In Blockchain we trust

bitcoin-blockchain-business-730569.jpgThe first thing we do, let’s disintermediate all the lawyers.

Imagine a world filled with absolute virtue where someone says they would do something and then actually did it. This level of trust reaches the pinnacle. If you wanted to buy a car, you would pay the listed price since that included the cost of manufacturing and a level of profit that everyone agreed would be appropriate for manufacturers. The bank would simply give you the money since you did say you would pay it all back in four years with interest.

But we are more of a trust but verify type of society. You have to search for comparable vehicles, generally haggle for the best price and sign pages of legal documents. Banks have you sign reams of paperwork and generally place a security interest on the car. The Bank also has to confirm the car is free of any liens. You then generally pay on time for the next four years. If you miss a couple of payments, then the bank may have to launch some proceedings for collection.

Blockchain promises to revolutionize the economy since a lot of this process outlined above simply disappears. Advocates claim that Blockchain immensely raises the level of trust in the system. Alternatively, one could argue that it removes the need for trust.

Undoubtedly you have heard of Bitcoin somehow in conjunction with Blockchain. Let’s ignore the bitcoin frenzy for now and focus on what drives it.

Blockchain comprises a continuously growing list of records called blocks. These blocks are linked together using cryptography that are resistant to data modification. So instead of a single ledger of transactions held by one organization, it is an open distributed ledger that can record transactions between parties in a verifiable way. One earlier block cannot be altered without the consensus of later blocks. There is no definite definition of Blockchain, but adherents are quite passionate about their own favorite.

Blockchains can be public or private. MasterCard’s Blockchain can’t be viewed and may not have any purpose outside of marketing since all of its transactions run through the existing infrastructure. This harkens back to the time when companies advertised they were Y2K compliant. Nice to have, eventually meaningless.

You clamber down the rabbit hole a bit more and you come across things such as smart contracts. The name again is a bit of a misnomer since the contracts are more of simple if this happens then that happens. Similar to if you have this much to drink, then you are going to feel that crappy in the morning type of logic.

Smart contracts are simply computer protocols intended to enforce the performance of a contract. They can be fully or partially self-executing. Once various conditions are fulfilled, assets are transferred and funds are released. This transaction is visible to all users but all parties remain anonymous.

We can look to Ethereum as having one of the better systems for establishing these smart contracts. Ethereum has its own cryptocurrency called Ether. In our car example the history of the car and the dealer’s transactions are on the Blockchain which is public and allow it to be checked by everyone. You contact your bank which has instant access to your credit history. The bank can transfer funds immediately and the dealer can arrange for the vehicle transfer by the time you get back from your test drive.

So long as you continue to authorize payments to the bank, all is well. If you decide to stop payments, then the car’s systems could be disabled the next time you try to start it. Welcome to the internet of things.

The Blockchain concept does have the potential to extend to all types of commercial transactions. House purchases could be reduced down to days from the existing weeks it presently takes. This would require a public ledger of real estate titles, planning permissions and certificates of title. Sweden’s land-ownership authority will be conducting its first Blockchain property transaction shortly. Presently, a three to six month transaction could potentially take hours instead. All that extra efficiency will have to come out of some intermediary’s pocket.

But you can see how the removal of intermediaries will eventually impact large swathes of job categories.  Any sort of job category that involves creating trust in a transaction may no longer be required. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners strongly claim that Blockchain is no mere hype train. This is a strong endorsement which would likely have the effect of reducing the need for Certified Fraud Examiners.

One paper suggested that insurance payouts could applied to Blockchain. They suggested that an automated system could indicate if an insured fell within an area that was recently flooded. Insurance payments would then be automatically issued. I found this a bit of a stretch. For example, there would have to be complete pre-existing documentation of assets to show that my wife’s mid-century modern furniture was actually solid teak and not veneer. A point of full disclosure, I only found out this past year that mid-century modern was actually a thing.

Ultimately, Blockchain can be seen as a foundational change. There are immense barriers to adoption for businesses, government and individuals. The incorporation of Blockchain may take years.

From my own perspective, a major function of lawyers includes the trust but verify aspect. As real estate transactions become more blockchainish, then the role of the lawyer would be substantially reduced. This may finally drive away the concept of hourly billing into a strict transactional fee type of relationship with clients.

Harvard Business Review goes so far as to say intermediaries such as lawyers, brokers and bankers may no longer be necessary. Not so much a ‘the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’ as ‘let’s disintermediate all the lawyers.’ This may not have the same emotive content, but the result would be same, lawyer wise.



Photos by David McBee

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