“Where the rubber hits the road for a person who can’t afford an attorney is usually where there’s paperwork.”
Law firms and legal organizations are increasingly using document automation technology to improve access to justice. With document automation technology, forms and documents can be turned into easy-to-use web-based questionnaires that individuals can access to generate the forms that they need to respond to a debt collection lawsuit, apply for asylum, or change their legal name and gender designation on government identification.
In Australia, for example, the law firm Gilbert & Tobin partnered with the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS) to develop a document automation and workflow technology platform using Thomson Reuters Contract Express to automate and support asylum-seeker applications. This enabled RACS to assist more asylum seekers than before and improved its capacity to manage a high volume of applications quickly and efficiently.
I sat down with Kimball Dean Parker, President of SixFifty and the Director of LawX at BYU Law School, to discuss how he’s using document automation to improve access to justice.
How did you start getting into access to justice issues and document automation?
I founded LawX with the dean of BYU and that’s really where I started to put the document automation idea to practice. I worked with students to pick an area where someone needed a document.
The first project was debt collection in Utah. About 70,000 people a year in Utah are sued for a debt, and 98% of those do not hire an attorney and 80% of them just default. They don’t even try to answer. If you don’t answer the lawsuit within 21 days, you lose automatically.
That is really just a document problem. We can help individuals create a document they can use to answer the lawsuit and give them instructions on how to file it.
We automated that document and called the product SoloSuit. When we released it, we had more users in the first month than we expected in the entire year. It’s continued to have pretty heavy usage. That sparked this excitement to automate more documents.
What are you automating next?
This year we’re working on a tool for landlord-tenant disputes. It’s going to help people who are at risk of being evicted. For the landlord-tenant project, we’ve partnered with the University of Arizona, and SixFifty, which is a technology subsidiary of the law firm Wilson Sonsini. Asylum and expungement cases are also on our radar.
Tell me about the process of automating a document and how long it takes.
From an engineering point of view, it’s does not take a long time for us to do now. We built the document automation engine in a way where it can be reused quickly. For the document itself, we start with information and a template from Wilson Sonsini’s attorneys. We have access to top-tier lawyers at the firm through SixFifty.
The real legwork starts after that. After drafting all the questions, we want to test them with the people that actually will use the tool. To really make a tool that works, you need to interview and work with people that will use the product to figure out what they need, what language works for them, and what they understand and don’t understand about the questions. For SoloSuit, for example, the BYU students probably ran the tool by 40 people. We tried to find as many people as possible who had been sued for a debt in order to try out the software, and we had to change the questions substantially. There’s so much work that goes into that part of it — testing, refining, and making sure that it’s user-friendly.
Do you see a lot of lawyers leveraging this technology for pro bono work?
Some lawyers are using it for pro bono, but it’s not being used nearly enough. I think anybody who’s worked for a big law firm knows that for pro bono matters, a lot of times you recreate the wheel over and over again.
I’ve seen firms that have handled basically the same case hundreds of times, instead of automating it once. Utah has 8,000 practicing lawyers, but there are 70,000 debt collection cases where the person being sued doesn’t have an attorney. That’s just one area of law and it’s almost a 10-to-1 ratio. That’s not including all the evictions, expungements, and all the other things that people need.
This work needs to be done more efficiently if we hope to make any kind of real significant dent in this gap. Lawyers and law firms need to start automating more things, like debt collection, evictions, those types of things, so they can work more efficiently.
What would you tell lawyers and nonprofits that aren’t leveraging document automation?
It’s not as difficult to automate as you would think. The ease of document automation is reaching a tipping point. The reason I think that is because I can do it. I don’t know much about code, but this software is not artificial intelligence, it’s not machine learning, it’s not the most advanced software in the world. It’s pretty simple software.
We’re not going to get close to making a dent in this justice gap problem without exponential efficiency gains, and the only way that I know how to do that right now is through major document automation.