Legal Tech for Non-Lawyers: Persistent Barriers Holding Back Development

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How well is legal technology filling the gap when individuals need help with legal problems? That was the question that Rebecca Sandefur, Associate Professor of Sociology and the Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and a Faculty Fellow at the American Bar Association, asked when she began the research on a study, Legal Tech for Non-Lawyers: Report of the Survey of US Legal Technologies.

Some of Sandefur’s previous research had looked at whether human, non-lawyer assistance could be effective for people who are involved in court cases, debt collection, and in family issues of different kinds. “If humans who aren’t lawyers can provide meaningful assistance, it seemed reasonable that computers, which also are not lawyers, could also provide meaningful assistance too,” she says.

It turns out computers can, in some cases, offer legal assistance, However, legal technology in the access to justice (A2J) area suffers from some of the same problems as legal tech in the commercial legal market, including outdated design processes, fragmentation, a lack of platforms and standards, and a lack of integration between these tools and public information systems.

Sandefur’s study is a compendium of more than 320 digital legal tools designed to serve non-lawyer users in U.S. jurisdictions. It analyzes the tools in terms of the nature of the assistance they provide and the specific tasks they help with; it then evaluates whether the tools available actually align with the types of legal problems people have.

Some of the findings of the research revealed:

  • Most of the tools specialize in one area of law. The most common are: Criminal Law; Family Law; Consumer Law, including bankruptcy; Real Estate, Civil Rights, Employment; Housing; and Health.
  • The tools serve users in many ways, but three ways dominate: providing information; providing connections to lawyers; and producing documents. (For a more detailed look at some examples of how those three types of services are carried out, see Leveraging Legal Technology to Improve Access to Justice.)
  • Just over half the tools (52%) help the user take some of action, whether producing a legal document, compiling evidence, diagnosing a problem, or resolving a dispute.

Still, the analysis identifies several areas where many of the tools fall short:

  • Using them requires skills or equipment to which few people in some communities have access.
  • Many of the tools do not follow principles of modern design, both in the way they are developed and in the way they display information. Development is not user-friendly.
  • For all their coverage of diverse legal issues, most of the tools are very limited in what exactly they do. Many are simply depositories of information; a few help with document generation, but most lack integration with courts or other public systems, which hinders a user’s ability to file documents.
  • The types of problems addressed by the tools only partially match the nature of the problems most commonly reported by individuals.

Fragmentation and a Lack of User-Centric Design

One of the key problems identified in the study is that the body of tools offered today are limited, typically to simply providing information or a referral to a lawyer. The report identifies three reasons for this.

First, there’s the fragmented ecology of tool creation — there’s no organization coordinating tool development and no centralized platform. In fact, a wide variety of companies and nonprofit are putting out tools in apps or various web-based formats, with very inconsistent results.

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Rebecca Sandefur (Photo by John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation.)

Second, development is largely provider-driven, and offerings reflect the way the provider believes the problem should be addressed. Few have been developed using modern design processes that engage users in the creation of the tools.

Third, many of these tools are provided by cash-strapped nonprofits that lack the resources to invest in rigorous needs-assessments research and modern design processes.

“This is a very static space in terms of design methods,” explains Sandefur. “But you do see some little spots of consumer-centered or user-centered design.” For example, she cites a program out of New York City called JustFix.nyc, a service that helps tenants document repair issues and pursue remedies in court. The tool was designed by going to the Housing Court and watching what people actually did there, she adds. “Designers noticed that tenants would come in with their cell phones and show them to the judge and say, ‘This is the mold I’m talking about.’ So that became one of the centerpieces of the way they designed the tool.”

Integration Challenges

Another issue that Sandefur calls out in the report is that many of the tools she researched simply don’t do much. Only about half of them automate any part of a legal process; and the rest are primarily information sources or lawyer referral services.

She sees two underlying reasons for this lack of automation: the organizational structure of U.S. state court systems and regulatory restrictions on the unauthorized practice of law. “Most of the legal problems that ordinary people have would be in state courts, and those are organized at the state level,” she says. “But they’re really organized at the level of counties or in municipal units — so you have enormous variations across those 5,000 different units in how they do stuff.” For example, a tool designed to integrate with a county court unit and automate some of its processes would not necessarily work in the next county over. And it is this lack of ability to build one solution that can integrate across a whole court system that severely limits the ability of any A2J solution to build scale.

“But another thing that limits many services to simply providing information is the current rules about the unauthorized practice of law, Sandefur notes. “Developers are very wary about making a tool that’s useful, because they’re worried that they’ll be caught providing legal advice. And so — and this is true in the for-profit sector also — that space can’t really move until those rules get a little more sensible.”

Future Prospects

Despite this, Sandefur is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for more robust and user-centric legal tools for non-lawyers, and it’s because there is increasing pressure to remove barriers. “I do expect that some of this ‘unauthorized practice of law’ stuff will change, and I think the reason for that is that the pressures are coming from many different directions,” she says. “The for-profit tech people want to be able to sell us efficient TurboTax-like ways to do all kinds of stuff we can’t do now, and they’re prevented from doing that. That’s not a technological problem, that’s a regulatory problem.”

In the non-profit space, Sandefur says it has become impossible to provide lawyers for all of the people who have civil-justice problems. “And so eventually, we’re going to get to this point where the facts on the ground say, ‘Listen, of course we can do this. Let’s change the rules so that the rules match what we actually do,’” she says. “So, I think there’s more hope there than I’ve seen in a while.”