Technology is allowing skilled legal professionals to handle more work, more efficiently and more effectively. But technology that doesn’t simultaneously break down the barriers impeding our legal system isn’t achieving its full potential.
When it comes to eDiscovery, those barriers are high. Discovery is notoriously tedious, slow, risky, and expensive—incredibly expensive. So expensive that a leading federal judge has described discovery as “one of the greatest challenges to the effective administration of justice in the country.” Discovery costs can easily add up to more than half of all litigation expenses, ballooning so high that parties are shut out of court altogether, or forced to settle meritless cases in order to avoid excessive costs.
That’s why Logikcull exists: to democratize discovery and ensure that poor technology or a lack of means doesn’t prevent anyone from accessing justice.
But Logikcull isn’t the only legal technology working to make the law more accessible. Every few weeks, legal professionals, technologists, policy makers and others gather to work on the future of law as part of the Legal Hackers movement. The San Francisco chapter recently launched a “Free Law” track of meetings, bringing together legal leaders interested in opening up access to the law.
At their recent kickoff event, Logikcull sat down to speak with two legal tech leaders: Lindsey Frischer, Director of Business Development & Growth at Lesbians Who Tech, co-chair of the SF Legal Hackers group, and organizer of the Free Law series and Dan Rubins, co-founder and CEO of Legal Robot. The series’ first speaker, Rubins announced the start of a new effort to create a community-driven, self-sustaining legal data repository that would operate as a public good.
Together, the two discussed Legal Hackers, the role of open information in legal tech development, and the future of the law. A transcript of those conversations follows, edited for clarity and concision.
Logikcull: Before we dive into the Free Law series, tell us a little about Legal Hackers. What is the organization’s goal? What is their role in the legal space?
Lindsey Frischer, SF Legal Hackers: Legal Hackers is a global community. Its grassroots origins started out in Brooklyn, New York, to address how we navigate the intersection of law, technology, and policy—a lot of hot-button issues. Now, they’re serving a community across the world. They lead really cool hack-a-thons, panel discussions, conversations with a community of folks who are interested in these issues, such as entrepreneurs, technologists, lawyers, and policymakers.
Logikcull: How does the Free Law program stand out from the other work SF Legal Hackers does?
Frischer: The Free Law series focuses on access to justice. As you’ve mentioned, I'm managing the Free Law series which we kicked off at the end of last year with a really interesting conversation with Mike Lissner from the Free Law Project. The idea is centrally framed around access to justice issues. Tonight, with Dan Rubins, there will be a similar conversation about how open sourcing data is going to help build on AI solutions for the law.
Logikcull: It seems like Free Law could encompass multiple focuses: access to information, access to justice, and reducing barriers to legal services. How do those three things all fit together in your mind?
Frischer: Under this really broader umbrella of access to justice. Unlike the commercial side, we have a really blown open marketplace of legal technology vendors taking advantage of a multi-billion-dollar market. As a former lawyer, from experience it's ripe for improvement. From a consumer point of view, a lot of our laws are inaccessible. In fact, I think 80 percent of those in need of legal services just don't have the resources to procure services.
"Eighty percent of those in need of legal services just don't have the resources to procure services."
As you can imagine, there is an amazing way in which technology can bridge that gap. We really want to just inspire a lot of conversations with folks who are already pushing the needle as well as community members who don't necessarily focus on this as their day job but have a lot of interesting perspectives and insights. Hopefully we come to some real solutions along the way.
"We really want to just inspire a lot of conversations with folks who are already pushing the needle..."
Logikcull: Speaking of solutions, tell us about the work that is going on at Legal Robot.
Dan Rubins, Legal Robot: We analyze and simplify legal language. It's a lot of machine learning. Basically, we point a bunch of machine learning models at legalese and try to turn it into plain English. We make it easier to understand, work with, and extract data from it.
Logikcull: Is this the first time you’ve done a presentation with SF Legal Hackers?
Rubins: It is. I've actually have been a really big fan of SF Legal Hackers from afar. A lot of the events that have been put on are really cool, but I've just never made it to one. I'm really excited to be here.
Logikcull: You're going be talking about the work you’re doing at Legal Robot but also about the role of open data in legal A.I.
Rubins: Pretty much every week there's some sort of major crisis in AI or something in the public sphere that, as these technologies get integrated more and more into our society, we keep on coming up with new problems. I think we can do a little bit of work to address some of the problems pretty easily. I think there are problems around reproducibility of machine learning and access to sufficient data for getting started with a machine learning project. If we can contribute a little bit, I think we can really spur some innovation in this space.
Logikcull: When it comes to access to that data, it seems like there are two problems. First, someone has to get together the data. That could be proprietary; they could hang on to it, reserving the benefits for themselves. Or they could make it a public resource. You’re also trying to get people to contribute their data. When you're dealing with legal documents, often the important stuff is not what people want to share in public. How do you go about solving those two problems?
Rubins: A lot of legal documents are really sensitive; we can't ever get access to them much less put them out in the public domain. There are still a lot of artifacts out there in the public domain and we can still work with those, cleanse them and process them in the same way and provide at least a good data set with labeled clean data that we can provide to the research community and to innovators. That's pretty exciting.
"It's really important to get this resource in the hands of other people so that they start working with it and it becomes a community effort..."
We can do that pretty easily because we've already done it internally for our own use. Now, we’re looking at how this could be used by other people. It's really important to get this resource in the hands of other people so that they start working with it and it becomes a community effort and really a self-sustaining effort so that we're not stuck with maintaining it forever and it’s available to everyone as a public good.
Logikcull: What would you say about A.I. fatigue?
Rubins: I've toyed at times with just completely removing the term ‘A.I.’ from our website marketing material. There's a joke that's been going around on the internet that ‘A.I.’ is for when you're talking to investors, ‘machine learning’ when you're talking to academics, and ‘statistics’ when you're just working on it internally.
This is just statistics.
Yeah, it's a little bit more complex—there are new tools and things like that and that's great—but this isn't super inventive. Yes, there are some difficult problems to solve, but I think the more difficult problems that we have to solve in these new spaces are the problems that we’re introducing by making processes faster and by providing new access to data.
Just look at the whole Facebook and Cambridge Analytica debacle. Facebook didn't have the business model in place that was conducive to a type of platform that wouldn't inevitably have that happen. It's not just Cambridge Analytica either, any app developer had access to that stuff for years. Things like that are really troubling problems and we want to try to get these things right early on.
"The more difficult problems that we have to solve in these new spaces are the problems that we’re introducing by making processes faster and by providing new access to data."
We're a very small company and we can still put thought and effort into these things before we get too big and have those kinds of massive problems. That’s part of my excitement for working with Legal Hackers, having a conversation and engaging with people that I wouldn't normally interact with. Drawing a bunch of interesting minds from across different fields that are set out to solve interesting problems in the space is super exciting to me.
Logikcull: It seems like these events draw a very particular community. The legal industry is not known for being quick to embrace innovation; they're skeptical, they're risk-averse. How has the reception with your work been and how do you see the way that Legal Robot fits into the larger legal community and ecosystem?
Rubins: A part of me wants to say it's been a muted response but there actually are some people that are really excited about this. Lawyers get a bad rap that they don't innovate. Until they get off the billable hour that might not happen, but there actually are quite a few lawyers out there that are doing interesting things, changing business models and using technology in their practice.
Lawyers get a bad rap that they don't innovate... There actually are quite a few lawyers out there that are doing interesting things, changing business models and using technology in their practice.
It doesn't all have to be A.I. Just using a decent practice management solution would be a massive step forward for some firms. Realizing that those firms are now competing against Rocket Lawyer, LegalZoom, and Legal Robot, not all legal work has to be done by a law firm. I know that's going raise the hackles of some people. Not all work is legal work that has to be done by a legal professional. There is room for some algorithmic work and alternative providers. I think the legal industry is slowly coming to grips with that.
Logikcull: Thank you Dan and Lindsey. If any of our audience wants to get involved with Legal Hackers, what can they do?
Frischer: Visit LegalHackers.org. The San Francisco Legal Hackers chapter on Meetup is where you'll see all of the events that we have upcoming and an opportunity to join as a member, so you'll be notified of all incoming updates of events and information.
This post was authored by Casey C. Sullivan, who leads education and awareness efforts at Logikcull. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @caseycsull.