RuleThe race is on—in fact it is well underway. Somewhere, some lonely legal tech guru is sitting in his garage working on “the greatest thing since the invention of the hornbook.” Based on algorithms that would make most string theorists drool at their complexity, the new app will not tell you what the law is (since it is a fool’s errand to chase the past with the future changing so quickly), it will tell you what the law will be when your case reaches that AI mediator/arbitrator/jurist who will resolve the dispute.

This tool will go far beyond predictive analytics, that measly science of trying to guess human behavior, it will be predictive law. From your smartphone, you will tap in the answers to some simple questions and then set a forecast timeframe: 1 year, 5 years, 10 years. Your smartphone, of course, now has processing power equivalent to your brain, though software is still limping along far behind it. But, by analyzing 10 to the something trends and then running 10 to the something variations of those trends (now called Monte Carlo lawyering), your smartphone answers telling you what the law will be on your preferred date.

And then the pin drops. Some smart-alecky third year associate in one of those big fancy law firms points out that she has spent the past three years researching all manner of legal issues for the firm’s clients. With well over 6,000 hours invested in research, she crisply points out that predicting the future of the law is quite easy and does not require the new app. “In 10 years,” she says, “the law will look basically the same as it looks today.”

It takes more than three years for a case to work its way through a federal district court to conclusion. Then add another three to four years for the case to reach the Supreme Court. But of course that is only one case. For the Supreme Court to even sniff at a case, we must have a division among the federal circuit courts of appeal. That means many cases have to work their way up through federal district courts to final decisions in federal appellate courts, and those decisions must conflict on at least one issue that grabs the Supreme Court’s attention. Then, and only then, will the Supreme Court consider giving an answer, and of course we must put aside all the state law issues which have their own paths.

To those enormous delays, we must add the time to develop the federal statutes that will give rise to the federal cases that will, etc. It takes far more than three years to get a law on the books, and then of course we need the regulations. Only then can we begin the stream of cases that will lead to the Supreme Court. “So you see,” says the third year associate, “the law will barely budge during those 10 years. After spending my more than 6,000 hours on research, I can confidently tell any senior associate to tell the junior partner to tell the senior partner to tell the client that what they want to do may or may not be legal.”

Laggard Law Affects Us All

My question is this: which parts of the above story are made up? I’ll wait. We’ll actually, I won’t wait. I’m a lawyer (retired), but I still do not have any patience. You see, nothing in the story above is made up. Law at the federal level in the United States develops in competition with the movement of glaciers (or, to put it in more timely terms, the melting of glaciers). For a while, glaciers have been winning. The federal legal system in the United States is in gridlock. Rip Van Winkle can take his nap, wake up refreshed, and miss almost nothing when it comes to federal law.

For many lawyers, the laggardness of federal law is more blessing than curse. The law, they say, should not jump and twitch in response to everything techies do. Tech comes and goes (remember those AOL discs you would get in the mail? Google Glass?) and the law should be about general principles (Karl Llewellyn’s “law of the horse” concern) not the latest fads. It takes time for lasting themes to develop and then the law can give guidance on those themes.

There are, of course, others who hold a somewhat different view. Social media, 3D printing, genome splicing, nanotechnology, AI, and many other emerging technologies are raising questions not just of property rights or privacy (both very important), but of greater risks.

We all understand that a human is a human and a machine a machine. One has rights and the other does not. But where does the dividing line exist? As we can replace body parts with devices (sometimes mechanical, sometimes biological), the definition of human starts to slip. What about when we implant electrodes that change how our brains operate? Still human? What about the next step, when scientists using CRISPR technology to alter our genetic structure? What now?

Yes, many of these technologies are in their infancy. The effects are incredible for the individuals involved, but modest for society as a whole. Doing something to hold back or alter the course of these technologies could negatively affect the lives of hundreds, thousands, even millions of people who will benefit from the technology, just because some like to run around yelling “the sky is falling.”

So go back to the original timeline. Getting issues through the federal courts (and most of the meaningful issues arising from emerging technology will need to be addressed on a federal, not state level) can easily take more than a decade. That means issues we see today may not be resolved through the courts until 2026 or later, and that is if we start today. But to reach the point where these emerging technologies can do things that truly change the human condition will take, by the estimates of many technologists, perhaps 15 or 20 years.

Put another way, in 2026 the federal courts may be getting around to addressing legal issues arising today from emerging technologies. But, of course, those emerging technologies will no longer be emerging and will have moved far past the legal issues raised today. We already can see evidence that this will happen. Regulatory bodies struggle to come up with regulations addressing issues that are minor compared to the ones raised by technology. The Dodd-Frank law passed in 2010 required public companies to report their CEO-to-average-pay ratio. The regulations implementing that requirement take effect in 2017. Seven years to handle the debate over calculating a ratio—and without lawsuits. Yeah, the federal legislative system is well-prepared to address nanobots.

Just as the process for delivering legal services is based on a late-1800s model which has changed trivially from then to today, the processes for creating and interpreting law at the federal level have changed little over the same period (and probably longer). Society, however, has refused to conform with lawyers’ desire to keep it slow.

Reform Is Possible

It would be easy to assume that I am arguing in favor of rapid law development. Some fundamental change to the processes of creating and interpreting law that would jerk the legal industry into the present and risk changing the law so quickly that it no longer brings stability and order to society. It would be easy, but wrong.

I do, however, see changes that would pull the federal processes into alignment with what society needs today—earlier guidance on issues that have the potential to affect society at fundamental levels. The definition of “fundamental levels” is beyond this post, but I am talking about process reform so we can leave substance for another day. I’m not endorsing any of the efforts I highlight, merely pointing to examples of people taking action on the types of ideas I suggest. In other words, don’t respond by critiquing the example, address the concept.

1. Move to some form of agile law-making. See, e.g., Agile Government Leadership.

2. Crowdsource opinions from stakeholders. See, e.g., Crowdsourcing legislation efforts in California and New York City.

3. Use superforecasting to test the potential effects of various regulatory approaches. See, e.g., Q&A with Philip Fetlock on Superforecasting (as applied to geopolitical risks).

4. (Greatly) expand the use of process improvement and narrow-purpose technology in the federal court system. See, e.g., 18F.

5. Streamline the process of moving disputes through courts and streamline what courts produce. See, e.g., The Pathway Approach: Draft Rules and Examples of Rules from Around the Country.

I am not attempting to answer any of the challenging legal questions that emerging technologies already have raised. My goal is more focused. The questions need to be worked out through processes that can deliver answers that we as a society can live with, and which are delivered within a time frame that makes them meaningful, not historical oddities. By not fixing our processes today, we risk (and I think the risk is very high) reaching a point when we do need answers and not being able to get them because the architecture of our rule of law system cannot handle the challenge. A rule of law system only works when we actually have law.