BLDC 2020

Today I had the opportunity to participate in the 2020 Boston Legal Design Challenge (#BLDC2020). It was the first year this competition was held online, and they were therefore able to include teams from outside of Boston proper.

Throughout the day we were invited to participate in exercises with our team members. Our team, the TRU Legal Architects was the only team from Canada. We were accompanied by a facilitator from Liberty Mutual Insurance in a zoom breakout room. Our facilitator led us through a collection of exercises where we collaborated through Mural.co in order to strategize and discuss what we were going to pitch to the judges.

At the end of the day, we competed against the 9 other teams and presented our idea to a panel of 3 judges. Ultimately we pitched the idea of an automated legal consultant who would provide assistance to small firms and sole practitioners looking to digitize their practice at little to no cost. We wanted to provide a resource that would help facilitate a seamless transition online for those who do not have the same resources available to them as would be found in a larger firm. We were thrilled to come in 3rd overall.

A lot of the presentations focused on access to justice and products that would help move the legal profession into the future. It was a very valuable experience and I think the people who participated will undoubtedly do great things for the profession in the future.

Zooming in on Legal Tech in 2020

It happened: I got old.  I don’t know exactly when it happened. Maybe it happened this semester. Maybe it happened over the summer. I suppose it could have happened last year and I just didn’t notice.

I’m not even thirty yet, and still, somehow, I have found myself at the optometrist getting fitted for bifocals so I can read the tiny print in the textbooks without giving myself a massive headache. I got a super ugly pair of orthopedic slippers. I also had set up my work station in a way that didn’t hurt my back and I had to stop using my phone so much, because oh my god, my thumbs were cramping so badly.

I have no idea how to talk to my teenage siblings anymore. They want to do all these phone-based things with me, but I spend so much time staring at a screen, that I find myself asking if we can just go play outside like we did back in the olden days.

A year and a half ago, I was working in a support role at a law firm and was running around the office helping with computer setup, database issues, software problems, whatever. But something changed.

Now, my girlfriend (who is a whopping 6 months younger) cannot understand why I don’t know how to use all the new Instagram features.

I used to be baffled by the baby boomers in my workplace who didn’t know how to edit a word document or conduct a basic document search on the firm database.

But now, I must say, I get it.

Sometimes, the font is just too small. Sometimes, the program set-up, or day to day functionality, is just so complex or so filled with bugs, that it can feel impossible to use. Sometimes, the program just isn’t intuitive, and the setup or navigation process is more complicated than the task you need the program to complete. Sometimes, the help line is closed and you’ve got a thousand other things on your plate that needed to be done yesterday.

I never thought I’d say this, but boomers, I get you.

I get you and I’m sorry for shaming you for your technological deficiencies. I now understand that in order for the field of law to step into the 21st century, we have to make legal tech more user-friendly. No senior partner is going to want to relearn their entire work system at a point in their career when they are experiencing peak success.  If I ever find myself in a web design role, I promise to make the font adjustable and organize the contents logically so that you can easily find whatever it is you need and get back to your shuffleboard game.

To my young gen z friends: you can laugh at me and my reading glasses and my misuse of snapchat filters all you like, but remember, you’re next.

Consumers to Creators: Taking Control of our Tech

Parvej Sidhu

Access to justice is often conceptualized as a gap requiring a bridge. Artificial intelligence (AI) is helping by bridging another gap, between the justice system and the tech world. By drawing on the lawyer’s knowledge and the software developer’s expertise, AI is helping legal professionals complete their work faster and with greater accuracy, but also helping the public address their legal needs on their own. The ground-breaking Civil Resolutions Tribunal in BC is an excellent example of the latter.

I’ve been learning how to build this kind of AI in Professor Katie Sykes’ class, “Designing Legal Expert Systems: Apps for Access to Justice.” It’s been a welcome exercise in creativity and an exciting introduction to artificial intelligence (made possible by very beginner-friendly software from Neota Logic). It’s also, however, made me question my relationship with technology. In particular, I’ve been thinking about another kind of gap, found between what we wish technology could do for us and what we’re actually using it for in our day-to-day lives.

It’s not always obvious that our relationship with technology evolves as fast as the technology itself, partly because we don’t really make a lot of conscious choices about how heavily we’re going to rely on it. None of us woke up one morning, for instance, and decided to designate our cell phone as our hand-held computer, GPS, and mobile personal assistant. Most advances in tech, whether they be in health, communications or artificial intelligence, creep up on us. When we do make choices, they’re constrained by what we are offered on the market as consumers. I think this translates to a lot of wasted potential. The carefully curated features of the latest “smart” devices out there are hardly a response to our cries for help. Many smart products are designed to solve “problems” that don’t exist for a majority of this planet, if at all. I am reminded of this every time my washing machine decides it needs to lock my clothes inside it and I’m forced to unplug it to win them back.

In the course of solving problems that don’t exist, technology also creates problems we’ve never seen before. Earlier this year, news broke on artificial intelligence that can detect, with considerable accuracy, someone’s sexual orientation just from their photographs. My initial awe quickly gave way to concern about the gross violations to human rights and privacy that would result if this AI were abused.  In these murky waters, our relationship with technology devolves further, and we’re relegated from consumers to mere subjects.

As consumers or subjects, what can we really do about useless, invasive or unsettling uses of AI? It’s clear to me that the engineer-consumer divide in how we interact with tech isn’t conducive to socially responsible or responsive innovation. To my mind, challenging this dichotomy is a good place to start, and those of us building “apps for access to justice” have been given the opportunity to do just that. In the legal context there is enormous potential and incentive to harness the power of AI to serve our own needs as well as the needs of our colleagues, our clients, or the public in general. These are specialized needs, and they require tomorrow’s lawyers to experiment as creators and innovators if they are ever going to be met.

Access to justice is a real problem, and real solutions are possible with the use of tools like artificial intelligence. The first step in discovering those solutions is to recognize the role we have to play as creators in control of our tech.

 

What about the really poor and marginalized?

I have to preface this post by saying I am a AI skeptic. That’s not to say that I don’t see the value in certain technologies and apps, especially where they help lawyers save time and therefore help the client save money. However, I would argue that this kind of technology is more likely to help the middle- to upper-class client save money.

What about those people who are in the lowest socioeconomic rungs where access to this technology is either impossible or impracticable? Even gaining access to the internet at a public library may be beyond the grasp of certain clients who either cannot physically get to the library or understand the technology in the first place. Persons with disabilities and senior citizens readily come to mind here. I think that we’re moving in the right direction with classes such as Designing Legal Systems and the CRT Knowledge Engineering courses offered at TRU Law. However, the more we use computers and such technology to increase access to justice for some people, are we dramatically reducing it for others? Are we in fact increasing the gap in access and leaving the already marginalized behind?

Food for thought.