Tim Hwang founded faux-law firm Robot Robot & Hwang in 2010 as "a legal startup" having a single human partner. While the site is a joke, Hwang’s declared mission—opening new opportunities for experimentation in the practice of law—is sincere. Hwang, not an actual lawyer, is a former research associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and the founder of ROFLCon, a real-world gathering celebrating Internet memes and the creators of viral content, and the Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences, a (real) organization whose local chapters bundle small donations to award $1,000 grants to quirky, community-focused projects. Here, Hwang discusses the state of flux in the legal profession and his own young career.
FAST COMPANY: You’re behind a website for a law firm called Robot Robot & Hwang, which turns out to be a joke. But there seems to be a serious idea there, too. What are you up to?
TIM HWANG: The name of the firm has been a great filter. The people who get it are the ones I want to be talking with. Robot Robot & Hwang LLP promotes disruptive technology for the law. This is one part bringing together people who are working on startups in this area and part developing new technology applications. I’m working on a toolkit that allows people to use computer code to program the behavior of corporations in the same way that you can program robots. To toolkit can cause a legal entity to generate subsidiaries, transfer assets, close down, and so on.
How did you get interested in this?
While I was at the Berkman Center as an undergrad and after, there was a lot of discussion about law and technology. Mostly people were talking about how law influences the creation of technology; there wasn’t much discussion the other way around, about the extent to which technology could influence legal practice.
One thing that got me intrigued about law was that industry-wide it has the same kind of structure as older industries that have been disrupted by technology: a small class of people that’s based on control of information, protected by regulations. Law hasn’t had its Napster moment yet, though everyone recognizes it’s an incredibly inefficient structure now and the legal profession is in incredible disarray. Part of it is because the industry hasn’t been innovative—not just in training lawyers but in practice. Lawyers tend to be sort of tech-adverse—I hear lots of stories like this one about the partner at a firm who gets his emails printed, writes responses in longhand, and has his secretary type the replies.
So, what impact do you think technology can have?
There’s already been a lot happening with consumer DIY services and e-discovery. In litigation, e-discovery, the practice of deploying smart search technologies to trawl through mountains of evidence, has been a really powerful technology. It automates a lot of what lawyers currently do, but it still leaves the overall structure intact in a way that’s not very progressive.
The idea of Robot Robot & Hwang is to experiment with computers and legal code to disrupt the norms of the industry and give way to something better and more innovative. I have in mind a different approach that brings the kind of big-data analysis we see being applied elsewhere to the law. An example of this is a company called Lex Machina, which does data mining on judges’ records and makes quantitative predictions about what they will do in the future. That sort of stuff is really powerful. It takes the responsibilities and talents attributed to lawyers and gives them to someone else as well. Also, the way forms are done now tend to be pretty flat—with online services you’re mostly just paying for PDF documents, but if it’s, say, a municipal complaint, you could add a tool to file it directly, in a really a simple way.
Are lawyers going to need different skills moving forward? Will they have to learn coding?
There’s a lot of dispute about what the future of legal education looks like. I don’t think lawyers necessarily need to learn how to code. But I think we will see a more entrepreneurial and innovative approach to law, where you'll have more options than just doing the law-firm thing—you can launch tools and products to help people help themselves, for example, and add services for anything on top of that.
What if I turned Robot Robot & Hwang into an actual legal practice? It would have to be nimble in the way it’s organized; people would have to develop technology or use it to create efficiencies. Imagine a law firm running more like a startup—that’s going to require a more nimble approach to law, and I think legal education in the future will be a little more interdisciplinary.
How do actual lawyers react to what you’re doing?
When I first launched Robot Robot & Hwang, it got picked up by the American Bar Association blog, and it’s been a bit polarizing. I meet a number of attorneys who cling to the idea that being a human in the system I provide some undefinable, abstract value. Some of these traditional attorneys have reacted with skepticism or outright hatred. Law students have also been less receptive, because the idea of Robot Robot & Hwang is adverse to their interests. They need to do mundane, simple tasks early in their careers, and this would take away that. It’s an empirical question—you put the technology in place and see who wins. Some things are better done by machines, some by humans.
The people who are pro come from lots of places—the community of entrepreneurs congealing around this stuff, for example. And the Stanford Center for Computers and the Law has been very supportive of what I’m doing. So are law schools who are second- or third-tier in the U.S. News & Word Report "caste system"—they’re trying to figure out how stay ahead of what’s going on.
How does being an outsider—and having a bunch of other projects—inform the way you’re looking at the legal profession?
It makes sense not to be a complete outsider, but to be an observer in some way. My other projects definitely inform what I’m doing. I wanted to have the same approach as with the Awesome Foundation—just start working on stuff right away, launch it, and test what works. No one’s quite sure what the future is going to look like, so my general strategy is to throw lots of stuff against the wall and see what sticks.
Since you’re not a real lawyer, how do you actually fund your work?
I do coding freelance work. The projects themselves are not generating money. I’m still trying to figure out what the sustainable model will be. That goes to the more meta question of how these kinds of projects get supported. Among VCs, it makes more sense to fund Twitter for dogs than to do something disruptive in this hundreds-year-old cartel. There needs to be some kind of structure where firms are creating and funding innovation in the space.