinsic to the thing in question, or extrinsic to that thing. Regardless of why something has value, lawyers often help their clients determine the value of things. They also help clients secure valuables, as well as ensure their client receives fair value in an exchange.
In disputes, lawyers often have to advocate why something should be valued a certain way on their client’s behalf. The fact that magic internet money is valuable to some, and not valuable to others, is largely irrelevant to the job of an attorney. Thinking abstractly about why something is or isn’t valuable is already a large part of the job.
Lawyers should not be worried about blockchain technology. In fact, they should embrace this new paradigm shift towards decentralized interactions. The legal issues lawyers deal with day to day will not be disrupted by this new technology space. They will merely be presented in a new format.