US Law Firm Steptoe & Johnson Broadens Blockchain Offering

US law firm Steptoe & Johnson has seen such a success with its specialist blockchain team that it is now widening it out into a full multi-disciplinary practice to offer advice to clients across the firm.

The firm said in a statement that the aim is: ‘To help clients in all industries learn more about and prepare for the application of blockchain and distributed ledger technology.’

The group is led by partner Jason Weinstein, a former deputy assistant Attorney General in the Criminal Division of the US Department of Justice, and now a white collar crime specialist, but who also has a passion for FinTech and cryptocurrencies.

‘We are expanding from serving as counsel to blockchain companies, to serving as counsel to companies affected by the blockchain,’ said Weinstein. ‘What we’re experiencing here is similar to the early stages of the internet in the 1990s.’

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 11.42.24Weinstein also happens to be director of the Blockchain Alliance, which launched last October and ‘is comprised of a broad coalition of companies and other institutions that have come together to address public safety concerns about digital currencies and the blockchain’. Steptoe also gives the Alliance legal advice. The Alliance is the offspring of two US-based organisations, the Chamber of Digital Commerce and Coin Center.

Now, one might say: ‘What has this got to do with automation in the legal sector?

The answer is that while blockchain technology is often associated purely with cryptocurrenices such as Bitcoin and Ethereum’s Ether currency, blockchain systems are also the main source, for now, of self-executing ‘smart contracts’.

Self-executing smart contracts, whether written by a lawyer or non-lawyer (and it’s normally the latter), don’t necessarily have to be hosted via a blockchain system. In fact the types of blockchains banks and other financial institutions are considering are far from the utopian ideal developed by Bitcoin pioneers and instead are heavily grounded in the ‘real economy’ and the ‘off-chain’ world of Dollars, Euros and Sterling.

Although Steptoe doesn’t explicitly say in its announcement that it is focused on smart contracts, inevitably its lawyers will find themselves examining these hybrid creations of contractual arrangements and computer code. In part this is because they are advising cryptocurrency companies and those using blockchains to avoid fraud and exploitation of the smart contracts that sit at the heart of this technology.

And if smart contracts are going to get off the ground in a big way, then investors and mainstream institutions will want to feel confident about them in terms of their security and the legal issues that may be involved.

That confidence will come from familiarisation with the technology and how it works by people who mostly operate in the ‘off-chain’ world, and a feeling among lawyers (at law firms, inhouse and those who sit on the bench) that they have a handle on potential security issues related to blockchain and hence implicitly, smart contracts.

So, when a major law firm with offices across the US and in Beijing, Brussels, and London expands its offering on blockchain advice, then indirectly this is an important step for smart contracts and implicitly for legal automation.

Artificial Lawyer will be watching this development with interest and is also keen to hear about other law firms making similar steps into the world of blockchain and smart contracts.