#LegalTechLives with Dr. Roland Vogl, ED of CodeX and the Stanford Program in Law, Science and Technology
A big believer in the magic of Silicon Valley, Dr. Vogl of Stanford Law and CodeX explains what it takes to bring a product to market and who he likes to see sitting in the front row of his classes.
Dr. Roland Vogl is a lawyer, scholar and media entrepreneur who specializes in intellectual property and media law, innovation, and legal informatics. Currently, he is the Executive Director of the Stanford Program in Law, Science and Technology and a Lecturer in Law at Stanford Law School. He focuses his efforts on legal informatics work carried out in the Center for Legal Informatics (CodeX), which he co-founded and leads as Executive Director. Roland is a Visiting Professor at the University of Vienna, Austria and serves as a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Law Technology News, a publication of ALM (American Lawyer Media), and of the Legaltech West Coast Advisory Board. He is also a member of the Strategic Advisory Boards of AdviseHub, IPNexus, LegalForce, and LiTIQ.
Ava Chisling: Given your extensive background, it’s hard to know where to begin. So let’s start at the beginning. Tell me a bit about where you grew up and how it has shaped who you are today.
Dr. Roland Vogl: I was born in Innsbruck, a beautiful city in the heart of the Austrian Alps. I grew up close to nature, hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. In Tyrol (the state of Austria of which Innsbruck is the capital), tradition and lifelong friendships are important values. People are also known to be direct and speak their minds. I left a long time ago, but I still share those values and always like spending time there.
AC: You came to Silicon Valley roughly 20 years ago. Do you believe as strongly in the Valley as you did then? What is it about tech that got you so hooked?
RV: There is a confluence of human talent, enterprising spirit, and institutions that have cemented the Valley’s place as the tech innovation hub of the world. I’m constantly surprised by how these different ingredients play together to provide such a fertile environment to bring forward great ideas. I love the optimism and the desire to change the world for the better, which is ubiquitous in the Valley and which drives many of my students. So, yes, I am a big believer in its magic. There are, of course, also problems. Housing costs are off the charts, traffic is brutal, etc. But I’m hopeful that we’ll see some of the Valley’s ingenuity solve its own problems.
AC: As Executive Editor of CodeX, tell me three things about the program today that you could not have predicted a decade ago.
RV: 1. The explosion of interest in legal innovation around the world. 2. CodeX’s role as a catalyst for galvanizing entrepreneurial energy in the space. 3. How much fun the legal innovation community is.
AC: Tell me a bit about how the CodeX process works, from having a great idea through to the marketplace. Who are the key players involved?
RV: There is no clearly defined CodeX process. It’s very ad hoc and grassroots, but it all starts with an idea. Some projects, like Lex Machina, started as an idea of a faculty member (in this case, Mark Lemley). We created a research project around it, raised funds, hired a team and built a system. When the project leaders saw an opportunity to bring it to the market, they created a company and negotiated a license with Stanford. In the typical Valley way, the company then raised capital and built out the product.
Some projects are created by students or non-residential fellows. The general rule is that Stanford only takes an equity interest in those companies that are created by Stanford faculty or staff through more than incidental use of Stanford resources. But to avoid any confusion, CodeX is a research center at Stanford. It is not an incubator with the mission to build start-ups or to take an equity interest in them. We have been lucky to build a community of innovators around the center, and we also serve as a place where people can present new ideas, get feedback, and connect with others who can help them make progress with their ideas.
AC: What factors do you look for in an idea/product/service that warrant it moving forward to the marketplace? And is that always the goal: to bring something to market? What are other goals, if any?
RV: Great question! I am mostly interested in the people who are working on the idea. If the right people are involved, they will find a way to bring an idea to life even if initially there might not seem to be a clear path or product–market fit. The goal for CodeX is not always to bring something to the market — although the market is the ultimate testing ground for most tech ideas. CodeX’s mission is legal empowerment through information technology. We care about improving the legal system and making it work for everyone. We care about impact. That means making it faster, better, cheaper, and of course fairer. Our particular focus is on computational law, the part of legal informatics that is concerned with the mechanization of legal analysis.
Computational law encompasses rule-based approaches to solving legal problems, as well as statistical AI and machine learning-based approaches to predicting legal outcomes. So, in short, our main goal is to make our legal system the best legal system it can be through information technology. Frequently, the best way to achieve that goal is to help a new technology get to the marketplace. However, as a university research center, our focus is more on fundamental questions that might not have immediate commercial viability but, rather, are the building blocks for downstream innovation.
AC: You have said “It’s been our goal to bridge the scholarly world of legal technology, AI and law, with the world of ‘lawntrepreneurialism.’” Why is it so important that the legal profession continue to evolve? What are the consequences if it does not?
RV: The legal profession plays a critical role in safeguarding society through the rule of law and by protecting people’s rights. If it does not keep up with a society where more and more of our financial lives and personal interactions occur in the digital world, it will not be able to properly serve its role. Human legal expertise on how to prevent or how to resolve disputes will be as important as ever. But the delivery mechanism will need to change and adapt to this digital environment.
“Overall, I think we see a significantly increased awareness and interest among legal professionals in doing things differently, and leveraging technology to provide more value to their clients.”
AC: ROSS Intelligence CEO/Cofounder Andrew Arruda often tells the story about how when he goes into a law firm to pitch ROSS’s legal-AI software, people often expect a robot to glide into the boardroom with him. So, what does legal innovation mean in 2017? Are most legal professionals prepared for what’s coming, given Andrew’s experience?
RV: Legal innovation can take a million different shapes. Recent breakthroughs in machine learning and data analytics have resulted in legal practitioners becoming increasingly worried about the possibility of being replaced by “robolawyers.” But they are also excited about the possibility of having their work enhanced by big data analytics. In addition, they are starting to see multi-sided lawyer platforms as a means of providing new ways to find or collaborate with clients and other lawyers. Overall, I think we see a significantly increased awareness and interest among legal professionals in doing things differently, and leveraging technology to provide more value to their clients.
AC: Who in a big law firm is most likely to embrace the innovative ideas you propose?
RV: It really depends on what ideas and technologies we’re talking about. Many firms have change-agents situated in different roles. Big firms have chief technology officers, chief innovation officers, and chief strategy officers. They also have head librarians who are frequently the first to be interested in new research or knowledge management technologies — and may introduce them to the firm. Meanwhile, many big firms have managing partners who think more holistically about how the delivery of legal services needs to be transformed to meet the changing needs of their clients.
AC: Can people learn to be great leaders and innovators — or are they born that way?
RV: Good question. I think most people learn to be leaders and innovators through their upbringing and through school. Parents and teachers have a key role in nurturing curiosity and a person’s belief that there are new ways for approaching problems — even in an industrial world where there oftentimes already seems to be a solution for every problem.
AC: And in a related question, who do you want to see sitting in the front row of your classrooms? Do you want to see young people who are tech-forward? Coders? Book smart? Curious? And you can’t say all of the above!
RV: I want to see tech-forward, book smart, and curious coders — but they can be old too. ;-) Actually, they don’t have to be coders at all. They just have to be curious and creative problem solvers.
AC: How do you feel about Initial Coin Offerings and other new (and perhaps controversial) ways start-ups can grow very quickly? [see ROSS article: here]
ICOs may become a fast and easy vehicle for start-up funding. However, it still seems a bit like the wild west, and I understand why regulators are starting to take an interest in that space. Certainly a very interesting area. Some people made a lot of money. In a way, however, some of the projects that have been funded remind me a bit of the days of the dot.com bubble.
AC: Do you worry that other countries are beginning to invest more in their innovation (and innovators) than the US? You are starting to see a lot of articles/blogs like this: Economist.
RV: The more innovation investment around the world, the better. Although I think we need to make sure that we build innovation ecosystems that ensure we incentivize innovation that benefits society and avoid paths that may cause more harm than good. I did some research on that topic a few years ago with a business school scholar friend: here.
AC: How do you think the US can make sure it is a leader in tech and innovation, particularly legal tech? What is the right mix and how can it continue to grow?
RV: The U.S. has a lot going for it in terms of being able to sustain its role as a leader in tech and innovation, as well as legal tech. It’s a large market, with many people who have an entrepreneurial spirit and speak the same language. There’s also a culture which fosters partnerships between academic institutions and the private sector — and a government that invests in innovation. With regard to legal, the U.S. has the largest legal services market in the world. Because people go to law school after college in the U.S., there are also a fairly large number of people with technical undergrad degrees who go to law school. That means that there’s a relatively large group of people with the ability to look at legal processes through the lens of an engineer. I think it would be great if we had legal information and data more easily accessible. That would likely spur more innovation.
AC: What will a law firm look like in 15–20 years?
RV: I think law firms will be more like management consultancies that go into their clients’ businesses and help deploy new solutions to their legal problems. For that, law firms will have to employ legal engineers. There will also be other professionals with a seat at the table, such as legal project managers. Law firms will deploy sophisticated subscription-based services, and firms will make sure that the underlying systems reflect the current state of the law. Client intake will also be largely automated. The systems will know when a matter needs to be evaluated by a human lawyer decision maker.
AC: And to end our discussion, here is a question I ask everyone: What non-work-related invention would you like to have right now?
RV: A machine that answers my email — wait, that’s work related. So forget that. A self-driving car. A sleep apnea device that people can actually use. A machine that cleans the ocean of plastic. An airplane that will get me to Europe in two hours. A system that would deal with all the vendor relationships I have (optimizing insurance, internet, bills).
AC: Hmm, some of those still sound work-related! But I will definitely support a machine that rids the ocean of plastic — or perhaps a brain zapper to stop those who dump it there in the first place.
AC: Thank you very much for your insight, Roland.