Many lawyers were surprised, confused and / or amused by recent news that a New Jersey firm had opened the first personal injury firm in the metaverse (the virtual world existing alongside our physical reality, in which people explore, play, and engage in commercial activity as digital avatars). This reaction was probably to be expected; law firms are notoriously slow to adapt to new business models or even to adopt productivity-improving technology. But some lawyers have been thinking about what this world means for the profession for some time. Now that some are setting up shop in Decentraland and other similar platforms, it will be possible for clients to meet with lawyers, avatar-to-avatar, in 3D simulations of law offices, probably with expensive NFT artwork hanging on virtual walls.
The metaverse not only provides new virtual “places” to practice, but also raises legal issues that should keep litigators and courts busy for some time. You can buy virtual property (real and personal) in the metaverse that exists only in the metaverse, so can you sue if your property is damaged or vandalized? What are your rights if you buy a product in real life based in false representations about the product in the metaverse (e.g. it looked better in the 3D virtual “store” where you browsed for it)? YouTube is full of clips of people having accidents while wearing VR headsets; is the headset manufacturer liable if you trip and are injured because you were seeing the virtual world instead of the real staircase in front of you? What if someone in the virtual world is using your real-world trademark to sell their virtual products in the metaverse? What court has jurisdiction over these disputes, and what’s the governing law?
Hanging over the prospect of practicing in the metaverse are the cybersecurity and privacy issues that attend any computer-mediated interaction. How secure is my conversation with a client in my metaverse office from interception and leaking? All clients provide personal information to lawyers, if only in the course of setting up a retainer; some clients provide valuable but not-yet-patented intellectual property. It is not difficult to imagine that my metaverse office may attract hackers looking to extract ransoms, or to carry out industrial espionage against my clients. As a mere user of the platform (even if I bought the digital real estate where my virtual office stands), the only control I have over the safety of my client’s data in the metaverse is to make sure I don’t discuss or receive it in the metaverse. That is why lawyers already operating on these platforms aren’t practicing there as such. Their virtual offices provide a place to advertise their services and make contact with potential clients, but from there, client intake and the giving of actual advice are quickly redirected to physical offices or to encrypted, private communications tools (e.g. the chat or videoconference platforms lawyers have grown used to using during pandemic remote deployment).