Monday, July 25, 2011

Law's Lost Generation?

Last week's NYT OpEds on law school reform continue to reverberate in the legal community - especially among law students and recent graduates.

One answer for graduates, as I suggested, is to proactively define and promote their own expertise.  Another is for this generation of new graduates to join with other new graduates and use technology to their advantage.  This generation may face the worst economic situation for lawyers since the 1930's, and are largely being shut out of traditional firms.  But they are also (by definition) the most wired generation ever and have access to technologies that can bring tremendous value and efficiency to legal practice.  These technologies include:

1. Social networking to bring in business from around the corner and around the globe.
2. Better, inexpensive and free online research platforms.
3. Virtual law firms, which can lower overhead and increase transparency by providing links to the public work product of firm lawyers, and facilitate rating or referrals from clients.
4. Workflow technologies to offer better and more efficient service to clients.

We're working on a couple of these technologies (see tabulaw.com, tax26.com) and I believe that the next couple of years will bring many more.

If you are part of this new generation of lawyers, what role do you see for technology in law?  What technologies would you like to see for lawyers?

Friday, July 22, 2011

NYT: Law School Reform and Innovation in Law

Following a number of scathing articles over the last few weeks about law school graduates accumulating tremendous debt with few job prospects, the New York Times today published opinions from a variety of legal pundits about reforming law school. Many of the opinions revolved around the theme of increasing experiential learning and reducing class time.

David Lat, founder of Above the Law, argues for replacing the third year of law school with the beginning of an apprenticeship. Perhaps not surprisingly, but somewhat disappointing, three law school professors say that the current model is fine and that law school is a good opportunity, regardless of career prospects, to become "citizen scholars" (with > $120k in debt?).

This discussion has mirrored many conversations I have had recently with lawyers and Bay Area entrepreneurs who are looking not just at law school, but at the creaking wheels of law, and are working on ways to innovate.  Just this afternoon, I met with Tim Hwang, U.C. Berkeley Law student and partner in the fictional Robot, Robot & Hwang law firm.  Earlier this year, Hwang organized a conference of technologists and entrepreneurs in the legal space, and is currently working on projects that reinvent the relationship between law and technology.  We spoke about the generation of lawyers who are not following the traditional path from school into law firms--whether by choice or, more often, due to the downturn in the economy. Will this generation just disappear, or will it push for a transformation of legal practice?

I've also been speaking with Vivi Hoang, a recent law school graduate, who is working on an innovative plan to develop a startup law clinic at a Bay Area law school that would bring together students with entrepreneurs and law firms in this area.  This would seem to be a win-win all around: law students would get hands-on experience with legal issues that arise in startups; startups would be able to trim their legal bills, and participating law firms would be able to work with promising startups without taking on the full risk of a fee deferral arrangement.

Perhaps most encouraging was a meeting I had with Avlok Kohli and Kevin O'Keefe this morning, during Kevin's brief stop in the Bay Area from Seattle. Avlok is a brilliant strategist, software engineer and co-founder of a startup in the legal space that I've been working with. Kevin is the founder of the LexBlog network (tagline: "Real Lawyers Have Blogs") and has built a considerable following by helping lawyers to develop a thoughtful and effective approach to social media.  Kevin, like many of the others who I've spoken with recently, recognizes the need for a cultural shift among lawyers-- in the way we communicate with each other and with the public, and in our use of technology.  The skills that Kevin has emphasized for practicing lawyers--to develop and share their expertise in blogs and elsewhere online--is even more critical for the current generation of law school graduates.  These graduates will have to fend for themselves more and more, as the nature of the legal market and legal services inevitably change.

So while law students wait for the reforms that David Lat and others are calling for in the New York Times OpEds, they would do well to follow Kevin's advice and start now building their individual reputation online. In other words: Learn to stop worrying and love to blog.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

139D: What Congress Does When it Runs Out of Numbers

So, while Congress debates whether to raise the debt limit or cause catastrophic damage to the country's economy, we diligently worked on making further improvements in the way we display tax law on tax26.com.  And one of the items that is causing our parsing engine to choke, is Section 139D of the Tax Code.  Search for it on any site you like: (26 U.S.C. 139D).  (Thanks to Sergey, author of the parsing engine, for pointing this out!)

It's not easy to find, and if you find the section at all, you may become a bit puzzled.  There are, in fact, two section 139D's:

One deals with school vouchers, and the other with "Indian health care benefits".  How did this happen?

Well, the D is what happens when Congress runs out of numbers.  Here, there was a 139 and a 140, and Congress stuck in a few additional sections between them.  And apparently added a second 139D, without knowing that that numbering already existed.  As the Law Revision Council's note states: "3! So in original. Two sections 139D have been enacted."



I pointed out before the thousands of errors I found when parsing California's electronic statutes. This error (and others like it,  including 28 U.S.C. 1932, 5 U.S.C. 5757) are in the U.S. Code itself.  Another bump on the road to digitizing legislative information.

Update: Upon further investigation, it seems that Congress has now repealed (at least one) section 139D.  An update on the House website notes that "Section repealed by Pub. L. 112-10, sec. 1858(b)(2)(A)". This update raises its own questions, since the bill that became Pub. L. 112-110 (HR 1473), does not seem to have a section 1858.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Obama's Negotiations on the Debt Ceiling and Tax Code Reform

A very interesting analysis by Kevin Drawbaugh of Reuters argues that--despite rumblings of reforming the tax code-- negotiations between President Obama and Congress over the debt ceiling are unlikely to make the kind of overhauls called for by the Fiscal Commission (National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform). Drawbaugh notes that there simply is not enough time to make those changes before the deadline of August 2.

It does look, however, like reform of many provisions of the tax code will be central to securing a deal, in which case the changes can serve as a kind of dry run for the larger overhaul that President Obama called for in his State of the Union Address.

A great opportunity to simplify the tax code not only by closing loopholes, but also by writing any new tax legislation so that humans can better understand it and computers can better process it.  See recommendations elsewhere on this blog and at 21stcenturytaxation.com: start by using plain language in writing any new tax legislation.