Note: I led First Round's investment in Docracy in 2011, but I do not have any financial ties to the company and will not benefit or suffer, other than emotionally, based on the outcome of that investment.
Docracy, born out of Techcrunch Disrupt's 2011 Hackathon, just brought legal negotiations into the cloud with their new Super Signing feature release. Building collaboration tools is the next logical step after they've already built the only free open source depository of legal documents--similar to how Github isn't just a place to store your code, but to work on it with others.
Features are nice, but this post is about the bigger vision.
According to Wikipedia, “Law is a system of rules and guidelines which are enforced through social institutions to govern behavior.” In that sense, you can think of the law as lines of code that make the program we call society work.
Unfortunately, our codebase has become very bloated.
Our recent health care reform bill? 1,990 pages! Employment contracts, mortgages, sales agreements--they’re all completely unreadable by anyone without a law degree.
Remember the scene in The Matrix where Cipher explains reading the program code to Neo?
Neo: Do you always look at it encoded?
Cypher: Well you have to. The image translators work for the construct program. But there's way too much information to decode the Matrix. You get used to it.
The instructions are so complex that no human could understand it. It's a set of rules regulating a system can only be understood and changed by those who built the system.
Kind of sounds like an Occupy Wall Street complaint doesn’t it?
When the law becomes so complicated that only a select few with the money to hire lawyers can translate and manipulate it, you give a tremendous advantage to those already in power. Whether you believe in 1% conspiracies or not, most would agree that those in power want to stay in power and a complicated legal framework helps stall social innovation and maintains the status quo.
This is how software used to get developed. It used to be that only Microsoft and other big companies had the resources to build operating systems and office suites. Soon, feature creep, groupthink, and the lack of quality product management caused each new version of software to become bigger, and more difficult to manage. Installs were bloated behemoths forced on customers that had few choices in the market.
It came with various hooks into your ecosystem meant to control more and more of your computing experience--in order to force your loyalty, monetize you, etc. The system was so pervasive and complex that uninstalling it would be just as painful as the custom install that got it into your company in the first place.
On top of all this, being the best possible software provider was inherently at conflict with the ability to make money on upgrades in the future. Innovation wasn’t a priority for those who were fat and happy at the top of the pile.
Enter open source--opening up software to the community in a transparent way that allowed crowdsourced contributions to improve it. It decreased the cost of building and maintaining software exponentially. Now anyone could leverage the work of others, see how the code worked, and use what they needed freely. Huge software companies started to face stiff competition by their own customers, who were gathering together to rewrite the code in an open, collaborative way that was easy to understand, flexible, and suited their needs, not those of the people trying to make money off them.
Imagine what open source could do to the law. Imagine if every law and form of contract that governs your life could be made easy to read and open to improvement by the community. Imagine if we had perfect information about what the best forms of contracts where--and which parts were non-standard. Instead of a team of lawyers working at someone else’s firm drafting the terms that affected you, you could use the contract the community had already decided was most fair--for free. That would not only make doing business more seamless and less costly, but it would start to sway the balance between the haves and the have nots.
When the laws of the system become easier to understand and open to being changed, the current agents controlling the system, and potentially abusingit, lose power.
That’s what Docracy is doing, and I believe it is some of the most important work that any startup is working on right now.
They’re cracking open the complexities of the legal system, starting with contracts, and making them work for the community. They have an open source depository of legal documents, just like Github does with software, that has been contributed by lawyers, professional groups, and industry experts--and additionally vetted by the people using those documents everyday. They suggest changes and discuss best practices.
Github provides a great lesson from the world of open source and a great model for Docracy. To successfully build an open source project--or any project for that matter--you need the best tools. It’s not enough to just release a project into the community. The community needs useful ways to efficiently interact around the code. Github makes open source better by making great collaboration tools.
That’s why I’m so excited about the potential of Docracy’s new cloud based “Super Signing” negotiation platform. Anyone who has ever e-mailed various versions of Word documents to a lawyer or counterparty has experienced the pain. It’s not collaboration. It’s cruel and unusual torture. Docracy now brings the ease of collaboration and customer centric design that we’ve come to know in services like Github and Basecamp to the legal world.
It’s going to make negotiating business relationships that much easier--but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Systems like this make the legal system work easily for all the participants, not just the lawyers, and can change the way our society works and the speed at which law adapts to social change. Just stop for a moment and think about what open source, with the right tools to collaborate around it, did for software--and now apply that to laws and society. That’s a very powerful notion and it’s why I’m excited about what this company can do in the long term. I’m proud to have worked with them when I was at my previous firm, First Round Capital--and while I currently have no economic ties to the company, as a participant in our society’s legal frameworks, I’m deeply vested in their work. They’ve received a lot of inbound interest from supporters who see the bigger picture of making the law work for everyone and they’re open to talking to anyone who shares their mission--early stage investors, employees, press, lawyers, etc. It’s a major undertaking, and will appropriately be a community effort.