After attending CodeX Future Law at Stanford in early April, my takeaway was that we are only solving a small piece of the huge access to justice problem. Please do not misunderstand, the topics and speakers were excellent. However, other than Professor Gillian Hadfield’s keynote, we appear fixated on the big legal issues, including large corporate challenges with few exceptions on the chatbot panel. Implementing change at only an elite level will not solve the problem for the hundreds of millions of Americans and billions worldwide who cannot access justice. Instead, we need to question and redesign every process, service, including who is providing what service, and go outside the law for solutions to everyday legal problems.
Hadfield’s book, Rules for A Flat World was at the centre of her talk by the same name and subtitled Why Humans Invented Law and How to Reinvent It for a Complex Global Economy.
Professor Hadfield commented that legal aid will not solve our access to justice issue and that quality in law should be redefined as, “Are you solving the client’s problem?” If you step back from the day’s discussions about predictive analytics and rules systems, it boils down to solutions for the average citizens’ legal problems, which include law enforcement, family issues, housing, immigration, and some small business challenges.
As with health issues, we often go first to the internet to triage our symptoms. However, most do not substitute online advice for a visit to a medical professional. While there are alternatives to an M.D such as nurse practitioner or D.O., law only has a couple of options other than an attorney and one is doing it yourself. A recent Avvo study on legal consumers found that one in five people feel that they can do research online to replace a lawyer’s knowledge and about a quarter seek help from non-lawyer friends. Almost a third seek out free consultations from lawyers. At issue is cost and lack of understanding of the lawyer’s value plus the notion that attorneys are intimidating to the average citizen.
After Future Law, I interviewed Lucy Endel Bassli, Assistant General Counsel, Legal Operations and Contracting for Microsoft, who spoke on the Future Law customer roundtable. Lucy expanded on the need for alternative providers of legal services, “There will need to be a change in some regulatory and bar policies if we are to see true advancement in access to justice. While technology is a key factor in increasing access, we also need to increase the number of people are allowed to provide legal services. Today so many steps in the legal processes are limited to licensed attorneys, that the general public is completely excluded from some very basic tasks, which actually should not require a JD or bar license. Requiring that only licensed attorneys perform certain tasks in our court systems prevents the general population from accessing basic relief and resolution of uncomplicated legal issues.”
Closing the education gap between citizens and attorneys is a huge opportunity for the legal profession. The average American does not understand the need for an attorney and the value of expert advice, even for their small business. Group legal services companies are addressing the consumer market by providing affordable access to attorneys but it’s not enough if the regulations stay the same. More programs that allow “legal work” to be done by alternative providers like Limited Licensed Legal Technicians in Washington State and technology like the DONOTPAY chatbot or client document automation for immigration are needed to address the eighty percent of people who cannot find help for their legal problems.
Also at issue is that many lawyers resist technology because they believe some of the chatbots and expert systems will eliminate their jobs. This notion that artificial intelligence (AI) will completely replace attorneys is misguided. At Future Law, Joshua Browder spoke about his app DONOTPAY which helps UK citizens fight parking tickets and explained how he expanded the technology to help Syrian refugees and the homeless. Lawyers should embrace enabling technology to replace routine tasks to free them up to exercise their professional legal judgment on matters that require attorney expertise.
However, Lucy, who is also a self-described Legal Services innovation evangelist, explained that technology cannot just be added to the law, “Innovation is too quickly associated with technology and automation. Before automation will be truly impactful and helpful on a broad scale, the existing processes need to be reassessed and simplified. There is simply too much procedure and process in our legal systems, whereby automating it would only automate an unnecessarily burdensome and lengthy experience.”
Simply continuing to offer the same legal services, even adding enabling technology, will have the law go the way of the taxi industry, and the access to justice problem will need to be solved by other types of professionals, who are not lawyers. One of Hadfield’s conclusion, “Don’t leave it to the Lawyers” makes sense but attorneys and alternative providers should collaborate to open up the law to the average citizen. We need to take a hard look at the services provided and decide if a JD is truly needed to access that huge market of unmet need. In other words, assess what will solve the citizen’s legal problem in a timely and affordable way onwards.