Without a doubt, our world is slowly shifting to an online reality where avatars, digital currencies, and non-fungible tokens (NFTs, that means that they are unique and cannot be replaced with something else) are becoming the norm. As such, one can argue that an overlap between the virtual world and the legal world is inevitable. This poses the question: what are the implications of virtual reality (VR) for the legal world? With digital identities, fake avatars, and the ability to be anonymous, it is not difficult to see the way in which concepts, such as the Metaverse, may pose problems for legal practice. This month at qLegal, two of our Student Advisors, Andrés Gustavo Mazuera and Tanya Shaar, explored some of the legal issues arising from the Metaverse and VR. Interest in this topic was piqued after finding out about the first-ever international arbitration gathering hosted by Elizabeth Chan on 27 January 2022. As such, in this blog post, an exploration into some of the benefits and limitations of VR, and its potential relationship with the legal world will be explored.

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How virtual reality is different from other platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams?

After many months of a ‘home office,’ numerous professionals have gotten used to the idea of having virtual meetings. People around the world (re-)discovered the perks of the internet. Virtuality has never been more relevant. A camera and a microphone are now indispensable items that every professional needs to use proficiently.

At the beginning of the pandemic, an interesting article was published in the New York Times about The Dos and Don’ts of Online Video Meetings. Some of these etiquette tips will no longer be necessary for the Metaverse (that is a form of digital interaction where connected, virtual experiences can either simulate the real world or imagine worlds beyond it). With a proper avatar, anybody wanting to have a meeting in the Metaverse will be actually interacting with other people. Definitely, there will be no need to worry about your background or wearing a suit jacket for the camera.

Virtual reality takes the online world and transforms it into a real-life experience. In fact, Elizabeth Chan went as far as to state that virtual reality can make you feel like you are sharing a room with someone in the physical world (Arbitration Tech Toolbox: Lessons from the First Ever International Arbitration Gathering in Virtual Reality). As such, it feels more natural than the 2D screen experience provided by Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Unlike video calls, the Metaverse will offer an authentic immersion into the virtual world. As technology improves, we are confident that interactions will be increasingly realistic. The possibility of actually ‘feeling’ the other person is not so far away. Therefore, the Metaverse could, in fact, bring us closer to each other in the same environment.

Trust issues in the Metaverse

As Elizabeth Chan correctly suggests, trust could be a major problem in the Metaverse. The development of meta-identities raises some concerns related to who is the person behind the avatar. Notably, the use of avatars, as they currently exist, hinders this ability to build a trusted relationship through VR. After the first VR gathering for international arbitration practitioners, a participant said that they would hesitate to nominate an arbitrator if they had only met their virtual avatar. Without a doubt, this could stem from the cartoonish appearance of the avatars, or equally, from something that makes interaction in VR seem less legitimate than a phone call, email or zoom.

Coming across as trustful will be the first requirement for any professional seeking to build a personal profile in the Metaverse. Of course, this is not something lawyers are not required to do right now. They will need to be more ‘real’ to their physical appearance themselves rather than being very adventurous in designing their avatar.

As such, building these trusted relationships may pose challenges at the start and it will take some time to get used to seeing avatars as a legitimate alternative self. However, as confidence grows and recognition is achieved, we might see changes in how a specific lawyer would present themselves. Who knows, we might actually see lawyers building their personal brands based on how unique their avatars look like. Once people get more used to the concept of VR, building trusted relationships online may become as normal as sending an Instagram request to a person you only met in an online Zoom class.

The truth is that for many years now, people have interacted through avatars. Those who have played World of Warcraft (WoW) can relate. The idea of role-playing, customising an avatar, and meeting with people in a virtual world has always been there. It comes as no surprise then that the acquisition of Activision-Blizzard (the company that owns WoW) by Microsoft aims at building the blocks for a bet in the Metaverse.

One could argue that friendships have blossomed in games such as these. Nevertheless, to what extent those meta-interactions will translate into real-world interactions is yet to be seen. It very well might be the case that, in the future, there is no need to have business interactions in the real world. Transactions will autonomously thrive within the Metaverse, and contracts will be signed, performed, and paid in this virtual environment.

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The person behind the avatar

In the Metaverse, you can be whoever, or whatever, you want. It is almost comparable to creating a Sims character, you pick the haircut, hair colour, outfit, and everything in between. But whether the avatar replicates you or not is unimportant. In fact, when Zuckerberg announced his suite of Metaverse products, he chose to represent himself with a virtual avatar that looked exactly on the other hand, chose to be a giant friendly robot. In the Metaverse, you really can be whomever — or whatever — you want. Andrew Bosworth on the other hand, chose to be a giant friendly robot. In the Metaverse, you really can be whomever — or whatever — you want.

Law firms and the Metaverse

Just like videoconference delivered benefits for the legal sector, so will the Metaverse. Virtual hearings are helping to reduce expenses and time, improve lawyers’ work-life balance, and decrease the profession’s environmental footprint. The Metaverse can only follow the same path. Law firms have started to build offices in the Metaverse, and many more may join in the following years. As stated before, the Metaverse will provide a more ‘realistic’ environment than simple videoconferences. In fact, the leading advocates in the sector now talk of the importance of ‘immersive online environments,’ which require more than just visual realism and include spatial sound, touch, motion and even heat/cold to increase the realism for trainees. Therefore, it is not farfetched to believe that — in the mid future — home office will take the form of a virtual office where lawyers interact as in physical offices.

Using the Metaverse for other activities such as virtual hearings is a whole different story. Lawyer, Mitch Jackson, describes how VR and the Metaverse technology can transform litigation by “allowing trial lawyers to tell better stories… for the first time, we will be able to take our audience by the virtual hand and walk them through a crime scene, in real time or recorded, so they understand and appreciate a situation or experience.” As captivating as this might seem, for now, this may not be possible. In fact, it may even be controversial to host a virtual court hearing if a witness were to give their testimony in VR through a cartoon-like avatar. Moreover, in a recent conference held at Queen Mary University of London, someone suggested that, since avatars’ facial expressions are based on predetermined reaction, no one will trust what they see.

Therefore, it may be more acceptable, at this stage, for only the tribunal or counsel to speak to deliver opening or closing submissions or to conduct a straightforward procedural conference using VR, rather than hosting complete virtual court hearings.

To sum up, the suitability of the Metaverse to allocate virtual hearings might be more challenging. It may raise some concerns to the parties involved in a dispute regarding who the person behind the avatar (and resolving the dispute) actually is. However, Elizabeth highlights that this might not be an issue in the long run. There are already some proposals of ‘face-less’ arbitrators (Blockchain arbitrators) or even decisions issued by artificial intelligence.

Experiments like the VR Gathering can quickly draw the legal community’s attention. We are an obvious example of that. Whether there is excitement or disbelief regarding the use of the Metaverse in the legal sector may depend on to whom you ask. Although there are uncertainties, we can agree that a whole new world of possibilities is born, and, as lawyers, we go where our clients go. The day when a law firms buy a couple of NFTs to decorate their conference room in the Metaverse is just around the corner. Some investment banks are already doing it!

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What does this all mean?

If there is one thing Elizabeth Chan’s experiment with VR and the Metaverse has proven, it is that people seem intrigued by the possibilities it has to offer. Despite this, whether the legal world is ready to integrate VR into its sphere, is another question. Without a doubt, society continues to shift to a more virtual world and Elizabeth Chan’s experiment has provided us with insight into the way the legal world can collide with VR. In fact, she might have provided us with a glimpse into the future of Law.

This article was written by Andrés Mazuera and Tanya Shaar, who are participating in qLegal as part of their Law Masters studies at Queen Mary, University of London. The authors would like to thank Elizabeth Chan for her comments that helped to improve the manuscript.

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