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Bringing AI to family law

Bringing AI to family law

By Max Paterson

Technology 


Lawyer Max Paterson reflects on his journey from legal practice to co-founding tech start-up Settify. I’m in a boardroom in London. There are 15 senior partners of one of London’s elite family law practices. These people look after landed gentry, tycoons and football superstars. Four separate offices are dialled in. The managing partner is in the room. I’m nervous, but my usual pitch comes naturally – I’ve done it plenty of times – both for family and wills and estates lawyers. “I’m Max. I’m a family lawyer – I practised for about four years in Melbourne. I loved it, but I left practice to build Settify because the world is changing, and we need to move with it. Settify uses artificial intelligence to interact with new family law clients, providing them with personalised, customised information about where they stand and how lawyers can help them, and then takes their background information, which is summarised into briefs and asset schedules.” I get the usual mix of reactions. A subtle relaxation when I say “I’m a family lawyer” – good, this guy isn’t a salesman. A few blank stares – it’s a new concept, and people struggle to get it. A few sparks of interest. One guy thinking “damn, that was my idea”. “I was inspired to build Settify after conducting dozens of initial client meetings where we would charge clients as they dictated basic answers to a fairly standard series of questions, like how to spell their middle names, and what the car is worth. I realised we can use AI to emulate that interview process, save time and cost, and allow clients to make a start on their matter anywhere, anytime, online.” The benefit of what I’m describing seems to dawn, even on the poker faces in the room. “We launched in 2017 with our first firm in Melbourne. Due to word of mouth, it’s now been adopted in every state and territory in Australia, and New Zealand, and now in England. It has won four separate legal innovation awards. Currently, there are nearly 150 firms worldwide using it. It has brought in thousands of new matters for the firms we work with, representing disputes over matrimonial assets worth £10,000,000,000 in aggregate.” The funny thing is, I’m bad with using technology. My friends tease me about struggling with my iPhone. I think that gives me a good taste for tech that is seriously easy and intuitive. More importantly, my cofounder Athol Birtley is amazing at actually building. Not only was he a top tier corporate lawyer, he also taught himself how to code as a teenager, and founded a computer game design company at university, which was bought by EA games. I still struggle with tech, but I really did love practising family law, and I’d quite like to go back to it at some stage. I now see myself as what Richard Susskind calls a “legal knowledge engineer” – someone who combines legal knowledge with technology. I have applied my experience from practice to design the logical structure behind a system that performs a task traditionally done by lawyers, but at massive scale. Athol handled the actual coding. In a sense, the combination of my lawyering (my reasoning, language and style) and Athol’s coding have now “interviewed” more clients than any family lawyer could in a lifetime. In truth, I left because I felt that I’d never build anything meaningful unless I did. I have always been fascinated by tech’s scalability, and it’s potential to alter practices, and create large, positive, systemic change. It’s the same drive that got me into law really, but I found traditional legal practice felt more manual than I wanted. I learned that I’m capable of building things when I founded BottledSnail Productions – the theatre company for Melbourne’s legal profession. I started that by directing The Law Revue during my first year of practice because I wanted to continue making theatre alongside my day job. It’s turned out there are hundreds of other talented, creative lawyers who have propelled BottledSnail forwards. I figured maybe my tendency to start things is my differentiating factor.

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