Prof Gillian Hadfield: Ten #A2J Problems For Legal Tech to Solve

One question that often comes up in relation to legal hackathons is: ‘What kind of problems are we trying to fix here?

Teams want to get their teeth into meaty problems worthy of a weekend-long legal tech hacking binge, but they also want to come up with something tangible that might actually result in their solution being productised one day and really solving that problem.

Hence, no matter how great and creative a hacking team, nor how cool the tech tools they have, or how brilliant they are at legal design, process engineering and coding…..there needs to be a brilliant idea to get behind to inspire all those great minds.

So, here is a shot at that by the well-known American academic, Gillian Hadfield, a Professor of Law and Economics at the University of Southern California, with the impending Global Legal Hackathon, which starts this Friday, as the immediate target of her suggestions.

Understandably the ideas are sometimes US-centric, but several are global in utility and even the more regionally focused ideas could be extrapolated onto similar issues faced by other countries.

But, before we launch into the 10 ideas for legal hackers to use as a touchstone for inspiration, what is the idea behind Hadfield’s own thoughts on this?

When four billion people worldwide remain excluded from access to justice and as many as 90% of Americans handle legal problems without any professional help, it’s clear the current legal system is failing,‘ she says.

Amen to that. And it reminds me of a long piece from a very large legal tech vendor/publisher the other day that stated that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the legal market, noting that people who use lawyers are usually very pleased with the service. Of course, you can see the logical fallacy there…..if most people can’t afford a lawyer, then who are the people saying they had great legal service.….er…..presumably larger corporates spending their shareholders’ $$$ and those individuals of significant means who can afford the taxi meter of doom, AKA the hourly billing system. (And….are all larger companies really that happy with the $$$ they’re shelling out…? Not sure about that either. If that was the case CLOC, for example, would probably not exist, nor be seeing such massive growth in membership.)

Although there is a (dying) legal aid system in many Western countries and no win/no fee industries that encourage people (sometimes dishonestly) to make the lives of doctors, cruise ship and motor insurance companies a nightmare, this isn’t exactly what one would call an equitable legal system for all. I.e. a large chunk of the legal issues faced by most people in everyday life, in most countries, don’t qualify for extensive legal aid or ‘You’ve won the lottery!’ sales calls from legal claims handlers.

Meanwhile around 70% of SMEs (which are usually the largest group of employers in any country) never use a lawyer even when they have a legal issue because of costs fears.

In short, the justice gap is very real. So, it’s good to see Hadfield – and many others – shining a light on this fact. And, isn’t this exactly the sort of thing that hackathons were made to get people to focus on?

Hadfield concludes: ‘It’s time to open up legal innovation to those at the forefront of cutting edge technologies and harness their potential to solve some of the biggest and overlooked legal challenges.’

OK, so here are her top 10 challenges to focus on, whether at the GLH this month, or perhaps other hackathons in the future (taking into account that some of the US-focused ideas may need to be adapted for a more global audience).

  1. Reliable ID for All – Can we build third-party systems to provide the millions of migrants worldwide with a verifiable ID?
  2. Blockchain Micro-Contracting for the World – Can we develop a global contracting platform to allow small traders in poor and developing countries to reliably participate in global supply chains?
  3. Family Law for All – Formal dispute resolution, be it divorce or inheritance, is either too expensive, too difficult, or not available. Can we come up with more reasonable ways to resolve these cases in countries rich and poor?
  4. Levelling the Playing Field for Low Wage Workers – Are there rapid low-cost ways to guarantee big employers live up to their promises and obligations to employees?
  5. New Models of Dispute Resolution – Can we develop platforms that offer real and virtual communities a way to build their own rules, backed by the most effective method humans have of ensuring people follow the rules, legitimately denying rule-breakers the benefit of the platform?
  6. Tools to Understand Privacy Policies (and what they mean) – It’s great that AI can identify what terms are in a privacy policy, but can we develop tools that help people imagine what those terms might mean to them, concretely?
  7. New Ways to Measure Law Student Competency – Law graduates are too often “useless and overpaid”- can we come up with ways for law students to prove their worth besides GPA?
  8. Plain Language Contracting – The average online terms of service, privacy policy, and consumer contract is written at a college level or beyond. Can a third party contracting service offer a better solution that both users and businesses would buy?
  9. Eliminate Marijuana Felony Records (USA) – In California, only 5000 of the 1,000,000 eligible to eliminate a felony record for marijuana have acted. Can we fix that?
  10. Arrest Warrant Challenge Application (USA) – A US Department of Justice investigation of Ferguson, Missouri, after the Michael Brown shooting found 16,000 arrest warrants in a town with a population of just 21,000, with many easily challenged errors in tickets, notices and legal process. Why not a phone app that can diagnose issues based on a photo and advise what legal steps to take?

Interesting and ambitious – although as they say, it helps to aim high!

What would your top ten be? And how far can legal tech help address the massive justice gap in the developed world and the gigantic gap in the developing world? #Legaltechforgood #LegalAIforgood. Good luck to everyone on Friday!

P.S. Now also looks like the appropriate time to mention that Artificial Lawyer is collating data on legal tech A2J companies and initiatives, if you’d like to be included, please drop me a line.