Artificial Lawyer recently caught up with Faisal Khalid, a Harvard University graduate and the founder of RentersUnion, a new legal bot that solves renters’ problems. He is also the pioneer behind Tenence.com, which rents properties on a person’s behalf and then uses bots to deal with enquiries and interactions with landlords. Combined, the two applications could make an impact on the lives of the growing number of people who rent.
Hi Faisal, great to see a new #A2J legal bot come to market. First of all, can you tell readers about what RentersUnion does? In particular can you explain how the site can ‘take action’ and write letters to landlords and energy companies?
RentersUnion is a chat bot that helps you sort out your housing issues. It does two things. It gathers information from you and writes complaint letters to your energy bill provider and/or landlord (depending on the issue). And it reads your tenancy agreement to summarise relevant clauses/legal provisions pertaining to the problem you’re having.
When and why did you start this? And what was the inspiration behind this?
It started over Christmas 2016. I’ve lived in London over the past seven years and found renting to be really painful. I built this really just as a tool for myself so that I don’t have to spend so much time dealing with my rental issues going forward.
It seems that RentersUnion uses automated language processing, what type are you using at this stage?
Well, we have been thinking about using NLP, but in its current state the technology is really quite simple. It’s essentially just a combination of smart keyword search and form filling. If we were to use NLP we’d probably use an open source library.
How have you found interactions with clients so far? Other A2J apps report that one of the key issues is that most people don’t always use formal terms to describe their issues, nor always understand legalese. How have you navigated the natural language issue?
It’s been interesting. Understanding people’s issues isn’t hard. The hard part is solving them! Many of the cases we see are very complex, dealing with many parts of the law, i.e. cases that need a ‘real lawyer.’
Chat bots like RentersUnion can help bridge the gap between doing nothing and getting a lawyer — but they are never a substitute for a real lawyer. The whole idea behind using a chat bot is that most people do nothing when they have housing issues. Now, they can do something. It’s an improvement over the status quo. But its still not ‘good enough’.
Is the system capable of machine learning? And will the responses to queries become more specific?
Yes, it is capable of machine learning. The more contracts that get uploaded to our system, the better the system gets. That’s also been surprising to me, by the way, just the sheer number of ‘different’ contracts that are used in rental situations. So far we have more than 70 templates uploaded to our site. Did you know you don’t even need a ‘written’ contract to rent? Even a verbal agreement will suffice.
RentersUnion states that it is not giving legal advice, but presumably some of the issues that come to the site will need legal input? How do you handle this?
Correct. The most painful cases are ones that need to go to a lawyer. We don’t try to give half-baked advice. If it needs a lawyer, we just say exactly that and also suggest that people go to Shelter for free legal advice.
Also, if you’re sending letters about legal issues to landlords, for example, how do you escape the regulatory umbrella? I.e. giving information is one thing, but acting on behalf of a client is presumably a step up in legal activity?
Technically we are not sending letters. It’s the renter who sends the letter. We just give them the template to use.
Are you co-ordinating your work with groups such as Citizens Advice and other legal charities that work in this same area? And if so, what has been their reaction? Presumably they would welcome your work?
We tried to work with a few charities, but they’re pretty slow and tend to want to do things their way. I’m a bit disappointed on this really, there doesn’t seem to be a culture of sharing and collaboration among housing charities in London, which might explain why there are more than 50 of them!
How many users have you had so far and how successful has it been in terms of solving customers’ legal problems?
I don’t want to give you an exact number, but I’ll say it’s in the thousands and I’m talking about people who have actually used the chat bot and gotten advice.
And, last question, how are you funded and does the site charge for its services?
The site is not funded and it’s free to use. One of the realisations we have had is that just giving people advice isn’t good enough. We want to actually be able to solve people’s rental problems. We want to make renting easier. The only way to do that is to actually rent [properties from landlords] for people and then re-rent to them.
[It’s] a new kind of legal structure/model. That’s what we are pivoting to now. The new service will be called ‘Tenence’ — www.tenence.com. Its essentially a service (paid) that rents an apartment for you, and then re-rents it back to you. The benefit to you as the renter is that you get to skip the hassle of filling forms; providing references; and the general wait/stress that comes with dealing with landlords and letting agents. Its kind of like a bigger and more useful version of RentersUnion, and that product will use AI/NLP to automate and make more efficient things like filling forms; booking flat viewings etc.