Friday, November 09, 2007

Second (Life) Opinions

I'm in the midst of a series of posts on the movie Michael Clayton (here and here), but two news items from the ABA Journal warrant a detour.

Item #1: Professor Kibosh and the Evil Laptop. First, on the ever-popular (or not) subject of laptop bans in classrooms, there is an article in the ABA Journal concerning the increasing popularity of laptop bans in law school classrooms. I've blogged about the subject numerous times; look for my posts labeled by the "computer" category. And of course every time I suggest that a ban might be justified in some circumstances, I get angry reader comments.

I am undecided on the subject, and my current position on the matter is that if I can't decide whether a ban is desirable or not, then I should just leave matters be. Perhaps I should let students vote on the matter? I don't know. But this article points out yet more perils of laptop use: IM harassment in class and obscene videos.

Virtual Law Practice. This article really, really interests me. Apparently at least one law firm is setting up shop in the online 3D gaming world of "Second Life." As Craig Jones of the UK's Simpson Millar explains, "Many of our clients have injuries which can make it difficult for them to meet us at our offices. Others are too busy. Second Life is a way of 'seeing' your legal representative and receiving advice without coming to our office."

So in other words, this is real legal advice, provided in avatar-to-avatar format. How very fascinating, and it raises interesting questions. In a very large sense, this is no different, substantively, from communicating with clients by e-mail or phone. But what if avatars can one day be programmed to provide advice independently (provided, of course, that a fee is paid)? Is that different somehow than having general legal memos available for download for a fee? Is it different from the practice of having canned legal advice that is modified, around the edges, for a client, and then charging the client for it? Could a law firm establish a subsidiary company to provide general "legal" (and perhaps strategic) player advice pertaining solely within the Second Life world? Law firms set up subsidiaries quite often to provide business and personal services-related advice, so why not in this context?

Also, what if a law school set up shop in Second Life? Is this a viable means for long distance (or e-commuting) education? Would this run into trouble with the ABA? Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig and Judge Richard Posner have in fact made appearances on Second Life, so the intersection of legal academia and the online world is not farfetched by any means. I don't play Second Life right now (but boy, it intrigues me), so for all I know there is already a law school in the game.

And perhaps most interestingly, what if an avatar-professor decided to prohibit her avatar-students from using simulated laptops in her Second Life classroom?

Makes my (non-simulated) brain hurt.

**Photo credit: Steve Garfield**


Anonymous said...

Maybe Trudeau will give you permission to post today's Sunday Doonesbury on your site ... laptops vs. the Socratic Method ...

Gregory W. Bowman said...

That is so spot on! I hadn't seen it. Stay tuned for a mini-post with a link to the cartoon.

Anonymous said...

I thought I might usefully reply to your story and the comments that have followed.

Your article alludes to the possibility that avatars can be "programmed" to provide legal advice. In my opinion, this is perfectly possible in theory although not yet in Second Life - the Linden Scripting language is too limited. Law in many respects is very regimented - guided by logic and rules - which fits computers very well as you will be aware. The problem with law is that it can be a two tier beast - with the logical and predictable getting you a substantial part of the way there, but then something more human,more unpredictable providing the final answer.

On this basis, many legal questions could be substantially answered if only the lawyers could tell the IT experts what questions to ask and what answers should be given. The answers may not always be perfect but many, if not the majority of them would be satisfactory, and those that were not, would get the "user" of that advice a lot further for a lot less investment.

I think that your observation about downloadable memos is absolutely on point. Certainly in the UK, the commoditisation of legal services has lead to a mass adoption of standard letters and advice in many areas of legal service.

The basic concept behind Simpson Millar LLP's presence in Second Life is not really that revolutionary. Can you imagine a law firm without a telephone ? It wouldn't be in business for long. And yet, we are more comfortable with the concept of legal advice from a disembodied voice coming from a black piece of plastic than perhaps from a 3D visual representation of the giver of that advice ! I believe that the technology underlying Second Life simply needs adoption into our society as a means of communication and trade. Once that occurs, it will be as prevalent in our daily lives as the internet is now.

As for providing advice on playing the Second Life game, currently, there is rarely going to be an occasion where the value of any virtual world dispute justifies the involvement of lawyers - the amounts in dispute current are simply not significant enough generally. However, that will no doubt change just as it has changed on the internet.

Second Life and technologies like it may well be the internet of the future. Through the work that we have done in it and the experience we have acquired, we anticipate that IF it becomes the internet revolution, Simpson Millar LLP will be ready to properly advise their clients about that environment in all aspects.

Lawyers and consequently, law firms, can often be too conservative in their approach to business. Sometimes, to be a good lawyer and provide excellent levels of client care and service, one needs to look outside the box of legislation and rules and be innovative. Simpson Millar LLP have clearly done exactly that. Free your mind - you'll be surprised at what it can do.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Excellent comment; thanks very much for it! The idea of programming an avatar to give standard advice is interesting, and would not be unlike, say, the "help" function in various computer programs (MS Windows comes to mind). It would be, as I like to say, the commodization of a service: the breaking of the service into bits that can be automated or farmed out in order to lower cost/increase volume. It happens in software programming all the time, and in customer service too. Why not in law practice? Provided there is proper architecture in place to pass along the difficult issues to a live person, of course. In this sense, the service of providing legal services is not fundamentally different from other services.

Thanks again for the comment.

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