In an new column, “Tech-Enabled A2J”, we will take a look at how legal start-ups and legal technology innovations are impacting the push toward better Access to Justice for more citizens.
In an age in which we can click a button to chat with our doctor or file our taxes, getting help with legal issues should be no different. And if we’re going to solve the 86% of legal needs that are currently unmet for low-income Americans, business-to-consumer (B2C) legaltech solutions are going to be essential.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a steady rise in B2C solutions being used to solve legal challenges from complicated divorces to immigration filings to bankruptcy to pesky parking tickets. The benefits are tangible. First, moving legal processes online provides access to more people by meeting them where they are. Second, by automating basic workflows, tech solutions can decrease costs for low-income individuals and increase scalability, ultimately serving more folks in need. Lastly, when done correctly, B2C tools can mitigate risks for clients who might navigate the system alone (or not at all) and end up worse off than before.
Closing the justice gap through B2C starts by taking a user-centric approach. Solutions should be accessible from anywhere and focus on making legal processes less intimidating. Sam Stoddard, co-founder of SimpleCitizen — an app that helps immigrants successfully submit paperwork for visas, green cards, and citizenship — explains that “a younger generation of customers is starting to look for legal services and products [online]. Without these tools, many people will fall into the pitfalls that are so common when trying to navigate the legal system on their own.”
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a steady rise in B2C solutions being used to solve legal challenges from complicated divorces to immigration filings to bankruptcy to pesky parking tickets.
Often, legaltech solutions begin in a specific area of law in which the entrepreneur has personal or professional experience, like with SimpleCitizen. By being both the end-user and solutions architect, B2C founders are uniquely positioned to create an intuitive workflow. Once an app masters a certain area of law, that technology can then be leveraged to other areas and scaled in unprecedented ways.
For example, DoNotPay, which considers itself “the world’s first robot lawyer,” started out addressing parking tickets and has since expanded into other consumer areas. “I started DoNotPay four years ago to fight my own 30 parking tickets in London,” says founder Joshua Browder. “Although I wasn’t the best driver, I learned that the government issues fines not only to punish people, but also to raise money. I started the service just to help a few family and friends, but it went viral, making me realize that access to justice — even for minor issues like parking tickets — is a universal problem,”
Erin Levine, founder of Hello Divorce, an online-guided divorce service, has found that technology helps clients manage the anxiety and costs of what should be a straightforward legal process. “The traditional divorce is expensive, messy, confusing, inconvenient, and inefficient,” explains Levine. “We designed a divorce that utilizes technology and smart design to easily guide the user through the divorce process. Users decide the level of help they need — only paying for lawyers if they have legal concerns or advice.” By automating basic parts of the process, Levine says Hello Divorce can serve exponentially more clients for a fraction of the cost of a typical divorce. Put simply, B2C solutions allow for scalability and access in a way that lawyers cannot.
Jennifer Xia Spradling, co-founder at Freewill, which makes estate planning easy and free, agrees that “lawyers should be handling the tough cases where there is nuance and judgement, and get paid a premium for that service. Legaltech companies can help fill in the gap with more common cases, like creating a basic will, and can decrease the prices greatly so that normal Americans can afford it.” With enough competition, these services will become free, increasing access even more, Xia Spradling adds.
In addition to personal experience, other entrepreneurs have been driven to build B2C tech by general market inefficiencies — especially in areas like bankruptcy and housing. “Bankruptcy is a lifeline for working families trapped in debt, so they can avoid homelessness, hunger, and poverty. But it’s impossible for most families who need it to access because it can cost $1,500-plus in legal fees,” explains Rohan Puvaluri the founder of Upsolve. By automating forms, meeting clients online, and designing a user-friendly interface, Upsolve helps families file bankruptcy for free.
For the team at JustFix, which co-designs and builds tools for tenants, housing organizers, and legal advocates fighting displacement in New York City, the glaring housing affordability challenges in their communities led them to create a tech solution. Despite government programs, “the scale of the justice gap is so significant that we need additional innovative services to improve the justice system for everyone,” says Georges Clement, one of JustFix’s co-founders. “Some of those services provide tenants with information about their landlord or connect them with free legal representation, and some help tenants take direct action against a landlord.”
Although legaltech is a powerful tool for consumers, it does have its limitations. For example, tech cannot replace the human judgment required in complex legal cases. Levine recognizes this disparity, which is why Hello Divorce offers access to lawyers along the way. “Consumers need an option between DIY and full representation when it comes to divorce because it is not just a one-off transaction — it’s a lawsuit, with real and lasting consequences,” she says.
Another potential challenge to scaling tech solutions is regulation. At the time of this writing, for example, an app disputing parking tickets in Florida, TIKD, was going to court over whether the app and its founder were engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. Legal technology moves faster than regulatory bodies can keep up, so close collaboration between both groups is going to be required to spur innovation.
Yet, even as governments seek to regulate technology solutions, their impact can’t be minimized. “As cities and states across the country consider new access to justice initiatives, like Right to Counsel, which provides free legal representation for low-income renters facing eviction, there will be a need for technology to support the implementation and scaling of these programs,” JustFix’s Clement explains.
Thus far, the signs are encouraging. Upsolve has relieved more than $150 million in debt for families struggling with medical bills, layoffs, and predatory loans. In 2019, 280,000 New York residents used a JustFix service. SimpleCitizen’s very first customer, who they helped obtain a green card in 2015, was just sworn in as a U.S. citizen last month. Through FreeWill, Americans have already pledged more than $1 billion to high-impact charities. And DoNotPay has helped win more than 160,000 cases and reverse $4 million in parking citations in just two years.
As SimpleCitizen’s Stoddard says, “B2C tech solutions are the foundation of the legal services market of the future.”