Narae Lee is General Counsel of Seoul-based Blockchain Accelerator Blockcrafters, and Organizer of Seoul Legal Hackers. In this interview, she explains the work of Blockcrafters, her previous work as corporate legal counsel and as a lawyer both in government and in private practice; the current state of legal entrepreneurship in South Korea and the role of Seoul Legal Hackers in that ecosystem; the current state of blockchain in South Korea, legal tech and legal entrepreneurship as an alternative career path; and how the practice of law in South Korea will be changed by technology over the next ten years.
You’re general counsel to blockchain startup Blockcrafters. Tell us about Blockcrafters
There are two kinds of projects that Blockcrafters is working on now. First, as an accelerator, we are helping other companies to build their business models based on blockchain. In partnership with NIPA (National IT Industry Promotion Agency), Blockcrafters has been appointed as an official accelerator of K-global project, which supports blockchain-based SMEs to expand their business in other countries. Second, we are designing a new service to provide better ways for users to store their digital assets and receive benefits for storing them in return. Having successfully advised a handful of companies to build productive business models based on blockchain, we are planning to roll out this service by the second half of 2020.
Before joining Blockcrafters you served as an attorney in Korea’s Ministry of Justice, as a lawyer in private practice, and as in-house counsel for eBay and kakaopage. How have these roles contrasted with each other and prepared you for work as counsel to a blockchain startup?
The most exciting and challenging aspect of working in a blockchain startup is the fact that there is scarcely any precedent in this industry. In my previous work as legal counsel in the Ministry of Justice and in other companies, the vital part of the work was to find relevant precedents and appropriate ways of solving the problems in a reflection of past practices, as the legal interpretation should be coherent with the existing practices. However, in the blockchain industry, as we are in a process of identifying the characteristics of blockchain and cryptocurrency, I should identify legal issues and figure out the ways to solve them by myself. While working on it, I usually end up asking fundamental questions to myself to solve the issues, such as the definition and characteristics of assets and the grounds of imposing duties on each player.
Another interesting aspect of working in the blockchain industry is that I have more opportunities to perceive current matters from a more comprehensive view, as blockchain does not account for any territorial boundaries. Therefore, I need to monitor and keep track of the changes and interpretations in other countries as well and analyze how those interpretations in other countries would affect those in Korea. While doing so, I can have more chances to exchange thoughts with people in other countries and be able to expand my views beyond the national statutory laws.
You’re also Organizer of Seoul Legal Hackers. What is the current state of legal entrepreneurship in Korea and how is Seoul Legal Hackers helping to facilitate that legal innovation?
I think the concept of legal tech, which is to provide legal services with the aid of technology, is now in a stage of being introduced to the Korean legal market and lawyers. Although there are some regulatory obstacles that we should overcome to implement legal tech services, there are a number of legal tech companies in Korea that are exploring ways to solve the existing problems in the legal services market with technology.
Legal Hackers is a forum where lawyers, scholars, and entrepreneurs get together to learn and discuss issues at the intersection of law and technology, and I am working as an organizer of Legal Hackers’ Seoul chapter from 2018. We host bi-monthly meetups and workshops on legal tech, blockchain, and AI. As it is essential to build a network among the people who are interested in those issues, we also hosted a networking dinner for the people who are interested in the Korean legal tech industry in December 2019, where I had a chance to connect with the pioneers of legal tech in Korea. Legal Hackers Seoul is going to host Legal Hackers APAC summit in June 18~21 2020, where organizers of Legal Hackers in the APAC region get together to discuss the current status and issues of legal tech in each region and other thought-provoking issues including open data, and open legal education culture. There will be an open session for the public, where we will discuss those issues openly with the public, so please stay tuned for the Legal Hackers APAC Summit and feel free to attend the open session if you are interested.
What is the current state of blockchain in Korea – and how is law helping to facilitate its’ development there?
In my opinion, in Korea, while the startups are willing to develop their businesses and provide services on blockchain in Korea, an unclear regulatory and legal framework for blockchain gets in the way of further development of the industry. I believe quite a lot of blockchain-based companies, including Blockcrafters, call for promulgating clear rules on the blockchain when necessary and are willing to abide by the rules. From the market player’s point of view, it is not easy to invest resources in something unclear. If a clear legal framework is formulated on blockchain and cryptocurrency, it will be helpful for blockchain companies to build a sustainable business model. When it comes to building a legal framework for blockchain, striking a balance between the promotion of innovation and the protection of public interests must be the priority. I believe open discussion between the market players and the public regulators can help achieve it.
Is legal tech and legal entrepreneurship a likely alternative career path for Korean lawyers in the future?
Yes, I believe legal tech and legal entrepreneurship will be a great alternative path for Korean lawyers to take in the near future. Legal tech is not something special, as it means the provision of legal services based on data and technology, as other industries have increasingly adopted. Therefore, the legal industry would not be an exception in that change, and we will find paths to provide legal services more effectively, which can create values for the clients. Moreover, as the number of lawyers in the Korean legal services market has been increased exponentially, the traditional ways of providing legal services are not sustainable for most of the lawyers. Among the young lawyers, there is a call for changes to tackle the current problems in the legal services market, including the inefficiency and high barriers of access to justice. With the deployment of new technologies, including blockchain and artificial intelligence, young lawyers and small and medium-sized law firms may find new opportunities to leapfrog in the legal service market.
How will the practice of law in Korea be different in ten year from now as a result of technological changes and their impact on the profession?
In my opinion, the practice of law in Korea will be restructured in a way to utilize data analysis and deploy new technologies. This future is not something given, but rather a future that we lawyers should strive to achieve step by step.
With the assistance of technology, I believe we can broaden the scope of legal services and lower the barriers to access to the justice system. Under the existing system, people do not get enough legal assistance from professionals, and the rate of people who represent themselves in lawsuits is quite high. By deploying new technology when necessary, lawyers can provide legal services to the people in need of help at affordable costs, and this will lead people to access legal services easily.
Moreover, we can increase efficiency in legal services and can be able to provide legal services to the clients in a more transparent way. In the existing system, there have been quite a number of people who have complained of inefficiency in legal services as well as insufficient explanations that lawyers provide to the clients. With the help of technologies that enables lawyers to provide legal services based on data, lawyers can revamp the existing problems and improve their services.