Carla Reyes is the Director of Michigan State University’s Center of Law & Innovation and LegalRnD Lab. Reach her on Twitter @Prof_CarlaReyes.
How did you become involved in legal tech?
I became involved in legal tech because of my legal practice. When I began practicing law with Perkins Coie LLP in Seattle, Washington in 2010, I was placed in the Data Privacy & Security litigation practice. I also ended up doing a variety of work for a partner on the transactional side of things in the Technology, Transactions & Privacy group. Specifically, I began learning and developing expertise in electronic financial services. In 2013, the U.S. Treasury Department issued guidance that said some activity with some forms of virtual currency could constitute regulated activity under the money services businesses laws, and from that point forward, I became a blockchain lawyer (to the extent that is a category of lawyers these days). I’ve been involved in issues at the intersection of law and technology ever since. My particular ongoing focus is on the intersection of law and blockchain technology and the intersection of law and artificial intelligence, including in the practice of law.
What projects have you been focused on recently?
Four projects currently consume a large portion of my time, although I am concurrently working on several others. The first is research into the use of autonomous technology by businesses and the impact that the rise of increasingly autonomous business entities may have on business law. I’m currently finishing up an article called “Autonomous Business Reality,” which will be available on my SSRN page soon.
A second project involves coding a UCC Article 9 financing statement (the UCC-1 form) using smart contracts. I’m coding it using a new (and, I’ll say with huge respect to my friend and Lexon’s creator Henning Deidrich, revolutionary) programming language that enables you to code smart contracts in English. I code in Lexon, and I can execute on either the Ethereum or Athena blockchains. This is a super fun project that I am enjoying very much and learning a ton from.
A third project seeks to give attorneys and other non-technical users of algorithms a new framework for engaging with algorithms as algorithmic systems. The article, co-written with Duke Law’s Jeff Ward, is called “Digging into Algorithms: Legal Ethics and Legal Access,” and aims to enable more productive discussions around the intersection of algorithms and law by encouraging a paradigm shift away from thinking about algorithms standing alone as acontextual artifacts to algorithmic systems—technology designed, used, and applied within specific contexts.
And the fourth project is one I’m just starting. An attempt to take an empirical look at the words we use around technology as we advocate for legal positions, create new laws, apply old laws, and otherwise communicate about technology with the general public. I want to see if we are serving socio-technical goals well with the language we are using, and I want to do so by looking at evidence beyond anecdotal stories.
I have a variety of other projects I’m working on, but these have been occupying my attention recently.
Is there a legal tech resource of any kind that really helped you when you were starting out in the field?
I have to admit that when I was starting out in the field, I wasn’t aware that legal tech was its own field. So, no, there wasn’t much by way of a legal tech resource that helped me when I was starting out. More recently, however, the ABA Legal Tech show has been particularly helpful. I’ve made connections with vendors there that I’ve been able to bring back to campus in order to offer my students enrichment opportunities. Whether it is using Clio to keep track of time spent on a doctrinal course, or using DealCloser to mimic real-life contract negotiation, I really value the opportunity to connect with up-and-coming technologies at ABA Tech Show. It’s part of why the MSU Center for Law, Technology & Innovation sponsors students to attend the event each year as well.
What technology do you think lawyers could look at in a different way that would benefit society?
There are two: algorithms and smart contracts. As mentioned, Duke Law Professor Jeff Ward and I are working on a project designed to encourage thinking about the social context that an algorithm is set in as part of the algorithmic system itself. If we do that from the beginning, we can develop better-attenuated policy goals and arguments that hopefully lead to leveraging the technology for its beneficial purposes (like access to justice) while also mitigating some of its detriments (like built-in bias or lack of explainability). With regard to smart contracts, if lawyers could just focus on the function of them, rather than on the word “contract” in their name, we’d find many more ways to use them to benefit society and we’d find ways to build enabling laws that make things better, rather than worse.
What advice would you give to other women who want to get involved in legal tech?
Don’t get caught up in the hype, or in worrying about how to drive more hype to yourself. Outsiders can tell the difference between hype earned through diligent quality work over time and self-created advertising hype. Don’t be afraid to shine a light on the good work you are doing, but start by doing good work, and doing it consistently. Consistently thoughtful, innovative work will set you apart for the right reasons. Once you’ve built something cool though, be sure to publicize it every bit as much as everyone else in the space.
Give a shout-out to another woman in legal tech who you admire or have learned something from!
I am a super-fan of Professor Raina Haque at Wake Forest School of Law. She offers incredible technical insight without sacrificing attention to ethical and social considerations. She always approaches the tough questions at the intersection of law and technology with openness, attentiveness, and grace for others in the conversation. She’s taught me much in just the short time we’ve known each other, and I’m grateful for her presence in the academy and in the legal technology space.