Current Projects

Filing Fairness Toolkit

The Stanford Legal Design Lab & the Rhode Center on the Legal Profession have just released the Filing Fairness Toolkit.

The toolkit covers 4 areas, with diagnostics, maturity models, and actionable guidance for:

  1. improving Filing Technology Infrastructure
  2. building a healthy Filing Partner Ecosystem
  3. establishing good Technology Governance
  4. refining Forms & Filing Processes

This Toolkit is the product of several years of work, design sessions, collaborations with courts and vendors across the country, and stakeholder interviews. It is for court leaders, legal tech companies, legal aid groups, and government officials who are looking for practical guidance on how to make sure that people can find, complete, and file court forms.

Check out our diagnostic tool to see how your local court system measures up to national best practices in forms, efiling, and services.

We know efiling and court technology can be confusing (if not intimidating). We’ve worked hard to make these technical terms & processes more accessible to people beyond IT staff. Getting better efiling systems in place can unlock new opportunities for access to justice.

Please let us know if you have questions, ideas, and stories about making forms, efiling, and other court tech infrastructure more accessible, user-friendly, and impactful.

Read more at the Toolkit announcement page.

AI + Access to Justice Current Projects

Presentation to Indiana Coalition for Court Access

On October 20th, Legal Design Lab executive director presented on “AI and Legal Help” to the Indiana Coalition for Court Access.

This presentation was part of a larger discussion about research projects, a learning community of judges, and evidence-based court policy and rules changes. What can courts, legal aid, groups, and statewide justice agencies be doing to best serve people with legal problems in their communities?

Margaret’s presentation covered the initial user research that the lab has been conducting, about how different members of the public think about AI platforms in regards to legal problem-solving and how they use these platforms to deal with problems like evictions. The presentation also spotlit the concerning trends, mistakes, and harms around public use of AI for legal problem-solving, which justice institutions and technology companies should focus on in order to prevent consumer harms while harnessing the opportunity of AI to help people understand the law and take action to resolve their legal problems.

The discussion after the presentation covered topics like:

  • Is there a way for justice actors to build a more authoritative legal info AI model, especially with key legal information about local laws and rights, court procedures and timelines, court forms, and service organizations contact details? This might help the AI platforms, avoid mistaken, information or hallucinated details.
  • How could researchers measure the benefits and harms of AI provided legal answers, compared to legal expert-provided legal answers, compared to no services at all? Aside from anecdotes and small samples, is there a more deliberate way to analyze the performance of AI platforms, when it comes to answering peoples questions about the law, procedures, forms, and services? This might include systematically measuring how often these platforms make mistakes, categorizing exactly what the mistakes are, and estimating, or measuring how much harm emerges from these mistakes. A similar deliberate protocol might be done for the benefits that these platforms provide.
AI + Access to Justice Class Blog Current Projects

AI Goes to Court: The Growing Landscape of AI for Access to Justice

By Jonah Wu

Student research fellow at Legal Design Lab, 2018-2019

1. Can AI help improve access to civil courts?

Civil court leaders have a newly strong interest in how artificial intelligence can improve the quality and efficiency of legal services in the justice system, especially for problems that self-represented litigants face [12345]. The promise is that artificial intelligence can address the fundamental crises in courts: that ordinary people are not able to use the system clearly or efficiently; that courts struggle to manage vast amounts of information; and that litigants and judicial officials often have to make complex decisions with little support.

If AI is able to gather and sift through vast troves of information, identify patterns, predict optimal strategies, detect anomalies, classify issues, and draft documents, the promise is that these capabilities could be harnessed for making the civil court system more accessible to people.

The question then, is how real these promises are, and how they are being implemented and evaluated. Now that early experimentation and agenda-setting have begun, the study of AI as a means for enhancing the quality of justice in the civil court system deserves greater definition. This paper surveys current applications of AI in the civil court context. It aims to lay a foundation for further case studies, observational studies, and shared documentation of AI for access to justice development research. It catalogs current projects, reflects on the constraints and infrastructure issues, and proposes an agenda for future development and research.

2. Background to the Rise of AI in the Legal System

When I use the term Artificial Intelligence, I distinguish it from general software applications that are used to input, track, and manage court information. Our basic criteria for AI-oriented projects is that the technology has capacity to perceive knowledge, make sense of data, generate predictions or decisions, translate information, or otherwise simulate intelligent behavior. AI does not include all court technology innovations. For example, I am not considering websites that broadcast information to the public; case or customer management systems that store information; or kiosks, apps, or mobile messages that communicate case information to litigants.

The discussion of AI in criminal courts is currently more robust than in civil courts. It has been proposed as a means to monitor and recognize defendants; support sentencing and bail decisions; and better assess evidence [3]. Because of the rapid rise of risk assessment AI in the setting of bail or sentencing, there has been more description and debate on AI [6]. There has been less focus on AI’s potential, or its concerns, in the civil justice system, including for family, housing, debt, employment, and consumer litigation. That said, there has been a robust discourse over the past 15 years of what technology applications and websites could be used by courts and legal aid groups to improve access to justice [7].

The current interest in AI for civil court improvements is in sync with a new abundance of data. As more courts have gathered data about administration, pleadings, litigant behavior, and decisions [1], it presents powerful opportunities for research and analytics in the courts, that can lead to greater efficiency and better design of services. Some groups have managed to use data to bring enormous new volumes of cases into the court system — like debt collection agencies, which have automated filings of cases against people for debt [8], often resulting in complaints that have missing or incorrect information and minimal, ineffective notice to defendants. If litigants like these can harness AI strategies to flood the court with cases, could the courts use its own AI strategies to manage and evaluate these cases and others — especially to better protect unwitting defendants against low-quality lawsuits?

The rise in interest in AI coincides with state courts experiencing economic pressure: budgets are cut, hours are reduced, and even some locations are closed [9]. Despite financial constraints, courts are expected to provide modern, digital, responsive services like in other consumer services. This presents a challenging expectation for the courts. How can they provide judicial services in sync with rapidly modernizing other service sectors — in finance, medicine, and other government bodies — within significant cost constraints? The promise of AI is that it can scale up quality services and improving efficiency, to improve performances and save costs [10].

A final background factor to consider is the growing concern over public perceptions of the judicial system. Yearly surveys indicate that communities find courts out of touch with the public, and with calls for greater empathy and engagement with “everyday people” [11]. Given that the mission of the court is to provide an avenue to lawful justice to constituents, if AI can help the court better achieve that mission without adding on averse risks, it would help the courts establish greater procedural and distributive justice for its litigants, and hopefully then bolster its legitimacy to the public and engagement with it.

3. What could be? Proposals in the Literature for AI for access to justice

What has the literature proposed on how AI techniques can address the access to justice crisis in civil courts? Over the past several decades, distinct use cases have been proposed for development. There is a mix of litigant-focused use cases (to help them understand the system and make stronger claims), and court-focused use cases (to help it improve its efficiency, consistency, transparency, and quality of services).

  • Answer a litigant’s questions about how the law applies to them. Computational law experts have proposed automated legal reasoning as a way to understand if a given case is in accordance with the law or not [12]. Court leaders also envision AI to help litigants conduct effective, direct research into how the law would apply to them [4,5]. Questions of how the law would apply to a given case lay on a spectrum of complexity. Questions that are more straightforwardly algorithmic (e.g., if a person exceeded a speed limit, or if a quantity or date is in an acceptable range) can be automated with little technical challenge [13]. Questions that have more qualitative standards, like whether it was reasonable, unconscionable foreseeable, or done in good faith, are not as easily automated — but they might be with greater work in deep learning and neural networks. Many propose that expert systems, or AI-powered chatbots might help litigants know their rights and make claims [14].
  • Analyze the quality of a legal claim and evidence. Several proposals are around making it easier to understand what has been submitted to court, and how a case has proceeded. Some exploratory work has pointed towards how AI could automatically classify a case docket, the chronological events in a case, in order that it could be understood computationally [15]. Machine learning could find patterns in claims and other legal filings, to indicate whether something has been argued well, whether the law supports it, and evaluate it versus competing claims [16].
  • Provide coordinated guidance for a person without a lawyer. Many have proposed focus on developing a holistic AI-based system to guide people without lawyers through the choices and procedure of a civil court case. One vision is of an advisory system that would help a person understand available forms of relief, helping them understand if they can meet the requirements, informing them of procedural requirements; and helping them to draft court documents [1718].
  • Predict and automate decisionmaking. Another proposal, discussed within the topic of online dispute resolution, is around how AI could either predict how a case will be decided (and thus give litigants a stronger understanding of their changes), or to actually generate a proposal of how a disputes should be settled [1920]. In this way, prediction of judicial decisions could be useful to access to justice. It could be integrated into online court platforms where people are exploring their legal options, or where they are entering and exchanging information in their case. The AI would help litigants to make better choices regarding how they file, and it would help courts expedite decision-making by either supporting or replacing human judges’ rulings.

4. What is happening so far? AI in action for access

With many proposals circulating about how AI might be applied for access to justice, where can we see these possibilities being developed and piloted with courts? Our initial survey identifies a handful of applications in action.

4.1. Predicting settlement arrangements, judicial decisions, and other outcomes of claims

One of the most robust areas of AI in access to justice work has been in developing applications to predict how a claim, case, or settlement will be resolved by a court. This area of predictive analytics has been demonstrated in many research projects, and in some cases have been integrated into court workflows.

In Australian Family Law courts, a team of artificial intelligence experts and lawyers have begun to develop Split-Up system, to use rules-based reasoning in concert with neural networks to predict outcomes for property disputes in divorce and other family law cases [21]. The Split Up system is used by judges to support their decision-making, by helping them to identify the assets of marriage that should be included in a settlement, and then establishing what percentage of the common pool each party should receive — which is a discretionary judicial choice based on factors including contributions, amount of resources, and future needs. The system incorporates 94 relevant factors to make its analysis, which uses neural network statistical techniques. The judge can then propose a final property order based on the system’s analysis. The system also seeks to make transparent explanations of its decision, so it uses Toulmin Argument structures to represent how it reached its predictions.

Researchers have created algorithms to predict Supreme Court and European Court of Human Rights decisions [222324]. They use natural language processing and machine learning to construct models that predict the courts’ decision with strong accuracy. Their predictions draw from the formal facts submitted in the case to identify what a likely outcome, and potentially even individual justices’ votes will be. This judicial decision prediction research can possibly used to offer predictive analytic tools to litigants, so they can better assess the strength of their claim and understand what outcomes they might face. Legal technology companies like Ravel and LexMachina [2526], claim that they can predict judges’ decision and case behavior, or the outcomes of an opposing party. The applications are mainly aimed at corporate-level litigation, rather than access to justice.

4.2. Detecting abuse and fraud against people the court oversees

Courts’ role in overseeing guardians and conservators means that they should be reducing financial exploitation of vulnerable people by those appointed to protect them. With particular concern for financial abuse of elderly by their conservators or guardians, a team in Utah began building an AI tool to identify likely fraud in the reported financial transactions that conservators or guardians submit to the court. The system, developed in concert with a Minnesota court system in a hackathon, would detect anomalies and fraud-related patterns, and send flag notifications to courts to investigate further [28].

4.3. Preventative Diagnosis of legal issues, matching to services, and automating relief

A robust branch of applications has been around using AI techniques to spot people’s legal needs (that they potentially did not know they had), and then either match them to a service provider or to automate a service for them, to help resolve their need. This approach has begun with the expungement use case — in which states have policies to help people clear their criminal record, but without widespread uptake. With this problem in mind, groups have developed AI programs to automatically flag who has a criminal record to clear, and then to streamline the expungement. help automate the expungement process for their region. In Maryland, Matthew Stubenberg from Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (now in Harvard’s A2J Lab) built a suite of tools to spot their organization’s clients’ problems, including overdue bills and criminal records that could be expunged. This tool helped legal aid attorneys diagnose their clients’ problems. Stubenberg also made the criminal record application public-facing, as MDExpungement, for anyone to automatically find if they have a criminal record and to submit a request to clear it [29].

Code for America is working inside courts to develop another AI application for expungement. They are work with the internal databases of California courts to automatically identify expunge eligible records, eliminating the need for individuals to apply for [30].

The authors, in partnership with researchers at Suffolk LIT Lab, are working on an AI application to automatically detect legal issues in people’s descriptions of their life problems, that they share in online forums, social media, and search queries [31]. This project involves labeling datasets of people’s problem stories, taken from Reddit and online virtual legal clinics, to then train a classifier to be able to automatically recognize what specific legal issue a person might have based on their story. This classifier could be used to power referral bots (that send people messages with local resources and agencies that could help them), or to translate people’s problem stories into actionable legal triage and advisory systems, as had been envisioned in the literature.

4.4. Analyzing quality of claims and citations

Considering how to help courts be more efficient in their analysis of claims and evidence, there are some applications — like the product Clerk from the company Judicata — that can read, analyze, and score submissions that people and lawyers make to the court [32]. These applications can assess the quality of a legal brief, to give clerks, judges, or litigants the ability to identify the source of the arguments, cross check them against the original, and possibly also find other related cases. In addition to improving the efficiency of analysis, the tool could be used for better drafting of submissions to the court — with litigants checking the quality of their pleadings before submitting them.

4.5. Active, intelligent case management

The Hebei High Court in China has reported the development of a smart court management AI, termed Intelligent Trial 1.0 system [33]. It automatically scans in and digitizes filings; it classifies documents into electronic files; it matches the parties to existing case parties; it identifies relevant laws, cases, and legal documents to be considered; it automatically generates all necessary court procedural documents like notices and seals; and it distributes cases to judges for them to be put on the right track. The system coordinates various AI tasks together into a workstream that can reduce court staff and judges’ workloads.

4.6. Online dispute resolution platforms and automated decision-making

Online dispute resolution platforms have grown around the United States, some of them using AI techniques to sort claims and propose settlements. Many ODR platforms do not use AI, but rather act as a collaboration and streamlining platform for litigants’ tasks. ODR platforms like Rechtwijzer, MyLaw BC, and the British Columbia Civil Resolution Tribunal, use some AI techniques to sort which people can use the platform to tackle a problem, and to automate decision-making and settlement or outcome proposal [34].

We also see new pilots of online dispute platforms in Australia, in the state of Victoria with its VCAT pilot for small claims (that is now in hiatus, awaiting future funding) — and in Utah, for its small claims in one place outside Salt Lake City.

These pilots are using platforms like Modria (part of Tyler Technology), Modron, or Matterhorn from Court Innovations. How much AI is part of these systems is not clear — it seems they are mainly platform for logging details and preferences, communicating between parties, and drafting/signing settlements (without any algorithm or AI tool making a decision proposal or crafting a strategy for parties). If the pilots are successful and become ongoing projects, then we can expect future iterations to possibly involve more AI-powered recommendations or decision tools.

5. Agenda for Development and Infrastructure of AI in access to justice

If an ecosystem of access to justice AI is to be accelerated, what is the agenda to guide the growth of projects? There is work to be done on the infrastructure of sharing data, defining ethics standards, security standards, and privacy policies. In addition, there is organizational and coalition-building work, to allow for more open innovation and cross-organization initiatives to grow.

5.1.Opening and standardizing datasets

Currently, the field of AI for access to justice is harmed by the lack of open, labeled datasets. Courts do hold relatively small datasets, but there are not standard protocols to make them available to the public or to researchers, nor are there labeled datasets to be used in training AI tools [35]. There are a few examples of labelled court datasets, like from the Board of Veterans Appeals [36]. A newly-announced US initiative, the National Court Open Data Standards Project, will promote standardization of existing court data, so that there can be more seamless sharing and cross-jurisdiction projects [37].

5.2.Making Policies to Manage Risks

There should be multi-stakeholder design of the infrastructure, to define an evolving set of guidance for issues around the following large risks that court administrators have identified as worries around new AI in courts [45].

  • Bias of possible Training Data Sets. Can we better spot, rectify, and condition inherent biases that the data sets might have, that we are using to train the new AI?
  • Lack of transparency of AI Tools. Can we create standard ways to communicate how an AI tool works, to ensure there is transparency to litigants, defendants, court staff, and others, so that there can be robust review of it?
  • Privacy of court users. Can we have standard redaction and privacy policies that prevent individuals’ sensitive information from being exposed [38]? There are several redaction software applications that use natural language processing to scan documents and automatically redact sensitive terms [3940].
  • New concerns for fairness. Will courts and the legal profession have to change how they define what ‘information versus advice’ is, as currently guide regulations about what types of technological help can be given to litigants? Also, if AI exposes patterns of arbitrary or biased decision-making in the courts, how will the courts respond to change personnel, organizational structures, or court procedures to better provide fairness?

For many of these policy questions, there are government-focused ethics initiatives that the justice system can learn from, as they define best practices and guiding principles for how to integrate AI responsibly into public, powerful institutions [424344].

6. Conclusion

This paper’s survey of proposals and applications for AI’s use for access to justice demonstrates how technology might be operationalized for social impact.

If there is more infrastructure-oriented work now, that establishes how courts can share data responsibly, and set new standards for privacy, transparency, fairness, and due process in regards to AI applications, this nascent set of projects may blossom into many more pilots over the next several years.

In a decade, there may be a full ecosystem of AI-powered courts, in which a person who faces a problem with eviction, credit card debt, child custody, or employment discrimination could have clear, affordable, efficient ways to use use the public civil justice system to resolve their problem. Especially with AI offering more preventative, holistic support to litigants, it might have anti-poverty effects as well, ensuring that the legal system resolves people’s potential life crises, rather than exacerbating them.

Current Projects Triage and Diagnosis

Legal screeners and intake for medical providers

Mobile apps aimed at non-legal service providers help them screen for legal problems for their clients.

For example there is an app specifically designed for use in medical-legal partnerships, in which users have come to a medical facility to deal with a medical problem.

The app can be used by a service provider at the clinic or hospital to screen the patient for legal issues that might be going on, and perhaps related to the health issues.

This type of software is beneficial because it provides expert knowledge and an easy-to-use fashion and it can streamline the screening process especially for those who are not experts in law.

Example of such a mobile app screener: from the Legal Aid Society of Louisville,

Legal Aid Society of Louisville (LAS) leveraged mobile technologies to develop a legal assessment tool for medical/legal partnerships that effectively screens low‐income patients for legal problems and alerts medical professionals of the need to refer patients to a legal partner for timely assistance. The “Law and Health Screening Tool” consists of an iPad application and a companion web-based survey system. It has been successfully piloted at the University of Louisville Pediatrics Children and Youth Clinic, a high-traffic urban clinic with a high poverty, diverse patient population.

Access Innovation - medical legal screener alert screen

The tool has four main functions:

  1. A “law and health survey,” which parents/guardians of patients complete using a tablet. This is a quick legal screen meant to be easily completed by parents while waiting to be seen at the clinic. The survey uses question branching, so that the response to one question determines the next question posed.
  2. An “alert” function, which electronically notifies MLP staff when a survey response indicates a possible health-related legal need. MLP staff may then retrieve contact information from the administrative website for follow-up.
  3. A “resource” function, whereby a “yes” response to certain questions triggers an offer of a relevant resource, such as information about utility assistance, foreclosure prevention services or free tax-preparation assistance and the earned income tax credit.
  4. A data collection and reporting function, which aggregates survey answers for reporting and monitoring purposes. These metrics provide insight into the legal needs of the clinic’s patient population and how MLP resources might be tailored to address them effectively.

The final report from LSC-TIG is here: TIG 11094: LAS Medical Legal Partnership App

Ideabook Work Product Tool

Access to Justice Tech: Concepts

Open Law Lab - Access to Justice tech

I’ve been searching around for the current landscape of actual initiatives & concept designs for tech tools to provide more access to justice.

I went back to a presentation, Assisted Legal Decisionmaking, by law professor Josh Blackman at Stanford last year. He showed some screenshots of legal products he’s been thinking of.

Open Law Lab - Access to Justice app 2

The concept app would allow the user to input their question. The app would respond with follow-up questions to nail the issue down more concretely. And then it would direct the user to the right resources. It follows the Expert System model, with guided interviews, that the A2J author and other access tech has relied upon.

Open Law Lab - Access to Justice app

Current Projects Procedural Guide

Citizenship Apps

Open Law Lab - Citizenship Apps
Citizenshipworks is building online and mobile apps aimed at non-citizens in the US — trying to give them resources and tutorials to navigate their way through citizenship.
They have checklists, expert system interviews, and tutorials to help the users along.
Damian Thompson of the Knight Foundation, writes of the new app.

I’m also proud to report on last week’s launch of the CitizenshipWorks mobile app for iOS and Android. Knight Foundation is the chief funder. Tony Lu, one of the app’s developers, says its combination of features is unique, integrating citizenship eligibility tools, such as a “trips calculator” and a document checklist; a legal directory; and study aids.

Those resources are immensely helpful for people navigating the path to citizenship. For example, green card holders who want to become citizens have to list every trip they’ve taken abroad on their applications. Imagine if you had to list every trip you’ve taken over the past five years. It would be a nightmare, especially if you didn’t keep systematic records. This is where the trips calculator can help.

Open Law Lab - Citizenshipworks - cw-collage-640

Advocates Current Projects

Apps to Manage Lawyers

Open Law Lab - viewabill - app to manage lawyer

Here’s an article by Jennifer Smith in the Wall Street Journal on new crops of apps that help clients find and monitor lawyers.  It mentions Viewabill (tracking how much their lawyers are charging them, in real-time); Rocket Lawyer’s mobile app (create basic legal documents and buy plans for low-cost access to advice); Attorney Proz (lists area lawyers, who have paid to be listed); Ask a Lawyer (ask lawyers in Kalamzoo about basic legal questions and get free answers to your e-mail); and soon to be a LegalZoom app.

Now that people use apps to bank, order food and even monitor eBay auction bids, it was only a matter of time before they called in the lawyers.

Appearing in app stores are programs to help people keep track of their attorneys’ bills, draft legal documents and locate nearby lawyers.

Attorneys are doing more work on smartphones and tablets, and they have a whole host of apps at their disposal to help look up case law, track client calls and even assist with depositions and jury selection.

But until recently, few options existed for clients who wished to track cases or seek advice using mobile devices. This new crop of apps aims to add transparency, and a measure of convenience, to the process.

One new app, Viewabill, lets people track how much their lawyers are charging them in real-time. The idea is to head off sticker shock when business owners and company lawyers open up their monthly bills.

The app acts as kind of a client nanny-cam. It captures information as law firms enter it into their billing systems and transmits it to clients’ mobiles and desktops. Users select how often they want to get updates, set alerts pegged to certain dollar thresholds and can mark questionable items. The app can also be used to track hours logged by accountants and other professional service providers.

The app is now being used by a handful of companies and law firms on a beta basis, with a wider launch planned this month, said Florida-based entrepreneur David Schottenstein, who co-founded the enterprise with an attorney friend, Robbie Friedman. Firms would pay an annual cost of $25 to $40 per matter, depending on volume, or $25,000 for unlimited use, said Mr. Schottenstein.

Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 1.00.56 PM

“It helps them to understand what we do,” said Brian Baker, a bankruptcy lawyer at Ravin Greenberg LLC in New Jersey, which has been testing the app.

Errol Feldman, general counsel for JPay Inc., a Florida company that provides payment transfers and other services to inmates at corrections facilities, has been using Viewabill to make sure firms working to resolve contract disputes do so in a timely fashion.

Legal consultant Susan Hackett said the app was the latest example of a push for greater communication between lawyers and clients, who increasingly want more involvement in the work they assign to outside law firms.

Some companies with big in-house legal departments have already invested in software programs that let clients track the progress of legal matters or monitor law firm bills from their desktop computers. Such systems don’t come cheap, and not many clients use them yet—fewer than 20% of general counsel, according to a 2011 poll by the Association of Corporate Counsel.

Not all law firms may welcome the additional element of client control on the legal side of things. For Viewabill to work, for instance, lawyers have to enter their hours in a timely fashion.

“These technologies may scare people,” Ms. Hackett said. “But they are all productive parts of the march towards clients and lawyers having conversations in real time.”

This month online legal services company Rocket Lawyer Inc. is debuting a mobile app tailored to its customer base: consumers and small business owners who log on to the site to create basic legal documents or buy plans that provide low-cost access to legal advice.

Charley Moore, Rocket Lawyer’s founder and executive chairman, said more site traffic is coming from tablets and smartphones these days, reflecting his customers’ increasingly mobile bent. Many are small business owners who spend much of their time on the road, he said.

“Their office is their dashboard, so we have to deliver the tools,” Mr. Moore said.

Customers can use the app to create a non-disclosure agreement (more forms will soon be available) or modify existing documents they have already created. The app itself is free, and users can access some functions gratis.

Users can also locate nearby attorneys from Rocket Lawyer’s network—the app is integrated with Google GOOG +0.53% Maps—and punch in basic legal questions, although the reply, which is supposed to arrive within one business day, may not be swift as some might hope.

A handful of other apps offer similar services. Attorney Proz also lists area lawyers, who pay to be included. Ask a Lawyer, an app linked to Kalamazoo, Mich., law firm Willis Law, also offers free answers to basic legal questions, with replies sent to users’ email addresses.

Not to be outdone, online legal services company Inc., a Rocket Lawyer competitor, also has an app in the works, a company spokeswoman said.

A version of this article appeared March 11, 2013, on page B5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Apps Help Find Lawyers, And Keep an Eye on Them.

Current Projects Ideabook

New Generation of Tech for Access to Justice

A great article from Slate on Tech being used for Legal Aid & Access to Justice, with lots of specific examples of how SMS and other basic tech can give reminders, process updates, basic advice, and more lawyering to people who can’t afford lawyers.
The concepts:
  • Automated Call Back Systems from legal services to people who have reached out
  • SMS reminders from courts to litigants about what expectations are
  • Using data for legal services to better track their work & targets
  • Virtual office kits to provide legal services on the go, or outside of legal offices
  • An app that gives checklists to lawyers to ensure they’re catching all the issues

“Don’t Forget Your Court Date”

How text messages and other technology can give legal support to the poor.


It has been three years since the Great Recession ended, but the nation’s courthouses are still swamped with eviction cases, foreclosures, and debt collection suits. If overdue bills and late rent were crimes, all low-income tenants and debtors could get a public defender for free. Because those cases are civil suits, though, the state doesn’t provide an attorney. Which means that in civil court, most people don’t have a lawyer in their corner—even though their homes and financial stability are on the line.

What many do have in their back pockets, however, is a smartphone. And soon, they might be able to find some legal help there, too.

Like everyone else, lawyers for the poor are trying to do more with less, as government grants and private funding have dried up. Increasingly, that means turning to tech, using new tools to deliver information to clients, support volunteer lawyers, and improve their own systems. They’re using text messaging, automated call-backs, Web chats, and computer-assisted mapping.

A crush of new clients is pushing the growing reliance on technology, as the old systems just can’t keep up. For years, people seeking help have called their local legal services offices, only to wait on hold for 20 minutes or more. If someone has a pay-by-the-minute cellphone, as many low-income people do, that gets expensive fast. Many callers just give up, says Elizabeth Frisch, the co-executive director of Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania. So Frisch and her team are piloting an automated call-back system, using voice over IP, to reduce hold time and save those precious minutes.

Text messages can also improve efficiency. If courts sent SMS reminders to litigants, that would help move along cases that get postponed over and over when one party doesn’t show up, says Glenn Rawdon. Rawdon runs the technology grants program at the Legal Services Corp., the federal program that funds legal aid groups. A text could also help people remember to bring documents to meetings with their overworked lawyers. “It’s very time-consuming if they come to the appointment and say, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot to bring the papers,’ ” Rawdon says. And SMS can be used to deliver basic legal information, like what to look for when signing a lease, or the laws surrounding a wage claim. Legal aid groups in Georgia, New York, Washington, Illinois, and Pennsylvania are all piloting text-based campaigns this year.

For simple questions, technology can help deliver information to clients. For more complicated problems, only a lawyer will do. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough lawyers to go around. That’s particularly true outside of cities.

For example, 70 percent of Georgia’s lawyers are in the Atlanta metro area, although just under 30 percent of the state’s population lives there, according to the State Bar of Georgia. Six counties have no lawyers at all.

“It’s really expensive to deliver legal services in a rural area. Lawyers have to travel,” says Michael Monahan of Georgia Legal Services. Some lawyers at his organization cover six or seven counties, he says, working in the field three or four days a week.

So five years ago, Georgia Legal Services created virtual office kits, with laptops, portable printers, and scanners. They also got an assist from Sprint, which provided free air cards for mobile Internet access and an “extremely low data rate” for unlimited usage.

In Ohio, which also has big rural areas and a shortage of lawyers to serve them, Web chat can help volunteers reach more clients.

The system “allows us to address an imbalance between where the attorneys are and where our clients are,” says Kevin Mulder, executive director of Legal Aid of Western Ohio.

But logistics aren’t the only hurdle for volunteers. They can be “a little uncomfortable taking cases that are outside their practice area,” says David Lund, who runs the Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota.

If you’re used to dealing with real estate contracts, for instance, a Medicaid case can be intimidating. So he’s developing a set of checklists for specific issues, optimized for tablets, that lawyers can use when they’re volunteering.

They’ll use it at the start of a case, as they’re laying out a client’s options, and at potential settlements, to make sure that they haven’t missed anything crucial. In eviction cases, for example, a landlord can get a judgment of possession. This allows the tenant to leave without paying back rent, but it’s still a judgment against him, which means it can jeopardize eligibility for future subsidized housing, like Section 8. An experienced landlord-tenant lawyer would know that. An occasional volunteer would not. Which is where the checklist comes in.

Some things are best left to full-time legal aid lawyers. But since there are so few, groups are using data analysis and mapping to better focus their scarce resources. Prairie State Legal Services in Rockford, Ill., is using its “incredible mass of data” to develop a mapping project, plotting addresses and legal needs. Director Michael O’Connor says this will help them answer questions like, “Are there clusters in certain communities where lots of people are facing issues with access to public benefits, or substandard housing?” Armed with that information, his staff can do targeted outreach campaigns or ramp up for litigation.

No one thinks technology is a cure-all. Even the best app or website can’t stand next to you in front of a judge, responding to the opposing counsel.

And despite these promising tools, unmet need is enormous. Many clients want more support than they can get from an app or a chat, but limited funds make that unlikely. “For a large percentage of those folks, [help via technology] will be it. That will be the most that we will be able to offer,” says Deb Jennings, who manages a phone helpline at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality in Toledo, Ohio. And the use of new tech tools is in the early stages—many projects are somewhere between concept and beta.

The tools that are in use show great promise. Groups across the country have developed self-help websites, and they’ve been hugely popular. In 2012 so far, more than 3 million people downloaded resources from, a nonprofit site that offers legal information and legal aid referrals. Through an affiliated site, people can answer simple questions and produce documents ready to file in court. More than 300,000 people have created documents this year, for things like wills, leases, and custody agreements.

In an ideal world, everyone who needs one would have a lawyer. But few people know better than lawyers for the poor just how far from ideal this world is.

Relying on technology “is a bit waving the white flag and saying we acknowledge we’re not going to help everybody, so here’s a second best solution,” O’Connor says. “And it is second best, but it is at least providing help to some people who otherwise wouldn’t get anything.”

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Ideabook Triage and Diagnosis

What about a WebMD for law?

For the excellent Legal Tech class I’m taking at Stanford Law School on the future of legal technology, I am proposing to build a WebMD for law.

My central question is ‘how might we build tech that could help a lay person diagnose their own legal problems’? I am asking it because most legal technology currently is being built for a few audience segments:

1) Big Law lawyers who want to cut costs and make their practice more efficient

2) Law students to do research and construct arguments better

3) Fairly well-educated consumers who want to accomplish discrete tasks — making a will, incorporating a business, getting a marriage or divorce agreement, electronically signing a contract

I am interested in getting legal services & counsel to people not in these three categories: those people who lack the legal grounding to know what their legal problems are, and how they can go about fixing them.

The target audience for ‘a WebMD for law’ would be people with a legal itch — they have a problem in their life that is worrying them, and they think it might be tied up with something to do with the law.  Their dentist botched a root canal. Their landlord is asking for more money. Their employment interviewers are asking about immigration status. A policeman confiscated their camera at a protest.

There are many services currently online for people to look up statutes, cases, commentaries, and other sources of law. See Legal Information Institute, Google Scholar, PlainSite, Ravel Law, Wikipedia — and if you have money in your pocket, WestLaw and Lexis. But these legal tech products are not useful to a person unless she first knows what she is looking for.

There is a gaping need for a technology that can bridge the lay person from ‘I have a problem’ to ‘What is the law to help me with my problem’.  This technology would provide the lay person with the understanding: ‘This is my problem in legal terms. These are the specific legal matters that are at issue’. It would do what first year law students spend all their free time doing: issue-spot.

I am interested in this for a wide variety of ‘lay people’. It would be best to support those who are most removed from the legal system, people who don’t have the money, time, proximity, or knowledge to access legal counsel & services. But it would also have enormous benefit to the many people who are well-educated, living relatively well, but when it comes to the law — feel totally out of their depth, don’t know a tort from a criminal action, and can’t navigate the jargon of the legal system.

These slides are from a presentation, “Is There a WebMD Effect: open access to law, the public, and the legal profession” up on SlideShare by a lawyer, T. Bruce, who was also thinking about the possibility of a WebMD for law.  The presentation highlights that there is a need to serve this ‘latent legal market’ — while also warning that giving greater access to legal diagnosis tools may induce ‘cyberchondria’ in the general public.

People could find more legal issues in their lives than they actually have (or than actually matter), and this could have negative effects — overtaxing the legal system with more frivolous lawsuits, inducing people to seek costly legal help when in fact they do not need it, giving false confidence to people that they can represent themselves with their new legal knowledge.

This 15th century concern — that ‘reading the law without right understanding’ might lead to people harming themselves with legal knowledge — cannot be ignored. But it does not outweigh the need for a technology that can bridge people’s legal itchiness with a capacity to use the many legal resources now available online.


The Problem of Legal Tech & Access to Justice

Open Law Lab - Access to Justice

A blog post by solo practitioner Carolyn Elefant detailed her issues with the current legal start ups that supposedly increase ‘access to justice’, but in her estimation are just providing more cut-rate, less-than legal services which don’t really serve the under-served.

Instead, she encourages start ups and Silicon Valley investors to refocus on providing legal tech solutions to improve the quality of non big-law lawyers — solo practitioners, small firms, more personal lawyers.

She sets out an abbreviated laundry list of wicked problems in her practice, that tech or design solutions might alleviate:

1) inefficient courts, where lawyers are often stuck waiting three hours for a case call and can’t work on any other matters in the process for fear of offending their client or the judge. (Solution: incorporate teleconferences or web for simple status calls or make wireless and work rooms readily available where lawyers can follow proceedings without sitting on a bench in the court)

2) courts that don’t have e-filing and require lawyers to dispatch a messenger and make multiple copies every time they have to make a filing

3) the cost of deposition and trial transcripts

4) the cost of expert witnesses and investigators

She leaves some parting words on legal tech & access to justice:

The Start Ups That Give Access to Justice Are Already Here

by Carolyn Elefant on March 22, 2012 · 3 Comments

in MyShingle Solo, Tech & Web, Trends

Initially, I was excited when I saw this headline, Meet the startups that are giving everyone affordable access to justice. Great, I thought — an article that finally recognizes what solos — who are, after all, start-up lawyers – are doing to ensure that meaningful access to justice isn’t reserved for deep-pockets. But after a sentence or two, I realized, to my dismay, that the piece merely echoed the growing chorus singing the praises of techno-enabled websites that deliver DIY or cut-rate legal services.

But do these legal start ups really serve the underserved? To be sure, there’s a need for affordable legal services, which are priced at the upper end of even most middle class budgets. And the problem is far worse for the poor, where there are more than 6400 open cases for every lawyer willing to handle one pro bono, says the article.

Still, how many of these cases can be resolved by forms or automation? An ABA survey of judges released a year ago found that pro se litigants suffer most in courtroom proceedings because of lack of training and courtroom experience. How-to guides may be useful for a small claims case, where procedures are relaxed — but they won’thelp pro se’s more effectively cross examine an adverse party or ensure that evidence makes it into the record in a formal proceeding.

In fact, many past efforts to automate the wheels of justice have had disastrous results. Automated debt collection cases have clogged courtrooms with unfounded lawsuits while robosigners and bare-bones foreclosure teams caused much of the housing meltdown to begin with. Technology unchecked isn’t much better than unchecked lawyers.

Meanwhile, services like Shpoonkle, that force lawyers into bidding wars, or capping legal fees at $89 for traffic ticket defense or $275 for a divorce aren’t all that much better. Granted, these services will get clients a warm body, which for truly simple matters may be all they need. But again, how much of a defense can a lawyer put on in a misdemeanor case that heats up when he’s only bid $500 to handle it?

The trouble with many of these legal start ups is that they address the wrong problem. That’s because they begin with the assumption that the high cost of legal services is due to lawyers’ aversion to technology or greed. For example, one of the company founders quoted in the article talks about how lawyers spend 50 percent of their time copying and rearranging citations which grossly inflates their rates. Um, maybe that’s the case at some of the nation’s largest law firms, but most solo or small firm lawyers I know don’t do much photocopying since they run largely paperless shops – and rely on Shepardizing or lower cost law clerks or paralegals to cite check.  Contending that lawyers don’t make use of technology is not only insulting, but just plain ignorant.

Likewise, the article quotes an average billing rate of $284/hour which doesn’t say much either. Sure, $284 isn’t pocket change, but if a lawyer can resolve a matter in a couple of hours, the rate isn’t exorbitant. In fact, Legal Zoom isn’t much cheaper. Take a look at the $99 incorporation package. Many lawyers –even those without support staff — could easily bang out three Legal Zoom incorporations (total = $300) in an hour and wouldn’t even require a 7-10 day turn-around. The reason that many lawyers don’t is because they also spend time to understand clients’ goals and assist in selection of a business entity. Truth be told, if clients don’t want to pay for full service, many lawyers will direct them to incorporation forms available online or give them necessary forms for free .

Of course, most of these tech start ups don’t realize any of this since they’re completely out of touch with how solo and small firm lawyers operate and what types of services would allow us to charge less or better help our client.  That’s not surprising either, because if you take a look at many of these companies’ founders or board members, you’ll see that they’re comprised of Silicon Valley techies and big law expatriates who don’t have a clue as to many of the mundane factors that drive the cost of legal services.

Like inefficient courts, where lawyers are often stuck waiting three hours for a case call and can’t work on any other matters in the process for fear of offending their client or the judge. (Solution: incorporate teleconferences or web for simple status calls or make wireless and work rooms readily available where lawyers can follow proceedings without sitting on a bench in the court) Or courts that don’t have e-filing and require lawyers to dispatch a messenger and make multiple copies every time they have to make a filing. And don’t even get me started on the cost of deposition and trial transcripts. Although video and voice recognition technology could eliminate the need for in-person reporters and the exorbitant $5.00/page cost per page, most courts won’t accept anything other than an official, reporter-prepared transcript – which can add thousands of dollars to civil suits and appeals. Then, there’s the cost of expert witnesses and investigators, which also take another chunk of change out of a case.

None of the tech start ups do much to address these costs. In fact, by spending so much time braying about the high cost of legal services and pitting lawyers against each other to lowball fees, the tech start ups make the problem of access to justice even worse. After all, a lawyer who’s getting $2000 for a murder trial isn’t likely to blow $1000 on an investigator or an expert witness. Rather, he’ll dispense with those services to the detriment of his client.

Moreover, tech companies incorrectly assume that technology is always the answer. Maybe so — but tech ain’t always free either. E-discovery search tools are far more powerful than combing through documents one page at a time — but many are really pricy and out of small lawyers’ price range. Other services with value-adds like legal briefs or expert write-ups that large firms can afford cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year. True, there are forms and products available for solo and small firm lawyers, but truth be told, much of what I’ve seen so far (with the notable exception of Ken Adams’ NDA and a few others — please chime in if you’re one of them) are, quite frankly, garbage and insulting to solo lawyers and our clients. It’s no wonder that many lawyers have to resort to drafting contracts from scratch when the majority of available templates are completely subpar.

From what I can tell, many of the newest generation of tech start ups aren’t using technology to improve the quality of legal services or lower the costs. Instead, they’re focused on bashing what lawyers do and trivializing the legal problems of the middle class and poor. These start ups aren’t trying to make good lawyers more widely accessible, or to help middling lawyers gain the tools to become better. Instead, they’re all about convincing the public why bottom feeders and robots and forms are good enough to serve the legal needs of the “common folk” when those same services won’t do for complex or important matters like multi-billion dollar mergers or a anti-trust actions. Ultimately, the tech start up companies widen the gap between haves and have nots by suggesting that it’s OK for a large portion of society to do without lawyers at all.