If you're like me, every day you're inundated with hundreds of articles, Tweets, Facebook updates, and blog posts, on legal innovation and technology. It's interesting, but it's a lot. I read this content anyway (it's my job to do so), so I thought I'd help others avoid the firehose. To do so, I've created a free newsletter for anyone who would like to cut down on the mass of information-consumption and trade it for a curated "must reads" list on legal tech delivered once a week. Check out the archive, then subscribe here.
What if the best way to serve people in need of legal aid to stop trying to dedicate pro bono hours to directly representing them?
To suggest that there’s an access to justice gap is not controversial. Here, I want to propose a moneyball approach to closing that gap that could be: lawyers should stop representing people one-to-one when completing their annual pro bono work. For most, there’s simply a better way for them to spend their time, assuming their goal is to help the most unrepresented people get high quality legal help.
To get arms around the scope of the problem, here are some of the more overwhelming figures about our collective failure to serve the legal needs of our communities:
- about 110 million Americans qualify for free legal assistance, but there are less than 7,000 legal aid attorneys who offer these services;
- in some jurisdictions, more than 80% of litigants appear in court pro se because they cannot afford a lawyer;
- roughly 1 million cases are turned away every year by legal aid organizations because they don’t have the capacity to help.
This isn’t to say attorneys aren’t dedicating a lot of time to pro bono work. One survey showed they’re spending more than 4 million hours a year on it. Law students chip in another 2.2 million pro bono hours a year. Still, as the numbers above would suggest, it’s not nearly enough to meet the need. Pile on the threatened defunding of the Legal Services Corporation, which helps 2 million people a year, and the bleak picture begins to look even bleaker.
I think there’s a solution, and one that won’t require any more dedication than the existing spirit of volunteerism that already exists among practicing lawyers. Here’s the proposal: instead of asking attorneys to volunteer to represent people one-to-one, let’s ask them to volunteer their time to learn legal innovation/technology techniques, then ask them to use their pro bono time to apply those new skills to help legal aid organizations become more efficient.
Doing it this way can move the needle. Consider the impact of the A2J Author & LawHelpInteractive projects, which have helped more than 2.6 million people in the past decade through guided interviews and document assembly. Their success is based on the hard work of a small, hungry cadre of law students and tech-savvy professionals working for legal aid organizations who have taken the time to learn how to automate documents. This type of tool works, too, in some contexts, just as well as a live, human attorney.
So, if we could change the way lawyers spend their volunteer time, could we go from helping 2.6 million to 5.2 million? From 5.2 to 26 million? And by doing so, could we give full-time legal aid attorneys the flexibility to work on the truly hard cases, and use volunteer-built tech tools to resolve the simpler challenges? I think so.
The specific tools lawyers trained on would be based on the organizations’ needs, though one can envision learning to automate documents and create guided interviews to post on LawHelpInteractive; training on implementing Clio, MetaJure, or another case management system; building expert systems on QnAMarkup; or employing process improvement methods using Legal Lean Sigma or another similar method (Seyfarth Shaw has actually experimented with training legal aid leaders in this area).
If this idea were to be brought to life, the basic mechanism would be as follows:
(1) a volunteer lawyer would complete training in a specific skill/tool/technique;
(2) after training, the lawyer would (either individually or in a team) be paired with a legal aid organization with a need in the area in which the lawyer trained;
(3) the lawyer would complete a total of 50 hours (training hours would count) toward completing the project and/or doing check-ins after the project was completed;
(4) the project having been completed, the legal aid organization would benefit from the newly implemented efficiency, the lawyer would return to his or her firm with a new skill, and the lawyer’s regular employer would potentially be able to implement it too to improve their own for-profit work.
As a side-benefit, other stakeholders might be helped, too. The lawyer, having completed her service, would now have a new, unique skill, which could advance her career. The lawyer’s full-time employer would benefit from similar efficiency-based skills that the lawyer brings back. There are even opportunities to match people, say corporate law department lawyers with firm lawyers on a project, which might foster tighter relationships between them (or, for that matter, create new relationships). Who knows, it might even help promote increasing acceptance of technology among practicing lawyers, which would pay dividends for all who interact with the legal system, including paying clients.
Hard questions still have to be answered:
- who will run the training?
- who will match volunteers and legal aid organizations?
- how will we test the effectiveness of these efforts? Will pro bono volunteers dislike it because they don’t get to interact with live clients?
- will legal aid attorneys be receptive to outsiders proposing to change the way they work?
These are questions worth asking, and working through, because the potential upside could help a lot of people in need of legal help, and also benefit many others indirectly. For now, though, I propose we try it. Find a few trainers, a small cadre of attorneys willing to be trained, a few legal aid organizations willing to be guinea pigs, and run a pilot. If the data bears out, we can worry about scaling from there.
The fanbase also includes a group of lawyers and technologists interested in what the show can teach us about the future: a professor working at the intersection of law/tech/innovation (me), an MIT Computational Law researcher (Dazza Greenwood), other friends at the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT’s Media Lab, as well as a rotating cast of legal tech leaders who keep up a regular patter of 140-character conversation about the show on Twitter.
If you haven’t seen it on Netflix, Black Mirror is a speculative fiction show that explores the consequences of the unchecked use of new technologies on society. Think Twilight Zone meets the Consumer Electronics Show. Each episode has a different cast, a different setting, and even a different reality. But, as the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, told a reporter “they’re all about the way we live now — and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”
While Black Mirror is entertaining to sit back and enjoy, it also has the effect on me of bringing my mind back to my day job teaching law. Speaking personally, As I watch, I find myself, over and over, asking: “if the technology in this episode makes our society look like this, how would it interact with existing laws as they currently exist? And how should the legal system adapt to what is happening here?”
Like others in the legal field, I live in a world of hypotheticals. Legal education is built around made-up fact patterns designed to help us analyze gray areas in the law and to sharpen our thinking about policy. When it’s done correctly, with enough repetition, this pattern of thinking becomes our pattern of thought all the time. Because of this, shows like Black Mirror give an amazing amount of grist for the mill of those interested in the intersection of law and society.
It’s not just as a lawyer that I see these issues and noodle on their fixes. As a technologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about the tools we can build to improve lives and connect people to one another. I also consider how they change us, as a community.
So, with that lead in, it seems that shows like Black Mirror, and others of its genre, give us lots to discuss. Consider just one Black Mirror episode, the darkly satirical “Nosedive” (Season 3, Episode 1. Here’s a trailer, and, if you haven’t seen it, here is a summary/analysis of the episode.).
Watching this one episode raises many questions, both for technologists and legal thinkers. From the technology end, one might wonder:
- Given the response of those portrayed on Nosedive to this app, how could we re-design a tool like a“Yelp for People” app to connect people, without it becoming a corrosive influence on relationships?
- What circumstances make it so that people behave the way portrayed in this episode, and how (or should) we work to change those conditions for the better?
- How can we build tools that connect people socially without causing the sort of isolation that Lacie suffered?
From the legal end, here are just a few that I’m still working through:
- What does due process look like in a world in which rating equates to access to services? Can opportunities accessible to the public be denied over a low rating?
- Does the tort system — through defamation or another cause of action — give some remedy to those unfairly given a low rating? Should it?
- How does one balance the right of privacy for those that choose not to participate in this rating system (the episode involves only a few, who live as pariahs) with the rights of others to express themselves by creating an app that constantly rates one another?
For those of us (like me) not creative enough to write our own speculative fiction, responding to legal and technological issues in others’ work is a great start.
So what should we do?
We should all get together and talk about these issues…and a show like Black Mirror makes for a good starting point to do so.
And the we doesn’t just mean lawyers or law professors. Having lawyers, alone, just talk it out isn’t the right way to do this. Students of technology should participate in the same discussions: when tech companies adopt the slogan “move fast and break things,” it should be predictable that some of them will get big and, well, things will get broken (like, for example, when their algorithm spreads fake news and undermines election results).
Having legal futurists working with technologists when it comes to anticipating and responding to problems is a win for the techies, the lawyers, and society as a whole. And, according to the theory of social physics, creating groups with diverse membership promotes the spread of good ideas.
So, let’s get together. We’ll watch an episode of Black Mirror (though other shows that hit some of the same chords, like Humans or Westworld, would also work), then let’s talk about it. We can do this as an “alpha” test for those interested. If it’s a positive experience and well-received, it’ll be easy enough to repeat on a larger scale. If it’s not, at least there was the chance to get together and talk about a great show.
Interested in participating? I’m proud to be collaborating with the group at the MIT Media Lab’s Human Dynamics Lab, and we’d like to invite you to join us. Please keep an eye out here (the law.mit.edu blog) for specifics.
You bring your ideas, we’ll supply the popcorn. We’ll all watch, then talk. It’ll be fun. Who’s in?
I spend a fair amount of time talking with law firm leaders about innovation. After I pump them up with examples of fantastic technologies and cool methods their competitors are using, the question I often get goes something like this: “ok...we get it. We understand we need to innovate. So what next?”
Of course, it's never quite that simple: every organization is different, and each has different needs. Having said that, there have to be some set of underlying principles about the types of things they should do to innovate. As I’ve tried to crystallize my views on this topic, I thought it might be useful to lay them out.
Think of the below as a version 1.0, with versions 2.0 (and likely 3.0, 4.0, etc.) to follow. What does this set of principles get right? What does it get wrong?
Let's improve this and make it valuable!
1. Think like a designer
o The goal of innovation is to be better at serving clients: more efficient, more effective, more services, lower cost. To do this, it’s vital to empathize with the goals of clients. Ask questions, get feedback. Build around their needs. Take a design approach - seek client input and feedback, iterate, improve with feedback
2. Involve leaders steeped in innovation and empower them to advise decisionmakers
o Law is an entrepreneurial business venture. Run it like one. Firms need people to explore new spaces (latent market, other streams of revenue) that are not within typically lawyer expertise. To do so, it will be useful to involve professionals at high levels to make decisions who think of themselves as entrepreneurs first, lawyers second (or not lawyers at all).
3. Invest in R and D
o Not just something to talk about – need to put some resources into it. It can even be rolled in with pro bono (e.g. teach attys document automation and have them automate docs for a legal aid org, then use that skill for paid work later). The big challenge may be the mindset of equity partners soon retiring – no incentive to invest long-term if they can’t take equity with them when they leav
4. Monitor innovation
o Someone needs to see what the new thing is and educate others about it. Watch Canada, UK and Australia – non lawyer ownership (in UK and Australia) provides incentives to innovate. Watch other industries - they’re better at this stuff. Read the bloggers and thinkers who track this for a living: Jordan Furlong (my guru and chief influence), Bob Ambrogi (on legal tech), Ron Friedmann and Kenneth Grady (both writing on process improvement), Toby Brown (on pricing), Mary Abraham (on KM), Michael Mills (on AI), and Bruce MacEwan (on all things Big Law). Send people to Legal Hackers and Meetups, and follow orgs (like EvolveLaw) dedicated to legal tech and innovation.
5. Staff tech experts
o Firms need people who can *do* this stuff, not just talk about it. Someone has to see possibilities in improving efficiency and output. Consider librarians, whose roles are changing from research-oracles to knowledge specialists. Their role can (at least in part) be repurposed to be trainers and users of tech/innovation tools and methods. Consider having a staff member who bills to help clients who intend to disaggregate business do it wisely - market that advice as a service.
6. Tell the world about your innovations
o Clients won’t hire you if they don’t know about innovations. Being innovative may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy, so make it known that it’s part of your identity.
7. Collaborate when it makes sense to collaborate
o Think about collaborating across firms, or with clients or others to build and use tools/methods that are mutually beneficial. Consider what CLOC (Corporate Legal Operations Counsel) is doing: chief legal officers are sharing information about how to be efficient, effective and control costs...to all of their advantage. Why not law firms share some areas of info to provide better services?
8. Employ Process Improvement/Project Management
o This goes both for improving client representation and improving internal processes. DWT and Seyfarth have committed to this, and are succeeding.
9. Use data
o The only way to see what’s working is to measure. Using data shows what experiments work, and, when successful, drive more change.
10. Constantly improve through trial and error
o Iterate. Always look for ways to get better, including amending this set of principles to fit your experience (as long as it’s backed up by data!). Create hypotheses. Test them. Review results. Repeat based on new info. Commit to a constant cycle of improvement.
How a Law Student Made the "Insanely Confusing Path to Legal Immigration" Insanely Simple...in Four Hours
A few years back, the Washington Post published a flowchart that showed the "insanely confusing path to legal immigration." The chart (or, more accurately, the law underlying the chart) is a mess. It's a maze of curving and nesting lines and bubbles that is nearly impossible to follow. Looking at it, one would have to wonder how anyone - let alone an unrepresented person - could realistically hope to comply.
Enter Maddy McCormick, a student at Suffolk Law School. With no background in computer science and just a few hours of time to work on it wedged between her summer judicial internship, law review write-on competition, and home life, Maddy solved the problem. She used free expert system software, called QnAMarkup (created as an open source project by a remarkable Massachusetts public defender, David Colarusso) and reduced that bear-of-a-flowchart to a string of easy-to-answer questions. Anyone can follow it, now.
Click here to see Maddy's project simplifying the "insanity."
When you see how simply Maddy re-defined the formerly complex flowchart, you might ask: how long did all of this take her? The answer: four hours. And that's not just coding time, that's the total for her to teach herself to use QnAMarkup, build the system, then debug it.
The end result: the same problem the Washington Post labeled as intractable a few hundred days ago was solved in a few hours of spare time by an enterprising law student.
Maddy, of course, is only part of this story. The availability of easy-to-use, tech-driven, smart tools is taking off. What Maddy did, others could do as well for issues that arise in their corners of law practice or legal education. The ability to make difficult problems simple grows greater every day. Maddy's work, built on QnAMarkup, should serve as inspiration for all of us to look for ways to harness technology to do far more, in far less time and, ultimately, achieve far better results.