By now, the fact that contracts can be created by artificial intelligence and agreements executed through automation has already had significant implications for the practice and business of law. But while disruptive technology may not necessarily call for pioneering jurisprudence, it often requires legal education to adapt their curricula. Many law schools across the country are therefore finding ways to discuss smart contracts in the context of traditional legal analysis.
Blockchain and Smart Contracts in Legal Education
As the concept of smart contracts takes hold, it is slowly becoming an area of interest in legal education. Although the idea of these automated contracts have been around since the early ‘90s, its real-world application has only recently been made possible due to further developments in blockchain technology.
Despite advances in smart contract technology, however, there are still large issues that need to be addressed, like centralization risk, usability, and scalability. It is in these situations that smart contracts have implications for the practice of law. When the metrics and intricacies of a contract are measured outside of human forces, problems can arise.
Luckily, there are many prestigious schools and rigorous programs across the country currently exploring ways to reconcile technology, law, and legal prose. From classes that explore cryptocurrency initiatives to conferences on the latest in blockchain and contract drafting, legal education is not only catching up to the automated methods of modern business but even driving it forward.
Cornell Tech is one of the schools leading the efforts to study smart contracts and their implications for law. As recent recipients of a $3 million NSF grant, Cornell created the Initiative For Cryptocurrencies and Contracts (IC3) division. The program offers incentives like the “Five Grand Challenges” which encourages students to explore concepts like scaling, confidentiality, and compliance. At Cornell, students are taking an active role (not just an educational one) in the smart contract market.
Stanford has created a program known as the Stanford Cyber Initiative that acts as a central hub for research in blockchain technology. They pride themselves on creating and defining new fields in public policy issues surrounding smart contracts and blockchain technology.
The university offers a variety of classes, lectures, and programs on smart contracts and cryptocurrency. Stanford recently held a conference on blockchain protocol analysis and security engineering. Courses like CS 251: Cryptocurrencies, blockchains, and smart contracts are available to students and explore the aspects of distributed consensus and smart contract applications.
MIT has developed a program called the Digital Currency Initiative that focuses on cryptocurrency and its underlying technology. Students can perform fundamental research while also shedding light on the risks, benefits, and ethical quandaries of smart contracts.
In addition to educating students, the initiative fosters open-source cryptocurrency communities to help students take an active role in understanding the concepts. The program sponsors a variety of research and holds events for students like the “MIT Tech Review Business of Blockchain Conference.”
Suffolk University’s law school offers a unique Legal Innovation and Technology Concentration for students to focus on technology and innovation in the legal industry. This pioneering program features courses such as “Lawyering in the Age of Smart Machines,” which explores technology currently employed in firms and legal departments, including DIY contract assemblers, as well as implications for technology under development.
In addition to offering tech-based law programs, some universities have launched research labs.
The University of Edinburgh in collaboration with Input Output Hong Kong Ltd. launched the Blockchain Technology Lab early in 2017. According to the university website, research collaborations will be interdisciplinary and will include computer science, economics, game theory, regulation and compliance, business, and law, with particular focus on smart contracts.
Sydney’s UNSW launched the Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation late last year to explore various research topics, including cybersecurity, data governance, and the “automation of legal practice, adjudication, and decision-making,” which could open the doors for research into smart contracts and related technology.
Classes on smart contracts and blockchain concepts
Some universities also offer specific classes on blockchain concepts to get students thinking about the technology and its impact on law.
522 Contract Drafting: The Next Generation. This course explores how to conceptualize the legal structure of smart contracts and the analytical process behind converting DFAs.
BYU’s law school has embraced legal innovation and now offers a course called “Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Law” to explore “enforcement challenges regarding private payment systems” as well as other uses for blockchain technology.
Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies. Teaming up with the online teaching tool Coursera, Princeton Professor of Computer Science, Arvind Narayanan teaches an 11-week online course that involves cryptocurrency and how to facilitate smart contracts.
Algorithmic decision making is never a perfect science because the salient features of smart contracts differ. The dance between legal and technical is still unfolding, as disruptive technologies continue to change the way we do business. Will computer coded instructions ever be able to capture all the elements of human interaction? We’ll see, but when it comes to smart contracts, the universities on this list are the best place to start.
In addition to courses and programs, students have taken it upon themselves to learn about the implications and applications of smart contracts.
Blockchain at Berkeley is a student-run organization dedicated to serving the crypto and blockchain communities. Members include students, alumni, and the greater community. The initiative holds a range of programs centered around consulting, educating, and innovating on blockchain technology and the implication of smart contracts.
Their main site for all education related to smart contracts is called Decal. It is a forum of resources, classes, webinars, podcasts, and anything else a curious student would need to learn more about the technology.
These are but a few examples of how smart contracts and related technology are being taught to law students. Please feel free to contact the Academic Alliance with new developments in blockchain and smart contracts in legal education and scholarship.