Tangible innovation makes law affordable for everyday Australians
Andrea Perry-Petersen knows innovation is nothing without tangible application. As a social change lawyer, Andrea researches, implements and advises ways in which technology may enable more affordable and accessible legal services.
Having spent twenty years in the community sector, Andrea is keenly aware of the need and opportunity for digital innovation to bridge the ‘justice gap’. As Supervisor of Clinical Legal Education at LawRight, Andrea established a new clinic to create digital resources to be trialled in LawRight’s Self-Representation Service. In this role, Andrea is all too familiar with the need for competent legal services for Australia’s most socio-economically disadvantaged.
She is passionate about creating change for positive social impact, which drives her to constantly expand her knowledge.
“I am currently investigating the role of emerging technologies (such as blockchain and AI) in addressing social problems, how design thinking may apply to legal services, the use of data analytics to understand social need and the benefits of multidisciplinary collaboration.”
“Over the past twelve months I developed an innovative project with clinical legal education students,” said Andrea. “Open source cloud-based software enables production of an interactive plain language interview which can then generate court documents for self-represented litigants.”
Students gain skills in project management, communication and technological literacy - through this project, students see first-hand the possibility for technology to improve access to justice. Andrea is particularly excited about the broader implications for access to justice that technology offers.
“There are almost limitless opportunities to apply these ideas to make legal information more accessible to marginalised and disadvantaged clients,” Andrea said, who feels her work has been reinvigorated by tapping into her design and strategic thinking skills.
Andrea acknowledges that reservations exist around the adoption of technology to provide legal assistance, particularly regarding how such advice should be regulated (yes, humans will need to retain ultimate control and awareness of how algorithms make decisions!) or how machine learning platforms could replace the nuanced, deeply human role of trusted advisor.
“Reservations shouldn’t be a reason to dismiss new ways of doing things. Of course it is up to each of us to remain vigilant and hold government and big business accountable to ensure social inequality does not increase. But the implications of using technology, including ethical considerations, ought to be considered in the interests of increasing access to justice for the majority of Australians who can’t afford legal advice”.
“One of the ‘threats’ to the profession will be the loss of repetitive time consuming tasks! I know some hold concerns that this is part of a graduate’s training – my view is that there are other (perhaps more meaningful) ways to train junior lawyers.”
Her refreshing optimism is buoyed by a more practical threat: technologists.
“The main threat to the profession will come from outside of it. Software engineers and technologists’ core roles are to automate and redesign processes for greater efficiency (I know – I live with one). As lawyers, we might think we are pretty special or that practising law is special – and of course, in many ways it is. But in regards to digital disruption, law is ripe for the picking.”
From this threat there also arises an opportunity: to re-imagine key principles which govern how law is practised.
“For example, Washington State in the USA has adopted ‘Access to Justice Technology Principles’ to ensure that technology enhances rather than diminishes access to and the quality of justice.
“A lawyer’s reason for being is to serve her clients. If those clients, particularly individuals, are able to more cheaply and easily obtain legal solutions or services from other sources, this is clearly an issue for the longevity and sustainability of the profession. Hopefully lawyers will be able to retain the role of trusted advisor by augmenting our service delivery with technology that provides ‘usable, useful and desirable’ solutions,” said Andrea, quoting Margaret Hagan, Director of the Legal Design Lab and Lecturer at Stanford Law School.
The upshot: providing practical, affordable legal services for the 160,000 Australians who, in a given year, are turned away from community legal centres due to limited funding. Better access to justice can lead to better outcomes for society overall; the 2014 Productivity Commission Report on Access to Justice noted that unresolved legal disputes are associated with related health and social problems.
“At the same time, mobile phone use is ubiquitous – more people in the world have access to mobile phones than to clean drinking water. This allows for the possibility of providing information and resources – even Online Dispute Resolution – to those who can’t afford legal advice. The reduced burden on the justice system and improvement in social outcomes are the biggest opportunities of legal innovation.”
Despite these big predictions, across the profession generally Andrea foresees slow and incremental adoption in the immediate future, followed by swifter innovation as momentum picks up, concluding with a ‘new normal’. This is when technology will be used widely to assist back-end processes – such as predictive analytics, document automation and research tools, and for more client-facing solutions (online information, chatbots, etc).
“These trends will increase legal providers’ return on investment, offer broader reach and more effective service delivery”. “It won’t solve all problems for all clients,” cautions Andrea. “The most appropriate solution will depend on the client’s legal needs, functional literacy and ability to access technology. There will always remain a need for human support for particularly vulnerable clients.”
For the legal assistance sector, change is contingent on funding. “It is a chicken and egg situation,” said Andrea. “Without funding for strategic and systemic solutions, the sector will continue to struggle to meet the increasing level of legal need.” With decreasing government funding, the sector may need to adopt some “NewLaw” approaches. However, to do so places yet another challenging demand on volunteers and staff who are constantly working to meet the extremely high levels of unmet legal need and comfort distressed clients.
Speaking more broadly, Andrea believes efficiencies will be found through automation. Some jobs will be replaced, while others invented.
“There will definitely be an increase in multidisciplinary practices. It is widely anticipated that these trends will transform more lawyers’ roles into those that are more empathic, strategic and creative.”
Legal education will follow suit, but possibly not as quickly as it should
“In courses like the one I supervise, students learn skills for the future, such as a client-centric approach, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, project management and problem solving. I don’t think it will be necessary for lawyers to code, but gaining understanding of algorithmic reasoning and data analytics will develop what is known as the ‘T-shaped’ lawyer.”
“I don’t see the end of lawyers. I see a new way for lawyers. Lawyers will have a more interesting role providing greater benefit to the client. As a lawyer, I want to be part of that future.”
The transition to a tech-assisted future is already underway. To ensure the profession evolves, Andrea encourages the broad dissemination of ideas via roundtables, seminars, forums and networking, particularly to regional lawyers and sole practitioners who may not possess the same organisational networks or resources. As technology flourishes and the possibilities to deliver legal advice to those who traditionally haven’t been able to afford a lawyer increase, developing ethical guidelines will become imperative to allow for different models of delivery and to protect individual human rights.
For the next generation of lawyers entering the profession, Andrea advises openness and intellectual flexibility.
“Read, attend seminars and forums, like those at the Centre for Legal Innovation (CLI). Inform yourself and surround yourself with people who are open to new ideas and not afraid to confront change – like those at CLI and who attend CLI events. Don’t get attached to any one outcome and enjoy the journey – be brave and have fun.”
Andrea has praised the CLI for providing a refreshing new space in a notably conservative profession.
“The CLI is leading the conversation through promoting and exploring (and in so doing, normalising) new possibilities in practice, products and services. The staff at the Centre are experienced, supportive and intelligent. They embody the skills that future lawyers will need namely creativity, curiosity and open-mindedness.
“The approach of the Centre accords with the principles of “collaboration, diversity and technology”, principles that Mark A. Cohen, Distinguished Lecturer at Georgetown University Law Centre, says are ‘crucial to the profession’s ability to defend and uphold the rule of law as well as to deliver legal services more efficiently, effectively, and to a wider audience.’”
Andrea is a consultant, speaker, researcher and clinical legal education supervisor. Her work in designing and implementing the “A2J & Innovation” student clinic, the first of its kind in Queensland, was recently recognised with a place on the 2017 Legal Innovation Index. Andrea can be found on Twitter @winkiepp, through LinkedIn and contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next Centre for Legal Innovation event is the Digital Legal Practice and Innovation Masterclass, which will be held on 23-24 February in Sydney for managers and leaders in the field of law. Click through to read more about this inaugural event and to register.