Divorce is painful. Legally dividing assets and agreeing on child custody, with all its complications and costs, can be a nightmare. If there was ever a legal area where things could be improved by better processes and some useful tech this has to be one of them, thankfully there are lawyers out there to help you out.
There are a few companies working in this field, but one that Artificial Lawyer spoke to this week is BlissDivorce, run by Las Vegas-based Scott Seidewitz.
Seidewitz started off by noting that Vegas is ‘the marriage and divorce capital of America’. He also explained that while he is not divorced, his co-founder is, and his parents also split. However, he added that it was while working for consumer legal site, LegalZoom, as a marketing strategy consultant that he saw just how messed up the field of divorce is, with legal costs largely driven up by complex forms and bureaucracy, and lawyers who felt they had to fight for every penny, leading to higher fees and endless disputes.
In short: there had to be a better way!
The short video below (5 mins) shows some of the key aspects of how BlissDivorce works. But the main gist of it is that they have moved all of the aspects of a divorce online, with a clear digital process that takes you step by step through each area of asset division, as well as child custody.
One of the key problems they hope they have solved is the adversarial nature of divorce proceedings. The site uses a double-blind bidding strategy to help the two parties come to a reasonable outcome on key issues. This means that one party states what they want, e.g. in relation to what is viewed as a shared asset, and the other party then states their demand for that asset.
Neither side can see what each has suggested, but if the figures are within 20% of each other then the system offers a mid-point. If they are far apart then the system just says: try again. However, you only get three attempts at this for each area. That is to make sure there is no endless gamesmanship, and that you will focus on coming to a resolution.
Once the various partition steps are completed and agreed upon the documents get signed off. If no agreement can be made then a mediator can be brought in to help guide the clients through the steps.
Seidewitz commented: ‘This is about helping people to use tech to work out the dispute. And we have found that about 60% reach an agreement using our site. For now about 40% still need mediation. But, we’d like to bring that down to 5% eventually.’
He also noted that in the US a standard divorce can cost over $25,000, Bliss is offering a single fixed fee cost of $4,000. To people with great jobs these numbers may not sound like a barrier to legally splitting, but for a lot of people $25,000 (or more) would be enough to make them give up and instead separate using whatever messy and non-legally binding agreement they could put together without any help.
(As an aside, this site still remembers the story of one of the founders of a very famous legal tech startup, which no longer operates now, and who got interested in legal tech because their parents could not afford to be properly divorced and felt that the legal world was ripe for change.)
Seidewitz concluded by saying that one of the key challenges around divorce was that the lawyers involved often sought to fight over everything, with them using the rallying cry: ‘But you can get more!’
This may be the lawyer rightfully fighting for their client, but it also means protracted and expensive processes that create extra stress and antagonism – on top of all the heartache that is already there.
‘This just keeps the conflict going. Lawyers are not looking for what’s fair, but rather everything they can get for their client,’ Seidewitz said.
And this, by chance, connects to the other stories this week in Artificial Lawyer about ADR, i.e. although it’s a good thing that lawyers want to fight for their clients, this can also create such a drawn-out process that costs spiral and a resolution seems out of reach for far too long.
It also connects to the work of oneNDA and other contract standardisation projects, because what they are ultimately saying is the same thing: please don’t drag this out if it’s not really necessary, let’s just agree on something that is suitable to both parties. Let’s find a middle way.
Which leads to the final point: perhaps the key to changing the legal world is really all about proportionality and seeking resolution?
No matter how much tech we have, if the fundamental approach of legal services is always to fight every point, argue every clause until there is a winner and a loser, and all to the absolute bitter end, then no amount of software can really change things. Maybe we have to go back to first principles and ask ourselves what are legal services actually for?