‘Robo-lawyers’ are coming. Are states ready?

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Automated legal services are becoming more widely available for routine proceedings, offering possible cost savings and other benefits. But for the emerging tech to thrive, experts say regulations need to be updated.

Leaders in the so-called robo-lawyer industry are pushing for states to update policies to allow for easier access to automated legal services, which supporters say can help to streamline and cut costs with proceedings like bankruptcy and divorce filings.

Experts in the field are urging policy-makers to standardize regulations across jurisdictions and to reconsider what are known as “unauthorized practice of law” rules that prevent people from practicing law without a license. But there are also concerns about moving too fast in redesigning regulations and either exposing consumers to risky practices or stifling innovation.

“The lack of consistency across districts creates such a barrier to entry for any technology product,” said Mark Hansen, cofounder and chief technology officer at Upsolve, a free online legal service that aims to make it easier to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy without a lawyer.

Building Upsolve while navigating rules about unauthorized practice of law was especially stressful and costly, Hansen added. 

He and others spoke during an online panel about automation in the legal industry that the Center for Data Innovation held this week.

While it’s unlikely that artificial intelligence-powered robots will be arguing cases in courtrooms anytime soon, experts do see promise in automating routine legal services. 

Doing so has the potential to make proceedings more efficient and to free up time for legal professionals, who are often already busy and in short supply, said David Colarusso, director of the legal innovation and technology hub at Suffolk University Law School. 

“There aren’t enough attorneys to go around… there’s too much work to do, and these tools can help provide access to justice,” he said. 

Legal services can also be prohibitively expensive, making them even more inaccessible to lower-income people, the panelists noted. They also emphasized that legal technology tools should be paired with help from real people, including volunteers—such as Upsolve’s “justice advocates,” who help defendants fill out responses to debt collection lawsuits.

Hello Divorce bills itself as a tech platform that can help people complete a divorce for a fraction of what it would cost if they hired lawyers. The company, which claims its costs for services are as low as $100 and never more than $5,000, helps customers prepare paperwork and also offers resources to help them understand their options, CEO and founder Erin Levine explained. 

The company hired a full-time staff member to keep track of varying rules in different courts, according to Levine. To “figure out what Judge in what county in what district has changed their mind overnight and not posted the new filing guidelines,” she said.

To address some of the regulatory challenges with tech-enabled legal services, Lucy Ricca, executive director of the Office of Legal Services Innovation with Utah’s Supreme Court, pointed to the Sandbox, a tool the court has created that allows entities to test out innovative ideas and new legal models that may otherwise be considered unauthorized practices of law. 

“We really don't know how these technologies fit in with the regulatory framework, [we] really don't know how they may impact consumers,” she said. “And we want to try and see what will actually happen before we create rules that will unnecessarily cut off innovation.”

Upsolve’s Hansen said that Utah’s proactive engagement with the Sandbox initiative is helpful. 

“I would have loved, like, some sort of department…[where] we're able to have those conversations of, ‘here's the tool, without risk, can we just have a conversation about what it's doing, and get your feedback and your buy-in?’” he said. 

To watch the full panel discussion, click here.

Molly Bolan is the assistant editor for Route Fifty. 

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