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Legal apps – what’s the big deal?

Legal apps – what’s the big deal?

By Blake Connell

Communication Practice & Procedure Technology Young Persons 

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Talk of legal apps has been increasingly appearing on my LinkedIn feed.

Not only are many big and small firms taking increasingly sophisticated legal apps to market, but in Australia we even have entire tech companies like Neota Logic and Josef whose reason for being is helping lawyers create legal apps.

What are legal apps? Well we’re not just speaking about the apps you download from the App Store! An app is a computer program that helps you accomplish a given task. They can exist online publicly or be developed privately for only your business to use. You use online web apps everyday – from email and online shopping to e-wallets and online games.

By extension, a legal app helps someone solve a legal problem – it’s a computer program that has been taught a series of questions and answers about a specific legal task.

So, what’s the big deal?

The codification of law

As you probably already know, so much of what we lawyers do is process driven. Think about how navigating legislation involves answering a series of threshold questions; or how commencing proceedings in a court involves making a specific set of submissions and appearances in a designated timeline; or how a contract is put together from different parts, which may or may not be enlivened depending on whether other parts of the contract are triggered.  

A legal app is a machine that can be programmed to undertake legal decision-making on behalf of a lawyer. Programmed into the app are all the questions it needs to ask the user, as well as instructions on how to reach a legal conclusion utilising the information that has been fed into it. The instructions programmed into an app often take the form of ‘decision trees’ but they can also involve many other types of logical and even numeric reasoning.

The huge benefit of teaching a machine to undertake legal reasoning is that once the app is properly coded, it can be thousands of times quicker, and more accurate, than a human. This means that for the initial investment of time and money required to build the legal app, you can create something that is able to solve a relevant legal problem much more quickly, accurately and cheaply than a lawyer, and for a much larger number of clients.

Access to justice

For NFPs and government, legal apps offer a huge opportunity to increase access to justice.

Not only can legal apps undertake reasoning and draw conclusions that would otherwise require a costly lawyer, but well-designed legal apps can ask questions and interact with clients in an extremely user-friendly way. By harnessing web design elements like interactive buttons and tabs, pop up definitions, videos and hyperlinks, we can step the user through the legal questioning process in a way that many clients may find much less daunting than meeting a lawyer in person.

The biggest challenge may be choosing which part of legal work to automate – remember, not all legal work can (or should!) be turned into legal apps. However, many legal application processes (e.g. courts and tribunals) and basic regulatory threshold questions (e.g. am I eligible for divorce?) can be good places to start.

The other consideration is need. Many public sector legal clinics are forced to turn away callers with certain types of legal problems, as well as callers who do not meet means testing criteria, because they do not qualify for legal assistance. In other instances, a question may only take a lawyer 5 minutes to answer, however that lawyer may receive that same question 5-10 times a day. In both these instances, being able to direct the caller to a legal app on the clinic’s website frees up the lawyer’s time to undertake legal work that couldn’t be undertaken by a machine, all the while increasing access to justice.

A commercial opportunity

Commercial law firms able to properly scope and monetise legal apps have a huge opportunity too.

Legal apps are a prime opportunity for a freemium service offering. For example, a law firm could offer use of a legal app which generates a response to a basic legal question for free on its website, but charge to generate any documents or further advice necessary on the basis of the initial response generated by the app. This not only generates new work directly but can be used as a marketing tool to expose potential new clients to your brand.

A huge opportunity also lies in-house – that is, commercial firms can create law apps not only for their clients, but also for their own lawyers to use when undertaking legal work. Lawyers can click through in-house apps in place of using paper precedents (which are hard to keep track of and not user friendly), thus making internal processes more efficient and saving the firm money. Business with large legal teams could use the same model.

What about when the rules change?

Perhaps the biggest problem when it comes to legal apps is that they cannot (for the time being) adjust their reasoning by themselves as the law changes. Yet, practicing law entails adjusting your reasoning all the time – like when the regulator issues a new piece of guidance, or a court hands down a new decision. In these instances, the legal app would need to be taken offline and reprogrammed. More importantly, someone would need to be monitoring the app and would need to schedule it for reprogramming. The big risk is that legal app is not managed effectively and continues dishing out legal advice based on old (and incorrect) rules.

This is where choice and scope of app is important. Perhaps the best legal apps will have to do with legal decision-making that is unlikely to change often. Examples include administrative procedures for accessing courts or certain well established common law tests.

The alternative is to closely monitor and update apps if and when their reasoning becomes outdated. In the not-too-distant future when law firms have dedicated teams of legal technologists, this may well be very feasible to adopt.

Chatbots, Internet of Things and the future

New technological developments are increasing the promise of legal apps every day. For example, chatbot apps with the addition of text or voice recognition. Legal chatbots (like the well publicised DoNotPay app developed by a British-American computer science student) offer a huge leap forward in access to justice because they can engage with clients who have limited language skills (one of the biggest barriers to access to justice).

Perhaps the greatest promise has to do with the Internet of Things – if legal apps can process information inputted by a user, but also information from inanimate sources (e.g. rules from a regulator or figures from the stock market) then it can deliver much more nuanced and up-to-date reasoning.

This said, there are many rudimentary and commonplace legal processes waiting to be turned into legal apps which require no great advances in technology. Lawyers and legal technologists alike should not forget that often the most successful apps are not the newest fandangle, but those that respond to the age-old business driver of client need.

 

Blake Connell is a commercial lawyer from Melbourne.

 


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