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Lawyers wanted… to discuss the Internet of Things

Christy BurkeLawyers need to make sure their voices are heard in debates about the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is poised to affect everyone, everything, everywhere, no doubt including the legal industry and the clients it serves. But will it have a drastic impact on IT operations at law firms? How can lawyers participate in the IoT phenomenon in a meaningful way?

The IoT is unlikely to affect law firms’ IT operations directly, says Ron Friedmann, a consultant at Fireman & Company and author of the “Strategic Legal Technology” blog. “IoT will be more important to manufacturers, embedding sensors so they can communicate, and that will produce new opportunities in factories, pipelines and so on,” he says. “But IoT will probably not have a compelling impact on office work at a law firm.”

Mary Abraham, author of the “Optimizing Law Firm Support Functions” report and the “Above and Beyond KM” blog, makes a similar point. “The Internet of Things is all about connectivity among everyday objects, but this has limited relevance within law firms,” she says. “If the firm’s printer is out of toner and it contacts an office supply provider to order more, that’s an example of IoT leading to greater efficiency. But does that materially improve the practice of law?”

However, Abraham adds that in the outward-facing activities of law firms, such as participating in policymaking and servicing clients, the IoT presents a plethora of interesting legal issues. “IoT is marvelous because it creates an opening for conversation and education about new opportunity and risk,” she says. “Clients will need policy to address concerns about confidentiality, privacy, surveillance and financial issues. Lawyers can play an important role in this process.”

A role for lawyers

Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) recently published a report called “Internet of Things: The Complete Reimaginative Force” which takes a thorough look at how IoT will impact 13 industries across the globe. Satya Ramaswamy, vice president and global head of TCS Digital Enterprise, led the team that conducted the study.

“IoT is a great opportunity for legal folks to have a place at the table,” he says. “However, lawyers will need to be up-to-date on the technology if they are to participate in developing policies to govern IoT. The information they need is available and, if they are willing to get involved, lawyers can look at it more comprehensively and deliberately than engineers can.”

Anyone questioning the idea that lawyers are needed in IoT discussions should consider the following scenario proposed by Ken Grady, lean law evangelist at Seyfarth Shaw. Think about the programmers creating the code to direct a self-driving car. They need to establish what should happen if a child darts out into the street and the car realizes it can’t stop in time. The car needs to “decide” whether to harm the child by not braking or potentially harm its own passengers by braking hard and stopping short. The coders will determine the decisions the car makes in such circumstances, with lives hanging in the balance.

It’s clear that lawyers need to be part of this discussion, not only from an ethical standpoint but also from a risk management standpoint to protect the car manufacturer. If someone gets injured or killed, is the manufacturer unquestionably at fault? This is not a simple call to make. It’s a complex issue on many levels.

Lawyers must walk a fine line when setting the ground rules for the IoT. Technologists and entrepreneurs are pushing to get the technology approved and quickly bring it to market. Lawyers and the courts are trying to determine the rules and struggling to understand the technology and the ethical questions it raises.

Historically, lawyers have been front and center in such ethical discussions, but the overwhelming quantity of data and complexity associated with the IoT are prompting a lot of them to stay away. Realizing they are not adequately informed about the technology in question, they don’t engage. This is a big loss, because their input is crucial.

“Technology is generally a step ahead of the law – and IoT technology is many steps ahead,” says Grady. “If you look at the groups being formed to discuss IT, there are often no lawyers involved. Technologists, entrepreneurs, and policy wonks are present, but no lawyers. Many are ceding their ground, saying they are not current enough on the technology to participate. Lawyers need to ask themselves whether they want to remain visible and relevant or whether they want to remove themselves from their role. Technology and entrepreneurs are moving ahead. Many lawyers are not.”

The implications of the IoT

Grady says some lawyers are interested in topics related to the IoT, particularly cybersecurity and privacy issues. However, the proportion of interested lawyers is relatively small, given the pervasive impact these matters will have on companies and society.

Lawyers must educate themselves on the technology. They also need to change how they are perceived, or they risk being increasingly excluded. “At times, lawyers are perhaps seen as slowing things down so they are intentionally not invited to have a seat at the table,” says David Houlihan, principal analyst covering topics in enterprise risk management, compliance and policy management, and legal technology at Blue Hill Research.

“GCs need to sit down with engineering, but it’s not straightforward how that conversation will achieve its goal,” he says. “Bigger issues will arise over time as data resulting from IoT increases exponentially. Therefore, the discussions on controversial IoT topics need to happen now, at the beginning of the IoT groundswell.” 

Ramaswamy adds that a host of ethical and privacy issues will emanate from IoT data. “IoT will bring implications on legal,” he says. “One reason is the data transparency that IoT provides and the ethics issues it creates. If an insurance company can track the driving habits of its drivers to determine insurance premiums and pricing on an individual basis, that absolutely has privacy implications for the customer.” 

He also notes that with the proliferation of data IoT produces, companies have enough information to tailor pricing and marketing based on a “segmentation of one”. More precisely, this means that pricing and promotion can be customized for a particular person depending on willingness or ability to pay. Examples like this bring up rights issues such as discrimination and privacy. Ramaswamy predicts that because IoT presents such issues, “there will likely be a boost on the human side of law advocating rights and dignity of the individual”. 

Regarding the IoT, lawyers need to act assertively to claim their collective seat at the table, while seeking education and involvement in these inventions as they hit the public. Optimally, this stepping up will happen before inventions are widely introduced. Similarly, entrepreneurs, corporate executives and inventors need to seek both inside and outside counsel to brief them.

James Manyika and Michael Chui of McKinsey Global Institute recently looked at more than 150 specific IoT applications that exist today or could be in widespread use within 10 years. Their conclusion was that these applications could have an economic impact of $3.9 trillion to $11.1 trillion per year by 2025. With staggering numbers like these, it’s abundantly clear that legal needs to sit up and take notice – for financial as well as ethical reasons. Hopefully the sheer enormity of the IoT wave will inspire lawyers to insist on playing an active, central role in the discussion.

This article was originally published in Legal IT Today, issue #11

Christy Burke is President of Burke & Company, a New York-based consulting firm serving the legal technology industry. Christy has published articles and commentary about legal tech industry trends with Legal IT Professionals, Marketing the Law Firm,, Legaltech News (formerly Law Technology News) and Legal Tech. She has also delivered lectures and moderated panels for the New York County Lawyers Association (NYCLA), the New York City Bar Association and Women in eDiscovery’s NYC Chapter. For more information, visit

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