Artificial Lawyer recently caught up with Singapore-based, Legalese.com, a pioneering legal tech start-up that is creating the language that all future smart legal contracts may one day be written in, L4.
The following is an interview with Alexis Chun, Co-Founder of Legalese and ‘recovering lawyer’, formerly at Rajah & Tann, one of Singapore’s leading law firms.
And, we must also mention another Co-Founder, Meng Weng Wong, who is quoted below and whose fascinating insights into technology and the law can also be seen on this great video explaining why ‘Software is eating law.’
If you enjoy this, you may also like to have a look at an earlier story about Legalese.com receiving a significant development grant for L4.
Legalese co-founder Meng Weng Wong said in a recent video presentation that: ‘Law today is where software was 20 years ago.’ Can you expand on that idea?
Who are the lost tribe of programmers? Lawyers! If you look across the professions, the one most similar to software is legal. The stuff of medicine is health and disease; the stuff of architecture is space and form; law is actors, obligations, prohibitions, consequences, time, rules. These flows of control and consequence are the province of law – and of software.
To manage these matters, programmers have built batteries of software tools: app stores, self-updating packages, code reviews, agile pairing, dependency management, FOSS libraries, Git, pull requests, fuzzing, lint, unit testing, static analysis, m4 macros, IDEs, Haskell, Lambda calculus….
Law has track changes, Microsoft Word, and Latin. It will take time to translate these techniques to the legal industry, but the progression will look similar: we know which parts of the legal stack will depend on others. That’s why we, as programmers, think we have a crystal ball to the future of the legal industry – a view which lawyers themselves don’t have!
Would ‘an average lawyer’ be able to use L4, or would they need a high level of computer coding expertise to produce or modify a smart contract?
The average lawyer of today? No. The average lawyer of 2026? Yes. Tomorrow’s lawyer (yes, that is a shoutout to one of our compulsory readings) would have grown up playing Minecraft and programming Scratch. So, to answer your question: yes, tomorrow’s lawyers will. They might well be taught L4 in law school.
But it’s also important to point out that we aren’t building Legalese for the lawyers and the law firms – they’re the incumbents.
Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Lawyers are, of course, welcome to learn and use L4 but we’re really building it for the clients (potential and actual). By some estimates, 15 to 30% of people who need lawyers don’t hire one.
We’re building for these non-consumers. At some point, the same way webpages are built on HTML, Legalese users will be able to use apps built on top of L4 without even needing to learn L4. With these apps, it’d be UI/UX problem; the Instagrammification of law where you can DIY with confidence.
Take Tesla. They aren’t building cars for taxi-drivers. They’re only temporarily intended for car owners. In future, Teslas will drive themselves. That’s our approach: legal as a utility, not a consultation.
How will L4 tackle the challenge of legal jurisdiction and local legal concepts? I.e. can there be truly ‘universal smart contracts’ or do they always need to be local jurisdiction specific?
How do programmers deal with the software equivalent of these problems? Using libraries and packages, with a set of technologies called i18n/L10n. I say that without understating the scale of the problem and importance of the question.
Developing a domain-specific language with appropriate libraries will require product managers familiar with the problem domain of legal agreements and processes, customer psychology, and conversational programming. But software means this work only has to be done once, for everyone to benefit; as long as law runs on humans, there are no economies of scale.
What impact could L4 have on law firms and inhouse legal teams, and how might they adapt?
It is entirely possible that traditional law firms will go the way of the dodo and that the firms which do succeed in innovating and capturing new revenue streams will be startups that do not exist today. In fact it is likely: who won at digital photography, Kodak or Instagram? To answer your question head on, I’d recommend lawyers read Susskind’s Tomorrow’s Lawyers and Christensen’s Innovator’s Solution; but I doubt if the time-for-money service model and partnership structure even allows lawyers to read at work.
How soon do you think it will be before ‘legal coders’ replaces the term ‘lawyer’ or that university law courses have an obligatory coding element?
I’m thrilled that you asked “how soon” – yes, it’s only a matter of time.
The equivalent question 20 years ago would have been, how soon will accountants have to learn to use spreadsheets? We think that today’s law students may be the last generation to not program solutions to legal problems.
And, finally, what do you see as the barriers to wider acceptance of smart contracts and contract languages such as L4? How can advocates of this technology encourage the wider market to embrace these innovations?
Marketing High Technology describes Whole Product Theory. The lessons from thirty years of commercial and open source software adoption apply just as well to legal software as a service. A number of industry leaders (Autodesk, Adobe, Intuit) have showed us how software transforms white-collar professions.
Like those pioneers, we will offer training course, certifications for Legalese developers, meet-ups, user groups, manuals, books, tech support… everything those software companies do, we will do, because, deep down, we aren’t a law firm – we are a software company.
When I think about this, I think about how smart lawyers are, having to constantly learn on the job, and how they’ve mastered Word Perfect, then MS Word, then Track Changes, even email. Perhaps lawyers can learn L4. But I’m also reminded of what a senior lawyer once said of this: “I can see the change coming; I just hope I’m retired by then.”